Rwanda's Journey: From Hell to Hope

A tall, slim and soft-spoken man represents the hope of Rwanda, the small East African nation that has a population of 7 million. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s President since April 2000, spoke at the Kennedy School last Monday. Kagame, who was Rwanda’s Vice President and Minister of Defense from 1994 until 2000, has the reserved aura of a thoughtful intellectual, but one senses that his persona hides a conviction and determination to protect the people of Rwanda.
Rwanda has recently been through hell. During the summer of 1994, Rwanda was the site of the most gruesome genocide and ethnic cleansing in modern human history. Government-backed militias comprised of members of the Hutu ethnic group massacred One million people, mostly of the Tutsi ethnic group, in 100 days. Imagine 10,000 people being butchered daily with knives, clubs and machetes! The genocide also forced 3 million Rwandans to seek refuge in neighboring countries, left 100,000 orphans and widows, and traumatized the entire population.
The causes of this genocide are rooted in Rwanda’s history. Rwanda is composed of two ethnic groups, the Hutu minority and the Tutsi majority, which share a common language and culture. These two groups had coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years prior to colonization by Belgium in the late 19th century. During the colonial period, the Belgians magnified minor differences between the two ethnic groups, and fomented tension between them.
Since Rwanda’s independence in 1962, the government had been dominated by Hutus, who persecuted the Tutsis and drove many of them into exile. At the time of the genocide, Rwanda had been embroiled in a civil war that had been launched in 1990 by exiled Tutsi refugees, led by Kagame, who wanted to return home. Hutu extremists shot down the President’s plane as he was returning from peace talks with the Tutsi guerillas. These extremists then orchestrated the ethnic cleansing mainly using Radio stations to spread anti-Tutsi propaganda. Fortunately, the Tutsi guerillas were able to launch a major offensive that defeated the Hutu army and drove them and the militias into neighboring Congo.
Last Monday, Kagame pointed out that a disturbing fact that the international community failed to intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocide. Initially, the Western media and international politicians erroneously stereotyped the genocide as centuries-old “tribal” conflict. A contingent of a few thousand United Nations peacekeeping troops had been stationed in Rwanda to observe a cease-fire between the Hutu government and the Tutsi guerillas. However, Kagame expressed frustration at the failure of these UN troops to protect the Rwandan Tutsis from the militias.
It so happens that UN field commanders in Rwanda advised their superiors in New York of the potential for genocide and appealed for more combat troops and military hardware. These pleas fell on deaf ears and the UN troops were ordered not to intervene. In another example of international indifference towards the situation in Rwanda, the Clinton Administration was reluctant to refer to the carnage as “genocide” even after the Red Cross had estimated that 500,000 had been killed.
Since taking power, the Tutsi-dominated government has been faced with the task of rebuilding a country and reconciling a population that is bitterly divided. During the past six years the government has repatriated 3 million refugees, placed most of the orphans in foster families and organized local elections. The government has also taken steps to restore a reliable judiciary that can handle the thousands of prisoners who are accused of participating in the genocide.
The current political system in Rwanda comprises of a government of national unity of both Tutsis and Hutus and a parliament consisting of all political parties in Rwanda. Kagame mentioned that a constitution is being drafted which will provide a framework for national elections in 2002. Kagame added that the economic reforms that the government has undertaken over the past 6 years have returned economic activity to pre-war levels. Kagame also pointed out that the government has taken steps to promote gender equality by, among others, promoting legislation supporting women’s rights to own and inherit property.
Despite the progress that has been made, Rwanda’s economic, political and social recovery is hampered by two obstacles. The first obstacle is security. Rwanda is involved in a war in neighboring Congo that is draining its national resources. A few months after they were driven into Congo, the militias and Hutu army regrouped in refugee camps along the border and began launching attacks into Rwanda. In response, Kagame’s troops penetrated Congo, dismantled the refugee camps and established a security zone along the border.
When the attacks continued, Rwanda backed Congolese rebels in overthrowing Mobutu, Congo’s former dictator who had supported the Hutu army. To this day, Rwandan troops are still in Congo embroiled in a war against the new government in Congo, which has armed and provided a safe-haven to the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda. The war in Congo is very complicated and has drawn in over 10 African countries. However, Kagame is one of the leaders who signed a peace agreement and he reiterated his commitment to abide by the terms of that agreement provided that the government of Congo does the same.
A second obstacle to Rwanda’s recovery is AIDS. Kagame pointed out that 11% of Rwanda’s population is infected with HIV/AIDS. During the 1994 genocide, HIV was used as a weapon in the ethnic cleansing directed towards the Tutsi population. Women were intentionally raped by men infected with the virus. Of the women raped, 60% tested positive for HIV. Rwanda is one of the three countries in Africa that has reached agreement with international pharmaceutical companies in order to have access to antiretroviral drugs, at reduced prices, so as to treat those with HIV/AIDS.
President Kagame’s military and political skills have been critical in leading Rwanda along the journey from hell to hope. These skills will be needed and tested as his challenge changes from one of restoring stability to that of establishing a sustainable strategy for the country’s future.