PARIS — From Vichy France to the Algerian War, the demand that France “open the archives” resonates every time the country struggles with one of its “pasts that don’t pass.” Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi people, researchers are once again singing this refrain, especially in light of the provocative declarations from Rwandan President Paul Kagame accusing France of involvement in the tragedy.
In France, the genocide’s anniversary has reignited an ideological war. There are those who wish to acknowledge, no matter what, the fact that France holds some culpability. Others wish to claim no responsibility, regardless of the facts. It’s a dead-end debate in which the fate of the Tutsi often serves as a pretext to renew quintessentially French debates on colonialism and the role of the army, or to harness the role of Former French President François Mitterrand.
If indeed opening the archives is necessary, it is neither to make amends nor to retrace one of the so-called conspiracies that so agitate the protagonists of this very French dispute: For some, it is the “conspiracy” hatched by the French executive and army to maintain Rwanda in the French “sphere of influence;” for others, it is the Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to take control of French-speaking Rwanda and extend the humiliation inflicted to France in Fashoda, over a century ago.
The Elysée’s blind eye
It is also, of course, not about questioning the reality of the systematic extermination of 800,000 Tutsi. But it is about moving from the obsession of denunciation to the research of facts — and understanding them. It is still necessary to shed light on two complex questions:
• Has a concerted approach to genocide ever existed? The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has not been able to prove it. In the absence of an event comparable to the 1942 Wannsee Conference for the genocide of Jews, it remains necessary to analyze the individual and collective mechanisms that led to the genocide. Was it the practical application of a program, or was it the result of a chain of events? These mechanisms are also the subject of debate concerning the Holocaust.
• To what extent did France assist the genocidal regime before and during the tragedy? Why did French soldiers take so long to intervene and fail to save 2,000 pursued Tutsi in Bisesero, in late June 1994? Why did the United Nations pull out in the middle of genocide? Why did it refuse to investigate the attack against President Habyarimana’s airplane?
A lot has already been published about it, including the report of the 1998 Quilès parliamentary mission that succeeded in declassifying 3,500 documents. Other documents, stemming from the investigation on “complicity in genocide” launched in Paris against French soldiers following a complaint by Tutsi survivors, were published in Le Monde in July 2007. They reveal to what extent the Elysée turned a blind eye to signs that heralded the massacres.
Avoiding “sheer denunciation”
But, as historians explain, it is not enough to make available documents whose existence are already known, and to meet the demands of the magistrates. It is also necessary to open to researchers all the French public archives on Rwanda — military or otherwise —that are currently covered by the 25 or 50 year-long legal prescription.
As former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin did in 2001 for the Algerian War archives, such a decision by the French government today would be honorable. “Many military people have been traumatized by Rwanda,” says Claudine Vidal, a sociologist and expert on Rwanda. “Disclosing everything would be in the army’s interest.” But, she says, it is important to “filter the demands in order not to let the people whose main motive is sheer denunciation do anything they want.”
In this context, an international action would allow things to move forward. “The United States, Great Britain, South Africa and Uganda are also involved, not to mention the exceptional archives of Habyarimana’s regime that Rwanda has,” says André Guichaoua, a university professor and genocide expert.
In 2008, Paul Quilès asked the UN secretary-general to carry out an independent international expert assessment. To no avail. “The ideal would be that France and Rwanda agree on experts capable of producing a common history,” says Filip Reyntjens, a professor of African politics at the University of Antwerp. But he knows such a proposition is currently unrealizable, since the “truths” put forward by every country whose interest it is to support them are divergent.
A glimmer of hope could come from the United States, where many Ph.D. students are working and publishing works on Rwanda as part of exchanges promoted after 1994 by Washington and the new regime. As was the case for the Vichy regime in the 1970s, a revised account of France's involvment in Rwanda could come from a new generation of very demanding researchers, who could obtain the promising disclosure of the archives of their own country.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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