Over 17 years after the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, close to a million human remains lay, unburied, in dreadful conditions in the different memorial genocide sites of the country. The government is categorical that the human remains are “tangible proof” for people who deny Tutsi genocide. Rwandan government insists that the international community did not intervene to stop Rwandan genocide. The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, does not mince words “the genocide memorial sites and the human remains therein are proof that world leaders failed to prevent and/or stop Tutsi genocide”. However, government critics perceive of the human remains in the country’s genocide memorial sites as a tool for President Kagame’s government to instill permanent fear, trauma and oppression among Rwandans. Rwanda’s opposition leaders argue that President Kagame banks on the countless human skeletons in genocide memorial sites to appeal for sympathy, donations and aid from world leaders and the international community. Government opponents allege that President Kagame’s government trades on the human remains to justify its crackdown on political opponents, closing political space, paralyzing critical media and gross violation of human rights. For many people, exposure of human remains in memorial genocide sites is a political apparatus for President Kagame’s self aggrandizement and preservation of his dictatorship.
Qualitative controversy over the human remains in genocide memorial sites
Rwandan genocide is, by far, the most controversial social phenomenon in the country’s recent history. First, the government and its critics agree that there was genocide in Rwanda. However, the two sides differ on who were the perpetrators and victims. Second, the two sides differ on terminology of the genocide; the government calls it “Tutsi genocide” while government critics call it “Rwandan genocide”. There are, basically, two theories of Rwandan genocide; single and double fold theories. The single-fold theory holds that genocide was perpetrated by Hutu extremists; the victims of genocide were Tutsi only. The double theory is that there are extremists in all the country’s ethnic groups – Tutsi, Twa and Hutu. For the double genocide theorists, some Tutsi extremists and some Hutu and Twa extremists perpetrated genocide against Rwandans. The government, which is predominately Tutsi, is relentless that the Hutu and Twa were not victims of genocide. The opposition and some scholars are vigorous on the double theory of Rwandan genocide. A Spanish court has indicted close to 40 officials in President Kagame’s government for genocide and other international crimes against the Hutu and Spanish expatriates who were in Rwanda during the country’s genocide. The Spanish court did not indict President Paul Kagame because he enjoys Presidential Immunity under international law. A French Judge is investigating President Kagame and a number of his senior officers for similar charges. Government critics argue that until President Paul Kagame and/or his government accepts responsibility for the extermination of the Hutu and Twa, Rwanda cannot achieve sustainable peace, development and reconciliation. The predominately Tutsi government punishes double genocide theorists with, up to, 30 years jail term.
Quantitative controversy over human remains in the genocide memorial sites
There is no dispute over the accuracy of population statistics before the Rwanda’s ethnic-based civil war that culminated into the 1994 genocide. Rwanda’s population stood at about 8,000,000 million people. 14% were Tutsi (1, 120, 000), 1% Twa (80,000) and 85% Hutu (6,800,000). The human remains in the country’s genocide memorial sites are close to a million. The government of Rwanda says over 1,000,000 Tutsi perished in the Tutsi genocide. Tutsi survivors of genocide and the National association of the Tutsi genocide survivors have already accorded decent burial to most Tutsi genocide victims.
Two years after the 1994 genocide, the Tutsi survivors of genocide, who were beneficiaries of the Tutsi genocide survivors’ fund, were around 610,000. The national association of the Tutsi survivors of genocide carried out a door-to-door survey of the Tutsi victims of genocide in 2000. The survey put the number of Tutsi victims at about 400,000. This report was never made public.
The Hutu opposition leaders, some liberal Tutsi and researchers calculate the number of Tutsi victims of genocide by subtracting from the total Tutsi population the number of the Tutsi genocide survivors (1,120,000 – 610,000). Government critics estimate that about 450,000 Tutsi victims have been accorded decent burial. Most government critics conclude that about 510,000 of the human remains are Tutsi while the rest are Hutu and Twa. Most Hutu and Twa who were allegedly exterminated by President Kagame’s rebels, critics argue, still lay in mass graves.
