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Perspective: Rwanda, 20 years after … (w/video)

KIGALI, Rwanda

Through the dust and darkness, you see them.

The shadows of their lives — clothes, shoes and bones.

In this Catholic church off a dirt road near Rwanda's capital city, the genocide is at your feet. Your breath catches at the metal door broken down by militia forces, gut tightens at the altar with a machete still on it, eyes water at the horror of 10,000 people killed here over two days. In the pews, at the altar, running outside to escape their attackers.

Thousands came to Nyamata Church for safety in April 1994, but the Hutu and government-led militias followed.

Look closely at the skulls on display and you can see the wounds from bullets, clubs with nails, axes and machetes.

In a crypt beneath the church, bones from more than 45,000 people are buried, victims from nearby communities. Some skulls have names written on them. One says, "PATRICK 1."

Every town has a genocide memorial, graves and crosses draped in purple and white.

This week marks 20 years since the 1994 genocide and Rwanda pauses as it does every April to remember the victims.

In 100 frenetic, death-filled days, this densely populated nation lost everything.

Nearly 1 million people killed. Millions more displaced from their homes or forced to flee the country. Much of the landscape ravaged. An instant destruction of society.

Now 20 years later, a complete rebuilding.

• • •

Maybe you remember the photographs of mass graves and refugee camps. Or you saw Hotel Rwanda, and you picture Don Cheadle narrating vivid scenes of machete-wielding militias.

Rwanda's history — with no peaceful transition of government — is much more complex, stretching back through decades of ethnic conflict.

Simply put, the Tutsi minority long represented the upper class, while the majority Hutus were designated as the lower class. Under Belgian mandate, privilege divided them.

In 1959, Hutus overthrew the Tutsi king and started a decades-long rule where thousands of Tutsis were killed and many more were driven into exile in neighboring countries.

Children of those Tutsi exiles, largely in Uganda, formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1988 and started a civil war in 1990 that lasted years.

Peace accords looked promising until April 6, 1994.

That night, a rocket took down the plane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, along with the president of Burundi and others. The wreckage landed just past the gates of the presidential palace in Kigali and to this day, the blame is in dispute.

Within hours, the state-orchestrated, Hutu-led killing and raping started. First in Kigali, then fanning out to villages across Rwanda. The genocide lasted 100 days and killed nearly a million people, including three-quarters of the Tutsi minority.

World response was anemic.

The RPF, led by Tutsis who had fled to Uganda, ultimately defeated the Hutu and government militias.

In the following years, tens of thousands of Rwandans returned from other countries to help reconcile and rebuild.

• • •

Two years ago, I traveled across Rwanda with a group of journalists as part of the International Reporting Project and witnessed how under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda is fulfilling a vision of modernization through education, health care, technology and business.

A tall, thin man who speaks softly and deliberately, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front army that defeated the genocidal attackers. Educated in Uganda with a stop at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Kagame has served as president since 2000, the first Tutsi to hold the office since Rwanda became independent in 1962. He is largely credited as the force behind Rwanda's progress.

"We have one very important resource and that is our people," Kagame said in an interview. "How do we enable them, how do we facilitate them, how do we work with them, how do we work with each other to make sure the investment in our people is the right one and therefore they participate fully in this effort to move our country, their own country, to where we want to be."

Kagame's picture is all over Rwanda, a landlocked country with beautiful, mountainous landscapes — and so is his influence.

English is taught in schools because that's the language of the world. Cities and towns are clean because of bans on plastic bags, smoking in public and grass roofs. Helmets are required on mopeds, one of the primary means of transportation outside of walking.

Great strides have been made in health care, with no-nonsense Health Minister Dr. Agnes Binagwaho pushing ambitious goals to "target the most vulnerable."

The entire country is wired. Economic development is viewed as key to security.

The thinking goes: With better living standards, there will be fewer obsessions over ethnic divisions.

Outside of the cities, most Rwandans are poor. They don't have running water, electricity or much more than a mud floor in their homes.

• • •

Drive down the beautifully paved roads in Kigali — built by the French, and more recently the Chinese — and stop at the Rwanda Trading Company.

The economic growth of Rwanda is evident at this coffee company started by Americans.

"We came into it and no one in our organization knew anything about coffee," said James Dargan, who started with Rwanda Trading Company but now works in Tanzania for parent company Westrock Coffee.

Rwanda's unique climate, altitude and good soil mean all of its coffee has the ability to be high quality.

"Rwanda sits in the middle of the coffee belt, the area between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn where coffee grows," said Matt Smith, managing director of the Rwanda Trading Company. "In addition to that, it has very high altitude, which reduces the temperature near the equator and allows the coffee cherries to develop slowly, kind of like good chardonnay."

The Rwanda Trading Company has a staff of 120 working with farmers across the county in a training program that has more 8,000 participants. That translates into 20 percent market share, up from just 2 percent at the end of 2009.

