Letter from Rwanda: after the killings

April 19 2004 / New Statesman

It is very early in the morning, the sun is rising above the eastern hills of Kigali after a night of unceasing rain. Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, his small team of advisers and I are at the airport waiting to see if we will be allowed, on our way to Kinshasa, to stop off in Bukavu, just over the border from Rwanda in eastern Congo. Unresolved negotiations had been taking place for much of the previous day and long into the night between the British ambassador in Kigali and representatives of the transitional national government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a failed state.

Because Britain is investing in the reconstruction of the DRC, Benn, as much of a liberal interventionist as his Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is determined to visit Bukavu. Before meeting President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, he wants to find out from local people in the troubled east of the country, as well as from the United Nations soldiers based at Adikivu camp, about life under the transitional government. President Kabila wants the secretary of state to fly directly to Kinshasa. “I think it’s a question of protocol,” Benn says, as we climb aboard the six-seater jet that will carry us across the vast jungle nation that is the Congo. Either that, or Kabila recognises a meddling Blairite when he sees one.

Eastern Congo was the site of repeated cross-border raids from Rwandan and Ugandan troops during the second Congo war, in 1998, in which the former Zaire was invaded by six different African countries and more than three million people were killed. It is, like much of the country itself, only tangentially under the control of the transitional government. A decade after the end of the genocide in Rwanda, the murderous Interahamwe still roam the thick forests of the region, terrorising remote villages. The Banyamulenge (second- and third-generation Tutsis living in eastern Congo) remain more aligned to Rwanda than to the so-called national government in distant Kinshasa. In truth the entire region is less part of a homogeneous nation than a collapsing pseudo-state: different towns and villages are under the control of different ethnic groupings or rival militias and, long after the war officially ended, the battle for mineral resources goes on. So, remorselessly, does the killing.

Since Labour returned to power and established the Department for International Development, there has been a concerted attempt to link the delivery of aid more directly to issues of peace and stability. Without peace in collapsed states such as Rwanda and the Congo, there can, so the argument goes, be no true development. This explains why Hilary Benn has been travelling through the Great Lakes Region in search of political solutions to entrenched problems (before Rwanda and the DRC, he was in northern Uganda, meeting families displaced in the war between the Ugandan state and the nihilistic Lord’s Resistance Army).

Yet how much of Labour policy is the result of hard-headed realism and how much the result of emotionalism and guilt? Before travelling to the Congo with Hilary Benn, I spent just under a week in Rwanda, my visit coinciding with the tenth-anniversary commemorations of the genocide. Britain is the single largest bilateral donor to Rwanda—this year we will give [pounds sterling]42m in aid to the world’s tenth-poorest country, a country with which we have no former colonial ties and where we only recently opened an embassy. It is hard not to be cynical about such belated generosity and to conclude that it must have something to do with the failure of Britain and other powerful nations to intervene in 1994 (as they would later do in Kosovo) to prevent the killing of more than one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. It is hard, too, not to wonder why impoverished Burundi, which has the same uneasy ethnic balance as neighbouring Rwanda and has witnessed state-driven massacres of both Tutsis and Hutus over the past three decades, will this year receive only [pounds sterling]7m in British aid.

When I asked Benn about this, he spoke of the desire of the government “to do good”; then he retreated into abstraction and rehearsed generalisation. Later, however, he returned to the subject of Burundi. “We have a small presence there,” he said, as we shared tea and toast in the garden of the British ambassador’s residence in Kinshasa. “But the honest answer is that we can’t do everything everywhere ... What we can do, and must do, is to work as part of the international system ... and to encourage African initiatives and organisations such as the African Union, which is active in Burundi.”

At moments of apparent stress, this likeable, sharp-featured son of Wedgwood can look and sound uncannily like his more famous father, Tony Benn, with whom he shares the same sincerity and commitment, if not the overt left-wing politics. He gives the impression, or so I would like to think, of conducting a kind of anguished inner dialogue with his father; he must be never free from the sound of two fervent, evangelical voices, those of Benn and Blair, each tugging him in different directions.

