Democracy Day – Rwanda

January 28

“Rwanda Democracy Day, a holiday in Rwanda, which is called the African Switzerland; a civic day concerned with equality for all peoples in the nation.”

–Anniversaries and Holidays, by Ruth Gregory, 1983

Just over a decade later, “Rwanda” would be synonymous, not with “African Switzerland” but with the genocidal carnage that rocked the country in 1994.

In the late 19th century, Rwanda became part of German East Africa. During World War I, when Germany invaded Belgium, Belgium returned the favor by taking German East Africa.

European colonialism exacerbated ethnic tensions and divisions between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes. The Tutsi were the ruling minority in Rwanda. Physically, the Tutsis are slightly taller than the stocky Hutus. According to the Atlantic Monthly (June 1964):

Although they never constituted more than 15 percent of the population, [the Tutsi’s] hierarchical organization, built around a king known as the Mwami, their development of specialized warrior castes, and above all their possession of cattle enabled them to dominate the Hutu.

Ruanda-Urundi (Rwanda-Burundi) became a UN trust territory governed by Belgium.

The beginning of the end of Tutsi dominance came in 1959, when the king died without designating a successor. A two-year Civil War broke out between Tutsi and Hutu. The Hutu gained the upper hand and declared the country a republic on January 28, 1961. (Burundi remained a Tutsi monarchy.)

For this reason the country celebrated Democracy Day each January 28, but it appears not to be celebrated today, perhaps because the holiday marked the fall of the Tutsi, who in 1994 were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands during three months of ethnically-motivated terror.

Rwandans remember the genocide each year on the anniversary of its beginning, April 7th.

15 years after the genocide, democracy is making a comeback. Rwanda held peaceful parliamentary elections in September 2008 in which women won by a landslide, making Rwanda the first nation in the world with a female-majority parliament.

Women Run the Show in Recovering Rwanda

Female Majority in Rwandan Parliament

In his inauguration speech, President Obama said that his country’s peace and democracy had been fully paid for by the blood of their forebearers and that there was no going back to the old days. This set me wondering whether, the quantity or value of the blood of our own forebearers had not been enough to buy us freedom.

MP Beti Olive Kamya, Rubaga,Uganda

Victory Over the Genocidal Regime Day

January 7

When Cambodia has a holiday it does not mess around with names.

Victory Over the Genocidal Regime Day, or Commemoration of the Fall of the Khmer Rouge, marks the end of the Pol Pot led genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians during the 1970s, out of a population of 7 million.

“We will always remember the most horrific events of three years, eight months and 20 days under the regime of Democratic Kampuchea, which carried out the most cruel genocide policy resulting in massive and limitless destruction.”

–President of the Cambodian People’s Party in a 2004 address, marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. (BBC)

Most of the killings occurred between April 17th, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge assumed power of Cambodia until January 7th, 1979, when after a two-week war with Vietnam, the Vietnamese government invaded ousted Pol Pot and his followers.

The dates April 17th and January 7th are remembered by every Cambodian, for there is virtually no family that did not lose someone during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The genocide was the result of the world’s most morbid social experiment. The Khmer Rouge virtually annihilated the middle and upper classes of Cambodia, and did not stop there. Anyone deemed educated or cosmopolitan was killed. Ordinary people could be killed simply because they wore glasses, seen as a sign of literacy.

In an effort to “purify” the “Khmer race” and create an absolutely classless utopian society, the Khmer Rouge began by emptying all Cambodian urban centers of their population, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, reorganizing traditional kinship systems into a communal order, and eliminating private property so completely that even personal hygiene supples were communal.

Orn Theng recalled:

“I was the only one who survived in my family [of nine],” Orn said. “It was not because they didn’t have food … there was bran and rice in stock. They didn’t kill us with hoes or axes. They killed us by starving us.”

Yet despite the bloodshed the Khmer Rouge flag still hung at the United Nations until the 1990’s. Ben Kiernan, a professor who works to document and increase awareness of genocides in places like Cambodia and East Timor, compares it to:

“Image the swastika flying in New York in the 1950s, with the Nazis still maintaining an army on the border of Europe and threatening to return to power.”

