On April 6, 1984, hell supplanted purgatory in the African nation of Rwanda. That day, news of the president’s assassination became the catalyst for one of the most horrific, shameful, and grotesque crimes of the 20th century. In less than 100 days, nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women and children in Rwanda were hacked to death with machetes or riddled with bullets, while U.N. “peacekeepers” stood ideally by and world leaders refused to intervene.
What made this massacre – this genocide – so difficult to understand was that this was not a religious war. Both sides claimed to be Christians. Indeed, it required identity cards to distinguish one group from the other. Anthropologists and historians still can’t agree on whether the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples originated as different tribes or as different social castes within one populace. For years, it was even possible for some Hutu to become Tutsi. All that changed after Belgium seized control of Rwanda during World War I. In 1935, the Belgians introduced identity cards, labeling each resident as members of this or that group. It was a classic divide and conquer strategy that segregated and prevented further movement between classes.
Like many of its European neighbors, Belgium colonized distant lands in order collect taxes and to exploit the rich local resources. In Rwanda, that meant coffee, the second most profitable legal commodity on the world market, exceeded in dollar value only by oil. The Belgian government also seemed obsessed with racial and ethnic classifications. They began to treat Tutsis as superior to Hutus, claiming that Tutsis had more “European features”. This was a policy that would clash with the dream of Rwanda’s future King Kigeli V. He was a man who viewed his role to serve as “father to both the Tutsi and the Hutu”, a king who would encourage intermarriage among the groups in his homeland so that they “can become one people again”.
One cannot help but wonder if the bloodshed of 1984 might have been prevented. Instead of clinging to the last vestiges of colonial power and continuing to thwart independence, what if Belgium had released Rwanda from its grasp? How would history have played out if the Europeans had not engineered the expulsion of Rwanda’s last legitimate and lawful king? Rwanda’s gentle king was forced from power, but the people of Rwanda did not choose to end their monarchy, that decision was imposed on them by a foreign power.
King Kigeli V came to the Rwandan throne in 1959 when his (quite healthy) brother suddenly dropped dead after being given an injection by a mysterious substitute for his regular physician. The former king had been preparing to go to New York to demand independence for his country at the United Nations. Whether his death was a murder or a “medical accident” may never be known. There was no autopsy. What is known is that the royal family immediately recognized that Belgium could use this vacancy on the throne to impose a regent of their own choice, thereby seizing total control. To prevent that from happening, King Kigeli V was crowned on the same day as his brother’s funeral, keeping alive the Rwandan tradition that “not a day should pass with a vacant throne”. Perhaps no one was as surprised by this coronation as the new 23 year old king, who had to be summoned from his family farm for the event.
In November, 1959, young King Kigeli traveled to the Congo to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. While he was out of his country, a coup d’état supported by the Belgian military took place, and King Kigeli was forcibly and illegally prevented from returning home. Having never been legitimately removed by his own people, and lacking any honest, independently monitored vote, Kigeli V remains in exile to this day as the legitimate King of Rwanda. While the U.N. General Assembly stipulated that the Belgian government should allow his return, Belgium ignored the U.N. action and posted guards on the border of Rwanda to arrest him. Indeed, he was arrested when he attempted to return to Rwanda to oversee free elections.
Most Americans are unaware that this king has been living in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., since the United States granted him political asylum in 1992. A friend of the late Nelson Mandela, His Majesty is a giant of a man both physically (he stands over 7 feet tall) and morally. He tried, unsuccessfully, to warn the United Nations in advance about the impending slaughter in 1994 and since then he has established and now heads the King Kigeli Foundation in order to foster humanitarian initiatives on behalf of Rwandese refugees. While he lives quite modestly, he continues to travel and speak on behalf of Rwandan refugees, in support of various humanitarian efforts, and for reconciliation between all ethnic groups.
This writer has enjoyed meeting, speaking and traveling with King Kigeli. We have a common religious devotion to Saint Nuno, the Portuguese patron of orphaned children, and we share investiture in three of the same royal orders of knighthood. In 2009, His Majesty honored me with a medal and I had the privilege of receiving him into the Royal and Venerable Confraternity of St. Nuno, of which I am Comrade Major. King Kigeli is a prayerful, devout Catholic, a kind, modest, humble gentlemen, and a tireless spokesman for the cause of peace. It is inspiring to be with him.
In America, we chose our own independence from monarchy, but even more, we continue to celebrate our freedom from colonialism. That said, one has to think that the people of Rwanda could have fared much better under a constitutional monarchy headed by their beloved king than under the harsh regimes forced upon them by power brokers and colonialists in Europe and America.
H.R.H. King Kigeli V with the author
T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a popular 19th century New Orleans legend. http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710