Is President Paul Kagame a suspect?
Widespread incidents of broad-day-light extermination of the Hutu and Twa by the then predominantly Tutsi rebel are well documented. President Paul Kagame was the top commander of the rebels. All exhumed human remains in Rwanda are said to be of Tutsi. President Kagame and his government have not accounted for the alleged mass graves or remains of the Hutu victims. For example, On April 22, 1994, President Kagame’s rebels allegedly massacred the Hutu refugees from the Internally Displaced Persons’ camp in Kibeho. The dead were, allegedly, between 25,000 and 30,000. Other alleged broad-day-light massacres of the Hutu and Twa by Paul Kagame rebels took place at, inter alia, Amahoro stadium in 1994, Huye Stadium in April 1994, Kabgayi Catholic Parish and Nzuki in June 1994. A Spanish Court, while indicting Kagame’s top military officials for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and terrorism, also emphasized mass graves into which RPA/F dumped their Hutu victims. Are some of the human remains in the genocide memorial sites Hutu victims of President Kagame’s alleged crimes?
The right to decent burial
Common law recognizes decent burial as a fundamental right. The dead have a right to remain silent (rest undisturbed). Civilized nations and communities accord great respect to dead bodies. Burial is compulsory, within a reasonable period of time, no matter the social status or individual traits of the deceased. Almost all world cultures treat their dead with reverence. In African tradition, decent burial is a sacred rite the living owes to the dead. It is a widespread African cultural belief that the ghost of an unburied person will haunt the living relations and cause omens or misfortunes to the entire community. Among African warriors, a dead body is a neutral party. Each side has a duty to bury dead warriors, regardless of whether or not the dead were enemy warriors. Decent burial and/or disposition of the remains of enemy combatants in contemporary warfare are regulated under international law. Rule 115 of Customary International Humanitarian Law provides that “the dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly marked”. If even enemies must be buried, why are the victims of Rwandan Genocide, whether Hutu, Twa or Tutsi not buried? What rational justification is there for the government to hold, unburied, the remains of the innocent victims of the country’s ethnic conflict?
No persons owns a dead body
Burial right per se is a sacred trust for those who have an interest in the remains. However, those with interest in the remains do not own the dead body. Private persons and governments do not have a right to keep dead bodies, beyond reasonable time, for their own interests. It is unethical for any person or government to use people’s remains for any legitimate or illegitimate purpose. Parading human remains for seventeen (17) years, after the genocide, for whatever legitimate or illegitimate purpose is inconsistent with the great duty Rwandan community has to honor and respect the victims of the genocide.
Exposed human remains are a health hazard
For 17 years now, Rwandan genocide memorial sites are a health hazard for the neighboring communities. The psychological effects of having to view decomposing human skulls, day in and out, for over 17 years, cannot be overstated. Tourists and Rwandans who visit the genocide memorial sites are vulnerable to secondary trauma. Institutionalizing violence, revenge, hatred and disrespect for human life are but a logical sequence of displaying human remains in the country’s genocide memorial sites. These vices are, certainly, not an asset for Rwanda’s reconciliation and healing process.
The way forward
There is no justification for exposure of human remains for such long period of time. Parading human skulls/skeletons in genocide memorial sites is perilous to Rwandans’ physical and psychological health. Notwithstanding the victim’s ethnic group, all victims of Rwanda’s tragedy have a right to decent burial. The Tutsi, Hutu and Twa survivors of Rwandan atrocities; genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and terrorism deserve equal treatment. Each side’s story ought to be legitimized. Victims of all these crimes deserve justice. The government of Rwanda has a legal duty and moral responsibility to investigate and prosecute, without favor, all alleged perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and terrorism and genocide against the Hutu, Twa and Tutsi. The Hutu and Twa, like their counterparts the Tutsi, ought to have a chance to bury, commemorate and mourn their relations who were allegedly exterminated by some officials of the current government.