The Rwanda Development Board is a key driver in economic growth that has the country on the fast track.

Created in 2008 as a way to streamline decisionmaking and bring several institutions under one roof, RDB is meant to be a one-stop shop for businesses to get started and thrive.

"We needed a champion organization," said Clare Akamanzi, chief operating officer for the RDB.

The board works with businesses in the private sector to create a "conducive business climate," she said. "Everything is a priority."

That's true for Kagame's entire government.

His Vision 2020 plan to make Rwanda a regional and global player targets all aspects of society and reflects the country's culture of measurement.

• • •

Against the development and progress, there are questions.

Is there room for political dissent or freedom of the press?

Critical reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch cite a lack of civil and political rights. Essentially, there is no political opposition. It's not allowed.

Earlier this year, one of Kagame's exiled critics was found murdered in a hotel room in Johannesburg, South Africa — not the first. Kagame's administration denies any involvement.

Opposition political members and journalists get harassed and often arrested, something a U.N. special rapporteur recently said "sends a chilling and unacceptable message that peaceful public disagreement with the government is equivalent to criminality."

"They're using the genocide as an excuse for violating human rights," said professor Timothy Longman, who directs the African Studies Center at Boston University. "That's not acceptable. Violations of human rights breed violations of human rights. The fact that the regime is still arresting critics and putting journalists on trial cannot be justified by the genocide 20 years later."

Visit a class of journalism students at a Rwanda university and you hear things like, "What if I write that story, where will I be tomorrow?" Or, "As much as I love journalism, I also fear it."

Longman describes a government that is "highly suspect of the population."

"So even though there's a veneer of democracy, there's very little real open conversation and therefore very few real consultations," he said. "The government has some great programs in health care, education and economic development, but administers them in a highly authoritarian fashion."

So is President Kagame a dictator?

One could argue Rwanda's transformation is directly a result of Kagame's long tenure as president. How do you rebuild a country without continuity, strong leadership and vision?

But that very tenure has some worried he'll go the way of many heads of state in Africa and not relinquish power.

Kagame, 56, is term-limited out of office in 2017 and says he won't move to change the Constitution and run for a third term.

"I am almost taking it to be personal with people who keep asking me are you going to change the Constitution," Kagame said in 2011. "No please, I have no business but I will be around, I will be around as a senior citizen in my country to make a contribution. I will not be around as president come 2017."

Longman says it's possible Kagame will leave office as planned but run things from the sidelines. Think Vladimir Putin, he said.

• • •

The unspeakable horror in Rwanda 20 years ago is a grim reminder, in modern times of turmoil, of what's possible.

Kagame says he doesn't think Rwanda risks a return to ethnic violence.

"The people of Rwanda, their psychology and politics have completely changed," he said. "We have been investing in all this time we have been here and by building institutions and by making sure that Rwandans are more educated about not just their issues but global issues, they understand better what life means, their own life and what generally life means. They have also interest in being like others we see elsewhere in this world. In the past we were such a closed society that these things could easily happen."

Longman, who lived in Rwanda before and after the genocide, has a different view.

"The population has been intimidated and silenced, but under the surface it's seething," he said. "This mode of rule is not sustainable in the long run."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Amy Hollyfield, the Times' assistant managing editor/politics, reported from Rwanda on a grant from the International Reporting Project. Contact her at ahollyfield@tampabay.com.

Rwanda at a glance

Area: 10,169 square miles, slightly smaller than Maryland.

Population: 12,337,138 (July 2014 est.), most densely populated country in Africa.

Median age: 18.7 years. (Only 5 percent of the population is 55 or older.)

Ethnic groups: Hutu 84 percent, Tutsi 15 percent, Twa 1 percent.

Languages: Kinyarwanda only (official) 93.2 percent; Kinyarwanda and other languages 6.2 percent; French (official) and other languages 0.1 percent; English (official) and other languages 0.1 percent.

Religion (2001): Roman Catholic 49.5 percent, Protestant 39.4 percent (includes Adventist 12.2 percent and other Protestant 27.2 percent), other Christian 4.5 percent, Muslim 1.8 percent, animist 0.1 percent, none 3.6 percent.

Infant mortality rate: 59.59 deaths/1,000 live births; country comparison to the world: 23

Life expectancy at birth (2014 est.): 59.26 years; country comparison to the world: 197

Health expenditures: 10.8 percent of GDP (2011); country comparison to the world: 17

HIV/AIDS: Adult prevalence rate is 2.9 percent (2012); country comparison to the world: 22

Literacy (age 15+): 71.1 percent

GDP per capita: $1,500 (2013 est.); country comparison to the world: 204.

Population below poverty line: 44.9 percent (2011 est.)

Sources: CIA World Factbook, Statesman's Yearbook, World Bank

Perspective: Rwanda, 20 years after … (w/video) 04/04/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 2:20pm]
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