During the worst moment of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, between 800,000 to 1 million people were killed in 100 days. Most were hacked to death with machetes. Neighbor turned on neighbor. Villages lay strewn with bodies. The massacre, ignited by ethnic division and carried out by the Hutu majority, mostly against the Tutsi minority, rocked this tiny nation and sent shockwaves across the world.
The global community — as it did when the Holocaust first ushered the word “genocide” into our vocabulary — vowed, one more time, to “never again” let something like this happen.
Yet, today, once again, we find ourselves watching genocide unfold on our TV screens. Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted ISIS is committing genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and minority groups in Iraq (and Syria). He was joined by unanimous votes by members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as wells as the British parliament.
Genocide, sadly, still rages on today.
How can a nation like Iraq move forward from such a brutal act against humanity? Perhaps another look at Rwanda might yield some answers.
Barely two decades after the genocide, Rwanda is now a prosperous state with regional influence in Africa. Between 2001 and 2014, it boasted one of the fastest-growing economies in the continent. International technology companies are investing and creating jobs in Rwanda. The streets of Kigali, the capital, are clean and transited by smart buses equipped with free 4G wireless internet. Child mortality has dropped by two-thirds. In five short years, the national poverty rate dropped by 14 percent. Literacy rates, enrollment in primary education, and health care availability have risen. And perhaps most shocking, perpetrators and survivors of the bloody days of 1994 now live together in peace — their children even intermarry.
Genocide, it seems, does not always get the last word.
Could Iraq learn from Rwanda’s success?
Parallels between Rwanda’s history and the current Middle Eastern crisis have been drawn before, making keen observations for political actions Iraq can take to carve a future out of its grim present. Yet, as the conflict deepens, the conversation seems to have come to a halt. Perhaps a reminder, with a perspective from the bottom up, might be helpful.
While Rwanda and Iraq have different cultures and histories — which must always be acknowledged — both their stories are about division (one ignited primarily by ethnicity, the other by religion), and at heart, both have similar solutions.
Here are three things Rwanda did that Iraq could do today:
1. Eliminate ethnic identification cards.
Iraq is a melting pot of ethnicity and religion. Lines are drawn not only between Arabs and Kurds, but also between Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis (not to mention others). Modern nations are not composed of a single ethnic or religious group; they are a conglomeration of diverse people who can — and should — hold their national identity as their common denominator. Iraq has a long and complicated road ahead — probably more so than Rwanda did — but removing religious and ethnic distinctions from its government issued identity cards might, at least, set Iraq in the right direction.
2. Seek justice in a local, communal level, and not simply by military force.
According to the United Nations, to establish swift justice for the thousands accused of committing genocide, the Rwandan government re-opened the country’s traditional court system known as “Gacaca.” Trials were conducted by locally elected judges, and lower sentences were granted if the defendant repented and tried to reconcile with the community. Forgiveness was asked for and granted publicly, establishing unwritten, yet commonly held and understood, social expectations from the community and the perpetrators.
In a similar way, military force cannot impose the granting or accepting of forgiveness in Iraq. This is something that can only be done on a community level, which is where the successful shaping of a country’s national identity begins. Empowering Iraqi communities and tribes to administer justice locally can help establish a sense of national responsibility in Iraqis for rebuilding their country.
3. Establish a restorative justice system.
One of the most fascinating outcomes of the Gacaca courts was the responsibility given to perpetrators to not only serve a sentence, but to do so by doing good to their victims. A Hutu man who had killed a Tutsi woman’s husband would come back and help her rebuild her house. Cases like these helped Rwanda find reconciliation where no one else thought it possible.
For the crimes in Iraq, no amount of punishment will be able to restore all that has been lost. A restorative justice system in Iraq might not erase all the wrongs committed, but it might be the first step for perpetrators to recover their sense of humanity and victims to release hatred and resentment. It could help Iraq to find healing.
I might add though that religious leaders played an indispensable role in this system of justice and reconciliation. We must cease to view faith as the problem, but also see it as the solution.
Today, I stood in a valley outside of Kigali where blood once flowed. But like so much of Rwanda, forgiveness has transformed this valley from a place of death to a place of life. Tools that were once used to take lives, now give life by producing crops and raising livestock. With pride, people work together side-by-side despite their past. Most of the women lost their husbands in the genocide. But today, it does not matter what side they were once on, all that matters now is their future. This is reinforced by the literal translation of their village’s name: “do something with your life” and their sheer determination to do just that, is palpable.
In the end, only reconciliation and forgiveness can bind up a nation after genocide. Through pain and perseverance, Rwanda is conquering her dark past. Iraq can do the same, and show the world a country is not lost if its people are willing to set aside their differences to fight for a better future.