When will we stop re-victimizing the victims?
by Marie-Jolie Rwigema
A 75-year-old woman shows up to a No One is Illegal (NOII)-Vancouver event to question one of the speakers at the event. She is a member of a community of survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide living in Vancouver, Canada. While she is a survivor of earlier massacres against the Tutsis in 1963, six of her nine siblings and their many children and grandchildren were killed in the 1994 genocide. The majority of her remaining family members are survivors of the genocide. Every single member of her community in Vancouver is either a survivor of the genocide or related to people that were killed or survived. Beyond the reality that she daily lives with the trauma of the murders of her family members, her trauma is compounded by the knowledge that there continues to be a network of individuals who are actively working to deny or negate the history of the Rwandan genocide. Many of the members of this network are genocide perpetrators themselves, those who were not successfully apprehended after the 1994 genocide, and who continued to build their networks in countries neighbouring Rwanda and in Europe and North America.
The elder woman, as is the case with most of the genocide survivor community in Vancouver, knows of Jean de Dieu Hakizimana because some of them have publicly heard him make statements that negate the history of the genocide. When these incidents have happened, these community members had privately written letters to the organizations hosting Jean de Dieu to speak. Members of the genocide survivor community in Toronto also know of Jean de Dieu because he has made similar statements in public in Toronto.
The Tutsi of Rwandan have gone through the 7 earliest stages of genocide in full view of the international community. Now Rwanda is experiencing the 8th stage – denial – wherein the actors of the genocide, their supporters and apologists are trying to sanitize and redeem those who prepared and committed the genocide. They are doing this by either denying it ever happened or by minimizing its impact on the survivors by calling it a massacre between ethnic groups or advancing the theory of double genocide.
The Rwandan survivor community in Vancouver is small. They are not a funded organization. They have minimal resources at their disposal to educate the general public about: 1) the Rwandan genocide; and 2) denial about the Rwandan genocide. Nonetheless, members of this community do the best that they can to show up and publicly challenge individuals who have a history of negating or revising the history of the genocide.
On October 11th 2015, doing the best that she can, this elderly woman showed up to challenge Jean De Dieu Hakizimana’s public speech. She does not get a chance to question him in public, but after the event he approaches her, she verbally challenges him, and then he physically assaults her. He strikes her across her face in full view of the No One is Illegal organizers and the other Rwandan woman present.
More than a month and a half later, on November 30th, members of the survivor community issue a public letter asking No One is Illegal-Vancouver to account for having invited Jean de Dieu Hakizimana to speak at the event, and for his assault of the elder Rwandan woman.
One day later, on December 1st, No One is Illegal issues a letter in public response, apologizing for the assault and for not having consulted the community prior to inviting Hakizimana to speak at their event.
Nine days later, on December 9th, a Toronto-based academic and community activist for the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, Ajamu Nangwaya, writes an article on behalf of Share magazine in which he patches together an interpretation of Rwandan history. While his entry point into writing about Rwandan history and the timing and motivation for the dissemination of this particular interpretation is questionable, what he does next is abhorrent.
The last paragraph of his article attempts to lie about what happened at the No One is Illegal event, in contradiction to the public statements issued by both the members of the Rwandan survivor community and No One is Illegal-Vancouver. Nangwaya re-writes the assault of the elderly woman by Jean de Dieu Hakizimana, casting Hakizimana as the victim in which he merely defended himself against a physical attack from the elderly woman. To be clear the elder woman did not physically attack Hakizimana, and it is disturbing that this has to be re-stated at all. Nangwaya similarly re-writes the entire genocide survivor community who names Hakizimana as genocide negationist; claiming that the survivor community are genocide negationists for the mere act of having dared to name Hakizimana as such. This is similar to being called racist for pointing out that someone is racist. He re-writes the members of the survivor community’s speaking up about the pain of being ignored by NOII, the pain of platforms being given to genocide negationists, and the pain of one of their elders being assaulted, into an attack on NOII and a denial of someone else’s pain.
It is ironic that Ajamu Nangawaya names himself as an organizer against police and state violence when his actions mimic the violence of these institutions. As we have seen time and again, when police assault or kill members of the Black community, they openly lie about having done so, regardless of witnesses or evidence that testify to the truth. They arrest the people they have just beaten, for assaulting an officer. They create GoFundMe pages for police officers who have killed children, renaming and recasting the police as the victims and the Black community as the aggressors. When women speak out publicly about the violence they have endured, or when members of the Black community speak out, when any communities that have been victimized speak out – there is always a violent backlash and the victims get blamed. The perpetrator reverses the blame and claims victim status. Someone always attempts to re-write history.
I cannot speak to what Ajamu Nangawaya’s motivations are for protecting a man who publicly assaulted an elderly woman. I’m not sure what his motivations are for lying about an assault that has been witnessed and publicly spoken about by both Rwandan community members and NOII. I cannot decide why he would fabricate a story about a police report blaming the victim. I’m not sure what his motivations are for re-labeling a genocide survivor community as genocide negationists.
But whatever his motivations are, it is not okay. It cannot stand. It is not okay to inflict further violence on the survivors of violence. It is not okay to protect the perpetrators of violence or to ignore and erase the voices of survivors, whether on the scale of genocide or of personal violence – both of which have happened here.
It is not okay for a man to inflict violence on a woman, especially not an elderly woman. And it is not okay to lie about it. This cannot stand.
Editor’s note: Decolonization recognizes that there are independent contesting accounts of what happened in the events mentioned below, with some attendees of the event reporting that the woman mentioned slapped Jean de Dieu Hakizimana first, while others contest these accounts that the woman struck Hakizimana first. Decolonization wants to acknowledge the competing accounts and not oversimplify or refuse what are complex histories and power dynamics, while also recognizing that regardless of the veracity of either account, there is a gendered power imbalance to consider, among other intersecting and complex histories and power structures. While acknowledging these complex histories, as well as how class, race and gender intersect to systemically reinforce colonial conflicts, Decolonization does not condone Hakizamana’s striking of the woman, which is undisputed. We offer this statement in the hope of creating a space that supports meaningful dialogue in decolonizing ways, grounded in respect for land, life, and one another.
Marie-Jolie Rwigema (Ph.D Candidate, MSW, University of Toronto; Honours B.A., African Studies and International Development Studies, York University) has over 15 years of experience working in the mental health, immigrant-serving, youth-serving and LGBTQ sectors as a community development worker, project coordinator, group facilitator, community and arts-based educator, researcher, mental health counselor and documentary filmmaker. MJ is currently a doctoral candidate in social work at the University of Toronto, doing research on the racialized politics of knowledge production regarding the 1994 Rwandan genocide. She is a course instructor at the University of Toronto, teaching M.S.W courses in the areas of social work with communities and organizations, and equity, diversity and access in social work. She also facilitates workshops and support groups with LGBTQ youth.