Saturday, August 26, 2006

Rwanda--A nation revitalized after genocide

"Between a half million and one million murdered--that is of course a tragically high number. But, given the hellish striking power of Habyarimana's army, its helicopters, heavy machine guns, artillery, and armored vehicles, many more could have been killed in the course of three months of systematic shooting. Yet this did not happen. Most perished not on account of bombs or heavy machine guns; instead they were hacked and bludgeoned to death with the most primitive of weapons--machetes, hammers, spears and sticks."

--Ryszard Kapuscinski, "A Lecture on Rwanda"

When our matatu unexpectedly pulled over to the side of the road outside of Kigali, Rwanda, we hopped out along with all the other passengers, uncertain as to why traffic stopped. The apprehension began to rise as we looked down the road and saw several hundred people walking towards us carrying pickaxes, hoes and shovels. Now, had this been any other country, we might not have felt as uneasy, but when you anticipate unrest in a country based on recent events, it is only natural to feel uneasy when witnessing such a sight. However, this isn't 1994, and this is a new Rwanda. What happened next made us appreciate the changes that have come about in the country in the last 12 years.

The "mob", carrying their pickaxes, hoes and shovels, walked over to the side of the road and began working. They cleared debris and dug a trench, smiling and joking around with their neighbors. For over an hour and a half we watched them work, and no traffic moved. We found out that the government has instated a mandatory work day for all able-bodied adults on the last Saturday of every month. All must do some community project,(road work was a major one)and all traffic stops during this time. It seems the Rwandan government has taken great strides to change the face of the nation that was devastated by the genocide of 1994. Kigali, the capital, is by far the cleanest major city we have seen in the last 3 months. The infrastructure in the country far surpasses that of Kenya. The roads are exceptional, there is a strong police force, functional sewer systems and even the most rural areas have power lines and running water.

Driving into Rwanda you begin to realize how the landscape of this small nation has played such a role in its bloody history. It is too small of country and too mountainous for cattle herding Tutsis and the Hutu farmers to co-exist peacefully. Historically, the Tutsi were the ruling caste, making up about 14 percent of the population. Belgium backed the Tutsi after taking control of the country following WWI. In the mid-20th century when the Tutsi sought to gain freedom from Belgium, Belgium switched sides and supported the repressed Hutu farmers. The Hutu majority was encouraged to take up arms against the Tutsi cattle herders. In 1959, a peasant revolution overturned the power in the country to the hands of the Hutu. When a group like the Hutu gains power after being repressed for so long, the desire to defeat the enemy is absolute, as is the desire for retaliation. Skirmishes and conflict go on for years without the world taking notice. When the plane of the President is shot down in 1994, the mass uprising begins, and last nearly three months. Tutsis are slaughtered throughout the country, but any Hutus who opposed the regime are slaughtered as well.

There is no easily identifiable marker that shows someone as Tutsi versus Hutu. This is what makes walking around Kigali, and other parts of Rwanda so eerie. Everyone you pass--as long as they are over 12 years old--lived through one of the most concentrated and horrific mass killings in recent history. People live in relative harmony now, and there is no way to tell who played a part in it. The genocide was so recent that is comes up in most closed discussions, but unofficially, race is off limits to discuss.

There are now more workers with relief groups in-country than there are tourists, but many travellers who come to the country pay big bucks to hike the mountains of Rwanda for a chance to spend time with gorillas. Communication in-country was the most difficult that we have encountered thus far, as neither our French nor our Kinyarwandan are up to par. We were also surprised at the expense of everything in-country, from lodging on down, but we attributed this to the fact that the government is trying to instill policies to improve the economy, and change the face of the nation. But still what struck us most, was that the people we met and passed on the street carried with them, day to day, the memories of the horrific killings that took place in 1994.

--My thanks to Kapuscinski

---written by JK

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