The symbolism was incendiary. In front of the mass graves where 250,000 genocide victims are buried, a Rwandan politician dared to speak of the Hutus who were killed in those same terrible months in 1994.
Perhaps more astonishingly, Victoire Ingabire was not imprisoned for her taboo comments – not so far, at least, although the police have interrogated her three times and accused her of the crime of spreading “divisionism.”
Her challenge is posing an uncomfortable dilemma for the minority Tutsi-led government that dominates Rwanda. Sixteen years after the genocide of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis by Hutu extremists, can the authorities tolerate a political candidate who appeals openly to the Hutus who still comprise 85 per cent of Rwanda's population?
How long can the government use the genocide as a justification for strict controls on the political system? And who decides the official history of the genocide?
The woman at the centre of the storm is an unlikely politician: a cheerful 41-year-old emigrant who has worked as an accountant at a U.S. company in the Netherlands for the past decade.
She wears a frilly-strapped dress and giggles merrily when she is asked about the barrage of wild attacks on her in Rwanda's state-controlled media.
But she is backed by many of the Hutus who fled to Europe and North America during the Rwandan wars of the 1990s. She clearly has money and resources. She rents a large house in one of Kigali's most exclusive neighbourhoods, where she has a Land Cruiser parked in the driveway.
Ms. Ingabire's decision to return to Kigali this year has sent shock waves through Rwandan politics. In a country where ethnic divisions are officially never discussed, she has dared to raise Hutu grievances – especially the killing of thousands of Hutus in 1994 and 1995, which she describes as a “crime against humanity.”
It's a potent appeal. Many Hutus feel excluded from power, excluded from the best jobs and schools, and afraid to speak out. It was to them that Ms. Ingabire was deliberately appealing when she returned to Rwanda in January – after 16 years in exile – and made her controversial comments at the genocide memorial.
Ms. Ingabire has carefully couched her appeal in diplomatic language. She condemns the genocide, calling for reconciliation and dialogue. She denounces “extremists” on all sides. She urges the authorities to bring all criminals to justice, regardless of ethnicity. She pledges to work for a peaceful country, united in mutual respect.
Yet merely by talking of Hutu victims, she has triggered a firestorm of reaction. She and her assistant were assaulted by a gang of young men in a government office. Her assistant, who was badly beaten, has been jailed for “genocide” crimes. She is facing a police investigation for her alleged “genocide ideology.” And even the country's powerful President, Paul Kagame, has warned that “the law will catch up with her” – a clear threat that she will be arrested.
At the heart of the battle between Ms. Ingabire and Mr. Kagame is a stark disagreement about Rwanda's identity. The President argues that any talk of ethnicity must be suppressed because Rwanda is still in a fragile post-genocide period, where hatred and violence could rise again. His opponent sees this as an excuse for repression, leading only to resentment and bitterness among those who cannot speak out.
It is unclear whether the government will permit Ms. Ingabire to challenge Mr. Kagame in the presidential election in August. The President won the last election with an official margin of 95 per cent, and he has brooked no real opposition since 1994, when he led the Tutsi rebels who defeated the genocidal Hutu regime.
So far, Ms. Ingabire has been denied permission to gather the 200 signatures that she needs to register her political party. She is routinely subjected to fierce attacks in the pages of Rwanda's only daily newspaper, the state-connected New Times, which refuses to publish her responses to the attacks.
“I don't know why the government is so afraid of me,” she says. “They watch me and follow me all the time. I know anything can happen to me – they can arrest me, they can kill me.”
The managing director of the New Times, Joseph Bideri, confirmed that the newspaper refuses to give any “space” to Ms. Ingabire's responses. He wrote a personal letter to her on Jan. 22, vowing she would never get a “platform” in the newspaper because she is a “genocide denier.”
In an interview, however, Mr. Bideri was unable to provide any evidence that Ms. Ingabire denies the genocide. In fact, in her public speeches and in a lengthy interview with The Globe and Mail, she repeatedly acknowledged and condemned the 1994 genocide. She draws a distinction between the slaughter of the Tutsis – which she calls a genocide – and the killings of many Hutus, which she describes as a “crime against humanity.”
Although she emigrated to the Netherlands shortly before the genocide began, Ms. Ingabire's own family suffered in the genocide. Her brother was killed in 1994 because he was mistaken for a Tutsi.
“When people talk about the pain they feel, they need to understand that everybody feels pain,” she says. “We have to understand the pain of others. When I condemn the genocide, I'm also thinking of my brother. Not all Hutus are killers, and not all Tutsis are victims.”
International human-rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have criticized the Rwandan government for attacking and harassing opposition leaders such as Ms. Ingabire. Amnesty says the Rwandan law on “genocide ideology” is so vague and ambiguous that the authorities can use it to suppress dissent.
There is strong evidence to support Ms. Ingabire's allegations of war crimes against Hutus. For example, a United Nations investigator in 1994 estimated that 25,000 to 45,000 civilians, primarily Hutus, were killed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front – the army of Mr. Kagame, now the governing party. Many other civilians, including thousands of Hutu refugees, were killed in further attacks in later years. Only a small handful of RPF members have been prosecuted for the Hutu deaths, which remain a taboo subject in Rwanda.
Ms. Ingabire says she doesn't know how many Tutsis died in 1994, how many Hutus died, or even whether the number of Tutsi victims was larger than the number of Hutu victims. Some observers say she is leaving the impression of an equivalency between the two sides, despite historical evidence that the Tutsi victims were far more numerous and were the only ones subjected to a deliberate campaign of attempted extermination.
But even the Rwandan government has struggled with how to write the history of the genocide. At the memorial where 250,000 victims are buried, a guide says it commemorates only the Tutsi victims of the genocide. Yet he distributes an audio guide that calls it a memorial to the “Tutsi and moderate Hutu peoples” who were killed.
Didas Gasana, editor of a weekly newspaper whose staff is often harassed and threatened by the authorities for its independent views, says the government needs to provide justice and truth to the Hutu victims. “There needs to be debate and justice and openness,” he says. “It's a part of history that can't be denied.”
Mr. Gasana is himself a Tutsi. And despite the official view that ethnicity has disappeared, he says he is often told privately by government officials that he should not write such critical articles – because he is a Tutsi.