On my first evening in Rwanda I made a mistake. I attempted to speak to my driver in French. My French is, at best, faltering, so I was not surprised when he answered me in English. “I do not speak French,” he said. He was, I guessed, one of the many anglophone Tutsis whose families fled the country in 1959 following a Belgian-inspired Hutu revolt. The children of these displaced Tutsis grew up in refugee camps in southern Uganda, Tanzania, Congo and in Burundi. They were born outside Rwanda but longed to return to the country they called home. Eventually, hundreds of thousands did so, but only once the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by the guerrilla fighter Paul Kagame, had seized power at the end of the killing frenzy of 1994.

I made my second mistake by asking my driver if he was a Tutsi or Hutu. After a long pause, he explained that he did not know if he was a Tutsi or Hutu; all he knew was that he was Rwandan, and that was all that mattered. This would become a familiar refrain during my time in a country that is at once in flight from and in thrall to the recent past.

Rwanda has a long history of authoritarianism and has never been truly democratic. This former mountain kingdom was, for many centuries, what Ryszard Kapuscinski calls a closed state. “The Banyarwanda initiated no conquests,” he writes in The Shadow of the Sun,” and, like the Japanese at one time, they did not allow foreigners into their territory.” It was not until 1894 that Rwanda received its first European.

Today the control of Kagame’s RPF is as total as it was under the old pre-colonial Tutsi monarchy, and the country operates as a quasi-police state. But unlike the Hutu supremacist Juvenal Habyarimana, the former president who died when his plane was shot down on the night of 6 April 1994, precipitating a greater, more sustained and mass murder, Kagame preaches only ethnic unity and reconciliation. He preaches it so vigorously, and through every mechanism of public communication, that his people obediently preach the same message, too. I did not meet a single Tutsi survivor who did not profess to forgive the Hutu killers who are now slowly being reintegrated into civilian life.

It is easy to distinguish these killers, these perpetrators of genocide, for they must wear their pink prison shirts even as they return on community service to their home towns and villages. When I visited Butare, Rwanda’s second city, in the far south, these pink-shirted men were everywhere: on bicycles, riding in the backs of trucks, on street corners. Yet no one looked at them. No one shunned or abused them. They were simply allowed to be.

Kigali is, at least to the unknowing visitor, an extraordinarily serene city. It is a place of hills and lush, green vegetation, safe and calm. Travelling through the city, and in the mountainous, densely populated surrounding countryside, it seems inconceivable that such trauma and suffering could have taken place here so recently. But you do not have to search too hard to find reminders of this suffering: you need only look out the window of your car at the innumerable roadside graves and memorials, or move among the local population, who will lead you to children orphaned in the killing or to widows who were raped and infected with Aids, and who are now dying painfully.

Yet this is a remarkably resilient population. How else to explain the will to continue and the desire to forgive? How else to explain the reconstruction of a country in which most of its professional class were murdered and its infrastructure destroyed?

In Butare, I met Gemima Mukashyaka. She is 25 years old, a Tutsi. During what she calls the war her father, her mother and several of her sisters were murdered, either shot or slashed with machetes. She survived only through being taken as a “wife” by one of the Interaham we killers, perhaps one of the men who murdered her family. “I wanted to be a doctor,” she told me, speaking through a translator, “but the war destroyed my education.”

Gemima is a subsistence coffee farmer, one of 350 members of the Abahuzamugambi ba Kawa co-operative, which is supported by the London-based company Union Coffee Roasters. Each morning she works between 7 am and 11am on her plot, a thin-soiled patch on a hillside outside Butare. She then breaks for lunch and to clean her small house, where she lives alone without electricity. She returns in the evening to plant crops. She earns 70,000 Rwandan francs per year (about [pounds sterling]70). “I enjoy working on the land,” she said, “but farming is a last resort. If I had a chance to continue my education, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Gemima was raped repeatedly by the Interahamwe. In a way, she was lucky: she survived and she does not have Aids. “What happened was terrible,” she said. “But many of the killers have repented. They are genuinely sorry. We should forgive them for what happened. I feel what is happening through gacaca [the system of local tribunals through which the killers are tried and forgiven] is something good.”

