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iDebate Rwanda - Madison Vision Series

Can civil discourse heal genocidal wounds?

The iDebate Rwanda team visited JMU on Nov. 5 to share how they are using debate as a "tool of peace" in  a country still struggling to recover from the deep and divisive wounds of genocide two decades ago. Communication can achieve reconciliation and make an impact, the group said during an appearance sponsored by the Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society.

“What do you do…when everyone within the post-genocide generation is not a perpetrator, but simply a victim—a victim to the guilt, a victim to fear, a victim to mistrust and a victim to so many other consequences of the genocide?” asked Christine Teta, 23, the current president of iDebate Rwanda.

The answer to that question, the team suggested, is to engage in civil discourse.

The first portion of the panel revealed harrowing stories of lives lost, families broken and extreme violence during the Rwandan genocide, where each narrative highlighted the importance of civic discourse in Rwanda now.

Dadi Niwejye, 26, recalled seeing a corpse for the first time at just 5 years old, and remembered that hugs “always felt like the last.” During the genocide, he was told to keep his face hidden in order to avoid drawing attention, and at such a young age he struggled to fathom how the appearance of his face could incite such drastic and chilling consequences. Bryan Manzi, 14, shared a narrative of a mixed Hutu-Tutsi family being torn apart, while Kassy Irebe, 14, read a woman's letter to a future child about her father being murdered during the Rwandan genocide, a loss she attributed to something “as futile as the shape of a nose.”


The Rwandan genocide has deep ties in German and Belgian colonialism, the team explained. Social classes existed based on the number of cows each family owned—owning 10 or more classified individuals as Tutsis, whereas owning fewer than 10 signified Hutus. The Twa, a third class system, mostly lived in the forest.

When the Belgians arrived in Rwanda, they used a divide and conquer method. “They were fascinated with this idea of race, so they divided them according to race,” said Jean Michel Habineza, 26, iDebate Rwanda’s international coordinator. “If you were tall and had a slender nose, you were a Tutsi. And if you were shorter and had a broader nose, you were a Hutu.” It was an imposed class system based on triviality, but it had enormous implications for the Rwandese.

“Throughout history, and [using] manipulation, the colonialists supported first the Tutsis and then made the Hutus go against them,” Habineza said.

Over the course of 100 days, one million Rwandese citizens were murdered. Ten thousand people each day for 100 days - the equivalent of three Sept. 11 attacks for 100 days, Habineza pointed out. And as this was happening, the rest of the world did not see Rwanda as a location of strategic interest, so it turned a blind eye toward the country.

In addition to enduring the massacre, Rwandese were forced to be neighbors with those who had killed members of their family, or who had tried to kill them as well.

Habineza asked the audience to imagine the burden that the post-genocide generation is currently filling. “The true victims of genocide are the ones who were born after the genocide…How are those people going to live together? [And] not only living together, but engaging one another,” he said. “In our parents’ generation, there are victims and perpetrators. But in ours, there is no such thing. So how are we going to live together?”

Yvan Magwene, 20, advocated for the power of debate in being part of these solutions. Because silence had been such a large part of Rwanda’s culture, the government had been able to systematically eliminate Tutsis in Rwanda at the time. Now, Magwene said, “iDebate Rwanda has acted as a platform for the youth…to exchange ideas, to discuss different topics and to share stories.”

Teta added, “debate is an art, but it is also a tool of peace.”

Reflecting on the various people who had saved him from being killed during the genocide, Niwejye concluded his story by suggesting that he’d gotten lucky.

“Why is it that I was not killed like other members of my family? Why is it that today I’m able to smile [and] I’m able to walk head straight?” Niwejye asked. “I’ll probably never know the answer. But I know God saved me for a purpose, and I must serve that purpose…The issue is now to figure out what that purpose is.”

Begun in 2013, The Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society brings scholars, thinkers and leaders of all kinds to campus for lively explorations of issues facing our contemporary society. The series is sponsored by the JMU Office of the President and JMU Outreach and Engagement’s Madison Institutes and funded by donors to the Madison Forever Vision Fund.

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By Rosemary Girard (’15)

Published: Monday, November 10, 2014

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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