We often think of genocide in simple terms as a self-contained, incredibly destructive, conflict between two ethnic groups. However, the causes and outcomes of such violence are often much more complex. In fact, the large-scale destruction, displacement and mutual resentment that results from genocide often creates unintended consequences that reverberate through time and across national borders, laying the groundwork for future conflicts. This has certainly been the case with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu-nationalist militias.

In Rwanda, the killings left a scar on the nation’s psyche which has proven difficult to remove. Despite ongoing efforts by the Rwandan government to play down divisions between Hutus and Tutsis, ethnic tensions remain just beneath the surface in many areas of Rwandan society. This is true even at the nation’s universities, where young Rwandans split themselves up into “Francophone” or “Anglophone” groups, with these terms serving as code words for Hutu or Tutsi ancestry (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/17/world/africa/17rwanda.html?_r=0).

Some of the government’s reconciliation efforts, while positive in theory, have also had a chilling effect on Rwanda’s political culture. Laws against the spreading of “genocide ideology” and “divisionism” intended to reduce ethnic hatred have frequently been used by the government of President Paul Kagame as a pretext to arrest student leaders, intellectuals, and political opponents (http://www.voanews.com/content/legacy-of-genocide-fuels-political-repression-in-rwanda-101895988/124908.html).

On an individual level, many are still haunted by memories of the events of 1994. These psychological wounds are particularly deep for the women of Rwanda, many of whom were left with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases due to the wave of sexual violence that accompanied the genocide. Often, their suffering is compounded by social isolation, as neighbours, family members and former friends frequently turn their back on those women who were unlucky enough to become pregnant as a result of these attacks (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3668387/Rwanda-Legacy-of-genocide.html).

Perhaps the most destructive after effect of the Rwandan genocide, however, has been its contribution to ongoing warfare and political instability in central Africa. Following the rise to power of Rwanda’s new Tutsi-led government in 1994, leaders of the Interhamwe (the genocidal militia responsible for much of the killing in Rwanda) fled across the border into the DRC. After reforming as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), they then staged cross-border attacks against the Rwandan military, who responded with campaigns of their own. Tensions between the two countries eventually devolved into a state of unofficial warfare, in which the governments of Rwanda, DRC and other neighbouring countries have lent support to rival rebel groups (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/nov/04/congo.qanda). This has resulted in millions of deaths and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, while also increasing tensions between Hutu and Tutsi populations in the area.

Though conditions in the eastern DRC have improved somewhat in recent months, the tragic legacy of the Rwandan genocide continues to present obstacles to lasting peace and stability within Rwanda and the African Great Lakes region as a whole. We can only hope that the next time the spectre of genocide rears its ugly head, we, and the policymakers who represent us, will be more aware of the terrible costs of inaction.