Gemima speaks openly, honestly, but without animation. She is a beautiful young woman, slim and soft-featured, but there is intense sadness in her eyes, a sadness that cannot be disguised by her well-chosen words.

In Gisozi, a suburb of Kigali, there is a memorial site, a recently constructed museum of remembrance and education centre, water gardens and mass graves. The site was paid for and constructed by Aegis, a Nottingham-based genocide trust that is run by two brothers, Stephen and James Smith. The Smiths had no special connection to Rwanda, or indeed to Africa, but they were moved by the plight of Rwandans and felt compelled to act. In association with the Kagame government, they have worked tirelessly to establish two sites of “remembrance and civic education”, in Gisozi and at Murambi, in eastern Rwanda, where 50,000 people were massacred.

On the morning of 7 April, a ceremony of remembrance was held at the Gisozi monument, attended by many African leaders. The event was solemn and dignified, but overwhelmed by oppressive security and posturing. At times, it was as if the various African leaders, speeding across town in their dark-windowed limousines, and flanked by outriders, were competing to see whose arrival would be the most ostentatious. All of this had a curious hierarchy of its own: the most powerful of the leaders, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, inevitably arrived last, about 90 minutes after Paul Kagame.

Later, once Kagame had lit an eternal flame of remembrance, and the leaders had departed in their limousines, something extraordinary happened in Gisozi: thousands of people who had been watching events from a wary distance suddenly came down from the surrounding hillsides, or up from their homes below, and streamed past the security guards on the gate and into the site. There they gathered in silent tribute alongside the mass graves.

Something similarly spontaneous happened later that afternoon during the main ceremony at the national stadium. Before Kagame made his widely criticised speech, in which he rightly condemned the French for their support of the Hutu dictatorship of Habyarimana and for their complicity in genocide, several survivors gave their testimonies. The testimonies were interrupted by sounds of uncontrolled weeping and screaming from parts of the crowd. It was as if many of these Rwandans, several of whom were carried out after fainting, could no longer bear to contemplate the memory of what had happened, as if what had happened ten years earlier was not the promised end, but the mere image of that horror—a horror from which they would never be free.

Earlier that morning, in Gisozi, I had met Fergal Keane, the BBC journalist. Keane, the author of Season of Blood, a fine book about the genocide, was despondent about prospects for democracy in Rwanda. Like many western reporters, he thought that Kagame was corrupt and that, under him, the country was being run by a clique of Ugandan Tutsis, with whom Kagame had grown up and once fought alongside. “Kagame has no ethnic agenda,” Keane told me. “It’s simply about power—about holding on to power. He’s a Leninist of the kind not seen by Africa before. But you cannot ignore 85 per cent of the population. His hold on power will be secure for ten, perhaps for 20 years, but the real trouble will come when the second generation of post-genocide Hutus emerge from the universities ...”

When I later mentioned these remarks to Hilary Benn, he said: “Good progress is being made here in Rwanda. The elections took place. They were not perfect, but they took place. And one cannot overestimate the impact of the genocide on this country, the trauma of what happened. I agree that there needs to be an opening up of the political space in Rwanda, but I understand why people might be fearful about what might flow into that political space if it is opened up too quickly.”

Benn, I think, is right, and Fergal Keane is, for once, wrong. The austere and ascetic Kagame may be an autocrat; his Tutsi-led RPF troops may have committed atrocities of their own, against retreating Hutus in 1994 and during the two Congo wars; and the country he leads may not be free in any recognisable western sense. But he is the right leader at the right time, the first Rwandan president to abolish the ethnic divisions institutionalised by the loathed Belgian colonialists. Surely, too, the last thing this traumatised nation requires right now is free markets, an open society and robust democratic pluralism. What it needs, rather, is stability and a period of benign authoritarianism—and it needs its new friends, donor countries such as Britain, to monitor its progress and ensure development money is being spent wisely. Above all, this aid-dependent country of eight million people and of scant natural resources and even less land needs never to feel abandoned again, especially when, in the years ahead, the population continues to grow, claustrophobia intensifies and the old tensions return.