Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rwanda, Ten Years Later: Justice Is Elusive, Despite Peace

Every time I visited Rwanda after the 1994 genocide—during my years as a reporter covering Africa—it was like entering a world askew from the verve and vim of the rest of the continent.

At the airport the cab drivers never hustled me for my business. On the road into Kigali, the capital, there never seemed to be any traffic. I rarely heard music playing. The place always seemed eerily quiet, reserved, almost lethargic

How could this be the country where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during a hundred-day spasm of ethnic slaughter ten years ago?

The genocide was ignited by the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above the Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. Soon, the streets filled with murderous Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe, or "those who work together."

Spurred on by furious calls for blood by extremist politicians and a popular radio station, the militiamen first killed the Tutsi business and political elite before turning to ordinary Tutsi citizens.

In weeks the slaughter had spread to much of the Rwandan countryside. Local officials ordered Hutu peasants to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Those Hutus who refused were murdered themselves. At its peak, the genocide claimed 8,000 lives per day, a rate far faster than the Holocaust.

Far from being an impulsive outburst of ancient tribal animosity, the genocide was in fact precisely planned and executed by one of the most authoritarian states in Africa.

Today, exactly ten years after the start of the genocide, Rwanda is remarkably at peace. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front—the former rebels who toppled the genocidal regime—has worked hard on abolishing ethnic divisions.

But peace has come at a price. President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, rules Rwanda with an iron fist. Critics charge there is no freedom of press or association. Opposition parties have been outlawed. Such is Rwanda's irony: Just as the genocide was made possible because of the government's absolute authority over its citizenry, so is peace maintained today.

Colonial Science

I was never in Rwanda during the genocide. But I spent the summer of 1996 during the war in neighboring Burundi, a country with an almost identical ethnic makeup as Rwanda—roughly 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis—and its own ghastly history of ethnic violence.

As an outsider, it's always been difficult to explain or understand the ethnic strife in these tiny central African nations. Hutus and Tutsis are very similar: They speak the same language and share the same culture. But the main cause of the conflict can be traced back to European colonialism.

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