In addition to the almost two million lives lost, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians emigrated during and after those years.

The largest concentration of Cambodians in the USA, and perhaps anywhere outside Cambodia, is Long Beach, California, although the Cambodian population of Lowell, Massachusetts is soon to surpass it.

Assassination of Molchior Ndadaye

October 21

“The was no way to predict or prepare for Rwanda.”

Not exactly true. In 1993, a year prior to the Rwanda genocide, a nearly identical scenario occurred in Burundi.

After years of Tutsi rule, Hutu political parties united in their support to elect Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, as President of Burundi. The Hutu parties succeeded, ousting the incumbent President Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, in the country’s first democratic election.

Ndadaye was 40 years old. He had grown up during the intense ethnic wars of 1972. He studied at the University of Rwanda and at the National Academy of Arts and Trades in France. He sought to bridge the ethnic divide in Burundi by appointing Tutsis to top governments posts, including that of Prime Minister. But less than three months from taking office a coup erupted to removed the ruling Hutu government. On October 21, 1993, under the guise of protection, Tutsi security forces escorted Ndadaye and top government officials to a secret location, and murdered them.

The coup ultimately failed, but the President’s death sparked passion and anger across the country, fueled by radio and other mass media. Hutus attacked Tutsis in mass, neighbor against neighbor. The weapon of choice, the machete. The Tutsi-led army retaliated by killing tens of thousands of Hutu men, women, and children. Before long, an estimated 100,000 Hutu and Tutsi Burundians lay dead.

And the world was none the wiser.

Despite the lessons learned from Burundi, the United Nations remained ill-equipped to combat the ethnic massacres in Rwanda the following year. In July 1994, a plane carrying both the Rwandan President and the new President of Burundi crashed, igniting the bloodiest massacre in modern times. In a matter of months, a million men, women, and children were slaughtered by their own neighbors.

The Burundi Civil War continued until 2005, taking the lives of over a quarter million Hutus and Tutsis.

The wounds are slow to heal. Burundi is one of the ten poorest countries in the world. Today its people remember the horrors of 1993 and the assassination of President Molchior Ndadaye.

Molchior Ndadaye
Molchior Ndadaye

Armenian Genocide

April 24


“If a man is killed in Paris, it is a murder; fifty thousand throats are cut in the East and it is a question.” –Victor Hugo

Hugo died 30 years before the Armenian Genocide of 1915, but his quote could be applied to it—just multiply by thirty.

The Armenian Genocide has been called the first genocide of the twentieth century.

In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I, and immediately met crushing defeats against the Russians to the north. Blaming the losses on Armenian traitors, the government conscripted mass numbers of Armenian men, removed them of their weapons, and forced them into labor camps.

The reason April 24 is chosen to memorialize the dead, is because on April 24 over 200 of the most prominent Armenian leaders and intellectuals were rounded up and arrested. Up until then Armenian arrests and executions had not been widely reported.

The following month the government announced the Temporary Deportation Law which allowed for the temporary relocation of anyone deemed a threat to national security. In September the Temporary Law of Expropriation and Confiscation expanded their authority: land, livestock, homes, and belongings of Armenians was to become government property.

The Armenians were taken to deserts, concentration camps, and other remote locations by the hundreds of thousands. Men, women, and children were either left to starve or executed.

The Turkish government today disputes the numbers of those killed, and the extent of government involvement, claiming for example, that many of the deaths were the result of poor farming weather that coincided with the relocation.

News of the atrocities were reported in the West at the time, and even the Ottoman’s allies during WWI, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, expressed concern over the mass deportations and executions of the Ottoman Empire’s Christians.

Years later a German statesman would ask, “Who after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

But he didn’t say it out of pity. It was Adolf Hitler, speaking to his generals, using it as a justification for the future invasion of Poland and the Jewish Holocaust.

April 24

Armenians Are Sent to Perish in Desert – Turks Accused of Plan to Exterminate Whole Population – People of Karahissar Massacred – NY Times – Aug. 18, 1915

Nothing Personal / Among the Deniers

Obama Avoids G-word, Brands Armenian Killings a “Great Atrocity”– 2009