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20 years after horrors, Rwanda claims rebirth and renewal

April 7 marks the anniversary of a genocide that killed 800,000 people in three months. For many Rwandans now, ‘the people who killed, today they can be friends, they are people we do business with.’

KIGALI, Rwanda  In a stadium that two decades ago was a refuge for people fleeing the foot-soldiers of genocide, a concert stage is taking shape out of a lattice of scaffolding erected on the close-cropped grass.

On April 7, 20 years to the day since the killings started, some 50,000 Rwandans will gather here at the Amahoro Stadium in the capital, Kigali, to hear President Paul Kagame launch weeks of events to mark the anniversary.

Dancing, singing, and speeches praising the country’s renewal are planned to entertain the thousands expected to flood the track and fill the bleachers, where people once hid from the men with the machetes. 

During 100 days in 1994, more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda, a mass killing that ranks with the worst horrors of the 20th century and still – to foreigners at least – defines this small central African country. 

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Rwandans today would rather have visitors focus on the progress they feel has taken place since the horror: the smooth new roads, the nationwide broadband connection, and the safety and security of a land that is in many ways reborn. That renewal is a key theme of the coming commemorations.

“What happened was terrible,” says Jean de Dieu Burakari, who was 13 when the genocide started and survived for nine days cowering among the dead and dying in a Catholic church repeatedly attacked by militias.

“But the people who killed, today they can be friends, they are people we do business with,” he says. “Remembering what took place in 1994, it strengthens me to make sure it never happens again.”

While there has been a remarkable reconstruction here, however, the impact of almost an entire nation being affected by the experience of such a trauma is still very fresh.

“It is something that we see every year in April, during the official mourning month – people whose experiences come back to them very strongly,” says Charles Mudenge, a psychiatrist at the University Teaching Hospital, Kigali.

Close to a third of adult Rwandans still exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2011 report by the health ministry. “What happened 20 years ago can still feel very present,” Dr. Mudenge says.

Despite this, today, the two ethnic communities – the Hutus, whose extremist elements carried out the genocide, and the Tutsis, the victims – live and work alongside each other. In a country where ethnicity had once appeared on individuals’ ID cards, it became illegal to ask anyone their ethnic background.

Better roads, better schools

Significant and well-managed investments in infrastructure mean better roads, better telecommunications, electricity even in the remotest villages, free schooling and compulsory health insurance.

There are monthly nationwide cleanup days, when everyone does community work. Foreigners visiting Rwanda who are used to Africa’s shabbier corners uniformly remark on the country’s neatness and orderliness.

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All of this fosters a new national pride.

“We need to tell the world that Rwanda today is not the Rwanda of the past,” says Mussa Uwitonze, a travel and tourism college student from the north who was orphaned by the genocide. “There is security. There are nice people and nice places to stay and to see. There are entrepreneurs and young people like me building a new country.”

A president with a strong hand

For this, thanks must go to President Kagame, says Mr. Uwitonze – and almost everyone else who spoke to the Monitor during a week-long visit.

The former rebel leader and one-time darling of Western aid donors was elected to a second and constitutionally final presidential term with 93 percent of the vote in 2010.

Such margins of electoral popularity elsewhere usually point to dictatorial regimes, and Mr. Kagame increasingly faces such claims from critics, almost all of whom live outside Rwanda.

Their allegations – all officially denied – are legion: that there is no free Rwandan press and miscreant reporters are blacklisted. That opposition politicians are intimidated into withdrawing or defeat.

There is also a litany of out-of-favor former Kagame allies – especially those in the military – who have died in circumstances their families insist are suspicious.

Repeated armed incursions into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo – ostensibly to hunt down the Hutu leaders of the genocide who fled there – have led to allegations of widespread war crimes.

Rwandan forces, or their Congolese proxy militia, also stand accused of protecting those who plundered eastern Congo’s mineral riches in a free-for-all worthy of the American “Wild West.”

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For each of these claims, however, Kagame’s many supporters have an explanation that points to a stated necessity: to maintain absolute security across Rwanda to avoid a seductive genocide ideology from taking root once again.

Seeking justice

Part of that effort over the years has been to foster reconciliation between Tutsis and Hutus. More important has been seeking justice for the victims.

More than 2 million cases were heard before local Rwandan village courts, named gacaca; at a higher judicial altitude, some 49 of the genocide’s worst offenders were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which sits in Tanzania.

The question remains whether all this is enough to avoid anything like a repeat of the genocide, in a country which had a history of mass killings between its people stretching back to its colonial era.

The answer probably lies with Rwanda’s expanding, tribeless, educated twenty-somethings who are too young to remember the genocide or the politically incited ethnic hatred that caused it.

“The divisionism of before is gone. All of us now have equal access to opportunities,” says Jonathan Inyandemye, a 20-year-old who grew up in a two-room house with a leaky tin roof but who has just been accepted to Harvard to study civil engineering. “It means we all see that there is just too much to lose if there is anything like that fighting ever again.”