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Rwanda: From colonialism to genocide

Matthias Frickel
April 2, 2024

The DW documentary "Reclaiming History — Colonialism and the Genocide in Rwanda" traces the arc from German colonial rule to the genocide in Rwanda.

Director Samuel Ishimwe is seen from the back as he interviews his aunt in a schoolroom. Cameraman Robert Richter is standing to his right, and Sam's uncle is seated across from Sam.
Ishimwe interviewed surviving members of his family for the documentaryImage: Matthias Frickel/DW

The DW documentary "Reclaiming History — Colonialism and the Genocide in Rwanda" is the first to examine the role played by German and Belgian colonialism in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Rwandan director Samuel Ishimwe, whose parents were murdered in the genocide, sets out in search of the origins of the "racial hatred" between Tutsi and Hutu. The 86-minute documentary will be broadcast on DW's worldwide linear program and available for streaming on DW Documentaries' YouTube channels starting April 5, 2024.

Sowing the seeds of hatred

"If we speak the same language, share the same culture, same country, how did we become different?" It is this fundamental question that drives Samuel Ishimwe, filmmaker from Rwanda and winner of a Silver Bear at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. How was hatred sown in Rwanda? By whom? In 100 days from April 1994, some one million people were brutally murdered, including Ishimwe's parents and most of his family.

A black-and-white photo from the early 1980s of 18 members of a Rwandan family, children and adults, men and women, standing in front of a house.
Filmmaker Samual Ishimwe's family, before the 1994 genocide killed all but two of themImage: Samuel Ishimwe/DW

The fact that he is now investigating the question of "why" on behalf of a German broadcaster is particularly significant for him. Scientific findings show that Germany, as the first colonial power, had already divided Rwandans into different "races” at the end of the 19th century. Were the seeds for the later killings sown here? In the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Hutu militias killed their neighbors because they believed propaganda that the Tutsi minority were not human.

Tracing history in Rwanda, Germany and Belgium

DW director Matthias Frickel accompanies Samuel Ishimwe on his journey through Rwanda, Germany and Belgium, where historians and contemporary witnesses help him get to the bottom of both his story and that of his country. For example, Romeo Dallaire, former head of the United Nations blue helmet force in Rwanda, relates how he had to watch the Western world allow the killings to take place in 1994, despite his tireless warnings.

13.08.2023 Crew and Dallaire Personen: back: Bosco Nshimiyimana (soundman) Samuel Ishimwe, Matthias Frickel (directors) Robert Richter (cameraman), front: Roméo Dallaire (Force Commander, UN Mission for Rwanda 1993-1994) in Kigali, Rwanda
Romeo Dallaire (seated, center) is among those interviewed by Samuel Ishimwe (second left) and Matthias Frickel (second right)Image: Matthias Frickel/DW

In Germany, Ishimwe discovers a society that has had similar experiences with the memory of the Holocaust as the Rwandans had with the genocide. The fact that German ethnologists stole more than 900 skulls from Rwanda in 1907/1908 for the "then-popular racial research," which are still stored on the outskirts of Berlin today, is only just becoming an issue.

Andre Ntagwabira, archaeologist at the Ethnographic Museum in Huye, says, "Those human remains have been used for classifying Rwandans — just to prove that there is "ethnicity” in Rwanda. And the consequence has been the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi."

Hermann Parzinger, Director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, confirms German responsibility. But he asks, "Was it inevitable that the separation into 'races' imposed in Rwanda by the Germans would lead to a genocide a century later?"

Illustrations showing the heads and skulls of various men from different parts of Africa.
The racial ideology that led to the genocide dates back to the time of German colonialism in RwandaImage: Public Domain/Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

Cultural anthropologist Dr Anna-Maria Brandstetter has been researching Rwanda for 20 years. She says that colonialism laid a foundation, but is insufficient as the sole explanation for the genocide: "This colonial violence doesn't automatically result in post-colonial violence, like the genocide against the Tutsi. You don't kill a neighbor because you think he's a Tutsi or a Hutu. You kill a neighbor because your neighbor is regarded as non-human, as not part of humanity."

Three black-and-white photos from the 20th century of African men.
Colonialists claimed that Tutsis were a "foreign race"Image: Public Domain/Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

In Brussels and Lièges, Ishimwe learns how the Belgians, as a subsequent colonial power, stirred up hatred between Hutu and Tutsi in order to maintain their rule. Rwandan historian Dantès Singiza is researching Belgian colonial rule there and shows the filmmaker documents proving the Belgians pursued a racist policy in Rwanda. In 1932, Belgium introduced an identity card that cemented a "racial segregation" that, according to the historian, had not existed before. From then on, one was permanently Tutsi, Hutu or Twa. During the colonial era, permeable social categories became fixed ethnic categories. As Ishimwe says, "It was shocking to me to learn that it's not something that was an innocent mistake by colonial powers. It was actually a systematic intention to teach this ideology and to divide people and to actually work hard until these people believed that they were actually different."

Skulls of genocide victims in the Nyamata Church Genocide Memorial.
Skulls of genocide victims in the Nyamata Church Genocide MemorialImage: DW

Remembrance and reconciliation

How should we deal with this difficult legacy? Trauma therapist Esther Mujawayo-Keiner gives Samuel Ishimwe a hint: "We need to talk. We need to talk about it and not avoid it. But how can we talk about it in a proper way? Silence is dangerous. But talking can also be dangerous. So it is how you talk." She survived the genocide against the Tutsi and has worked in Germany for 20 years.

Back in Rwanda, Ishimwe meets convicted genocide perpetrators and their victims, who now live together in a Reconciliation Village. What can the future of remembrance look like? "I know we have a huge responsibility as Rwandans in hating each other, in getting to the genocide. We did it. We did that with the genocide, we the Rwandans did it. Nobody else came to do it. But hate and the ideology of hate is an idea that is built and cultivated, especially during the Belgian colonial era."

Edited by: Brenda Haas