Today is the 24th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most atrocious contemporary genocides. In just 100 days, 800 thousand Tutsi, one of the three native peoples of Central Africa, Rwanda and Burundi, were killed in Rwanda. Everything started on 6 April 1994 when the plane in which Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, from the Hutu ethnic group, was flying was shot down. Without knowing for certain who was responsible for the attack, Hutu-forces and nationalist military groups attributed the attack to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a guerrilla comprised of Tutsi who were deported from Uganda. The event triggered a widespread massacre on 7 April that almost ended up in the extermination of Tutsi.
That day, Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwlingiyimana and ten Belgian soldiers from the UN security forces who were guarding her were killed. This was just the beginning. While Mil Colinas radio station called for the extermination of Tutsi, who they called “cockroaches” so as to dehumanize them, the Hutu militias, armed forces and civil groups (85% of the population) tortured and killed thousands of Tutsi and more than two million people were to exile.
The escalation of violence was so great that in 2003 the United Nations (UN) set 7 April as the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda, which was recently modified to the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The initiative promoted the general rejection and created awareness on the circumstances that gave rise to these crimes and on the duty that the international community should have fulfilled.
Despite the size of the massacre, the international community was inactive for months. On 21 April 1994, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favor of pulling out the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in stages and evacuating foreigners. Out of 2,539 soldiers, only 270 were left. Without international aid, the Patriotic Front conducted a successful counteroffensive in the north of the country at the beginning of June. Only on 22 June, the UN agreed to send French military troops that guaranteed Hutu defeat and managed to stop the genocide.
International Tribunal for Rwanda and the United Nations self-criticism
In November 1994, the UN Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) with headquarters in Arusha (United Republic of Tanzania) to try those responsible for the crimes. The ICTR operated until 31 December 2015 and became the first international tribunal to establish a conviction for genocide. Sixty one military commanders, leaders and businessmen, as well as religious people, militiamen and media leaders were convicted after the testimony given by more than three thousand witnesses. It was a historic ruling (the last one of 2003) because it was the first time that a life imprisonment sentence was established for a group of journalists for inciting murder and violence. The tribunal also established that the main originators of the genocide were, among others, former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, former Army Chief of Staff Agustín Bizimungo, and former Minister of Defense Théoneste Basogora.
Despite this step forward, a strong self-criticism existed in the international community. In the UN Security Council session where the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda was commemorated, New Zealand diplomat Colin Keating, who presided the Security Council when the genocide started, asked for forgiveness for the entity’s lack of action. According to Keating, “the Council refused to recognize that a genocide against the Tutsi was being committed in Rwanda and failed to fulfill its duty of reinforcing the UN peacekeeping mission.”
Artistic expression as a means of resistance
How can the unrepresentable be represented? A possible way is to produce art from the tension between horror and beauty, a characteristic of humanity. In her work “Apenas un rostro” (that is included in this article), Argentine artist Mariela Yeregui suggests going through this tension to recreate the horror of the genocide against the Tutsi. From afar, we see colorful and attractive fabrics that immediately remind us of Africa. As we get closer, we see blurred in the looms fragments of a dead face appearing hundreds of times. It is the flayed face of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana after the attack that started the death wave.
Yeregui’s work is part of the “Memoria colectiva en tiempos de genocio” exhibition, cured by Laura Pomerantz, where different Argentine artists address genocides perpetrated throughout history. According to Pomerantz, the exhibition recreates “the urgent struggle against oblivion and against those who promote it guided by false reasons.” Each artist faced the same challenge as Yeregui: how can the unrepresentable be represented?
Yeregui was in Ivory Coast when the genocide against the Tutsi occured. There, she could get closer to what was happening in Rwanda and saw how thousands of people had to leave to save their lives. During her stay in the African country, which lasted seven years, she discovered that the ornamentation of African clothes tells stories of coded iconography, which women exchanged as a means of hidden communication. That is why she chose to use pagnes clothes, traditional of that area, for her work. In this respect, Pomerantz explains that “the repeated face confers an unpleasant surprise effect, and even though it is almost camouflaged with the ornamentation, it shows the wrenching horror, like a forced intrusion in that everyday silence wrapped in a piece of clothing: the troubled figure hides the trigger that will set in motion the unthinkable tragic genocide.” In this way, the work addresses visitors and promotes a debate about what happened, as Yeregui states, from the perspective of art “as a way of developing critical thinking to build a collective memory.”