Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Post-Genocide Rwanda Seeks Development, Legitimacy 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  August 14 / 10

Zack Gross

For “light” summer reading in July, your correspondent chose the 600-page A Problem From Hell: America And The Age Of Genocide, a look at genocide in the 20th century written by Pulitzer Prize-winner journalist and professor Samantha Power. 

I was spurred on in this disturbing quest by two of my children visiting Rwanda this summer and because one of them is developing a course on genocide to teach in his high school social studies program.

Sixteen years after the tragedy of genocide in Rwanda, that East Central African country has just held its second democratic national election and has shown marked improvement in its economic prospects. 

At the same time, despite growth in exports, resource development, tourism and in the earning power of its citizens, tensions continue between ethnic groups, poverty remains a reality for almost half of its citizens, and accusations abound about its President’s strong governing style.

Canadians might best recognize Rwanda thanks to Romeo Dallaire’s book and the follow-up movie Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, about his experience of unsuccessfully trying to stop the slaughter of moderate Hutus and all Tutsis by militant Hutus.  Dallaire was in charge of a small 500-person United Nations peacekeeping force that was stationed in the Rwandan capital of Kigale in April of 1994. 

When the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were shot down while flying back from a failed peace conference with Tutsi rebels, a pre-planned genocidal campaign was launched that, over three months, took the lives of at least 800,000 innocent people who were shot, hacked, burned and blown up.

Because the world community (the UN, the US, Europe) refused to strengthen Dallaire’s force and change his orders to be more aggressive in defending Tutsis, only the final victory of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), led by current President Paul Kagame, in July of that year brought the rampage to an end.  All in all, hundreds of thousands of refugees were created, many also died of cholera in refugee camps (both Hutu and Tutsi), many orphans were left behind, and the country was devastated. 

On the 15th anniversary of the genocide, U.S. President Obama said: “The deaths of 800,000 people is so daunting, it risks becoming just a statistic.  It must be remembered that every one of those people who died had their own story, their own family, and their own dreams." 

Former U.S. President Clinton describes the lack of US action against the genocide as one of his administration’s worst mistakes.  Dallaire lost his UN job when he refused to back down from his outspokenness about the complicity of the international community.  He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and is now a Canadian Senator and continues his campaign to aid Rwanda and its victims.

Since that time, RPF leader Kagame, who was Vice-President until 2000 and has been President since, has worked to make over Rwanda, combining strong government with massive aid programs, attracting foreign investment, modernization of infrastructure (roads, phone lines, hotels) to bring in tourism, and promotion of homogeneity between Hutu and Tutsi.

As examples, the US firm ContourGlobal is building one of the world’s largest methane extractors at Lake Kivu.  Meanwhile, China has built a huge embassy in Kigali, and Korea Telecom is providing wireless broadband across the country.  Costco and Starbucks are buying up most of the coffee production, Rwanda’s largest agricultural export crop, and marketing it aggressively in North America and around the world. 

The face that Rwanda wants to show to the world is of a progressive, modernizing country seeking to join middle-income status nations such as Brazil and Thailand by 2020, having reconciled their internal differences, no longer needing international aid, and attracting business and tourism. 

To achieve this, they will have to gain the support of both Hutu and Tutsi, they will have to bring down a high birth rate while raising rural people up from abject underdevelopment and poverty, and they will have to profit by their mineral resources (gold and coltan) whereas neighbouring countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo have had their wealth become a source of corruption and civil war.

They will also have to prove that Kagame is truly a peaceful democratic leader.  Although a strong hand at the helm has been accepted by business, the World Bank, and even moderate Hutus, criticism has grown that access to government is impossible unless as part of his political party or related groups. 

With its national election having been held this past week on Monday, August 9th, returning Kagame to power for seven more years before he must resign, the recent murders of opposition politicians and journalists have stirred the controversy further.

My children describe Rwanda as a beautiful country, hilly, green, with a moderate climate.  They enjoyed the friendly atmosphere of the capital, Kigali, as well as their trek to see the mountain gorillas on the border with Congo.  They also found it “surreal” to visit, and have a cup of coffee at, sites of the slaughter, such as the Mille Collines (Thousand Hills), the subject of the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda” about the genocide.  These are now places of peace, and long may they remain so.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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