Twenty years after the end of a genocidal regime, Rwandans are still trying to come to terms with the destruction of their world.
KIGALI, Rwanda — During my travels in Rwanda over the past week, my guide Hyppolite has become a friend. He’s a sharp-minded 27-year-old with an engaging smile who bombards me with questions about everything from smart cards to China’s rise. This fall he’s starting work on a master’s degree at a British university — not bad for someone who remembers spending much of his childhood gathering firewood for the family cooking stove.
Rwanda has some remarkable wildlife, and the other day I happened to see a particularly interesting bird, which I pointed out. Hyppolite shook his head. "I don’t like animals," he said. Fair enough. But he was emphatic about it. He has his reasons.
In April 1994, they came for Hyppolite and his family. The killers were armed with machetes and spears; some of them were neighbors. Hyppolite, at age 7, was the youngest member of his family, which included five sisters and one brother. On April 6, his parents heard the news of the death of Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana. His plane was shot down by unknown assailants as it approached the airport in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. A network of ultranationalist politicians from the country’s majority Hutu ethnic group immediately seized upon the president’s assassination to unleash a campaign of slaughter against the minority Tutsis. (Many of those first killed, in the early hours of April 7, included moderate Hutus who were viewed by Hutu radicals as traitors to their own ethnicity.) The Hutu Power movement cast Tutsis as an alien race determined to claim Rwanda for themselves. The only viable response, these extremists declared, was to launch a "final solution" that would "cleanse" Rwanda of their enemies forever.
Hyppolite and his family were Tutsis. Hearing the news of the president’s death, Hyppolite’s parents immediately knew that their lives were in danger. They fled their house and sought refuge in a nearby church. But the hope of safety proved illusory: The church was attacked. Hyppolite and his father escaped. But when they heard a group of pro-government militiamen approaching, they dove for cover in bushes at the side of the road. Hyppolite managed to keep quiet. "But my father had a cold. He coughed; he couldn’t help it. The militia pulled him out and killed him right there." He waited until the murderers left, then emerged from his hiding place. "And when I came out, I saw that the dogs were eating my father’s body."
Hyppolite, dazed and starving, managed to hide in the woods until the killing stopped, occasionally emerging to scavenge for food; sometimes he slept in the ruins of his family’s house, the one place, he correctly guessed, where no one would be looking for people to kill. Somehow he remained alive.
A few years later his older brother decided to get a dog as a pet. "I couldn’t stand it," Hyppolite said. "All I could think of was the dogs who had fed on my father. So I waited until my brother left the house one day. Then I took the dog into the forest and I killed it. I found some sticks and I beat it to death."
These days, so many years later, he says that he can finally look at dogs without feeling that same desire for revenge. Though many members of his extended family fell victim to the genocide, his mother and his siblings managed to survive, so he has that to be thankful for. He has moved on, at least on some level. Now, he says, he can at least live like a normal human being; when you see him flash one of his dazzling smiles, you’re hard-pressed to imagine what he’s been through. But he admits that the shadow of those experiences still lies across his soul, and will probably never go away entirely.
It’s a shadow that still lies over his country as well. It could hardly be otherwise. By the time they were stopped, the génocidaires had succeeded in wiping out something close to 1 million Rwandans, using guns, grenades, machetes, homemade bamboo spears, and bare hands. The killing wasn’t an expression of some "ancient ethnic hatred" dating back centuries. Violence between Hutus and Tutsis only really started in the second half of the 20th century, a product of warped racial ideas implanted by Rwanda’s Belgian colonizers and aggravated by scheming Rwandan politicians who sought to use ethnic hatred to keep themselves in power. What Rwanda does have is a long-established tradition of clearly defined hierarchies, tightly organized government, and people who are accustomed to obeying their leaders. The killers used their control of the state apparatus and media to make their plans a reality. The rest of the world stood by and watched.
This week Rwanda is marking an important anniversary. Twenty years ago, on July 4, 1994, the rebels of the mostly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who had launched a desperate offensive from their bases in the country’s north as soon as news of the slaughter broke, finally occupied Kigali, bringing the 100 days of the genocide to an end. (The photo above shows a distraught woman being carried out of a ceremony commemorating the genocide in Kigali in April.)
When the rebels marched into the capital they confronted not only mountains of corpses but also absolute devastation. The Hutu extremists and what was left of their government had fled — but before they left they cut water lines, destroyed power plants, and robbed whatever they could take along, from cars to light bulbs. The new RPF government convened in ministries where the only furniture consisted of beer crates. As Phillip Gourevitch relates in his remarkable account of the genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the advancing RPF soldiers shot every dog they saw along the way — for the same reasons that inspired my friend’s peculiar act of revenge. (As Gourevitch tells it, one British medical relief worker took the opportunity to scold them for their cruelty to animals.)
Today Rwanda is a radically different place. The man who led the RPF to victory, Paul Kagame, is president, presiding over a government that combines equal measures of competence and ruthlessness. Rwanda in 2014 is a place of smoothly surfaced roads and increasingly modern infrastructure. Fully 98 percent of the country’s citizens are covered by a national health care program; huge strides have been made in combating HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Economic growth is strong. The government says that GDP has been expanding at roughly 8 percent annually over the past few years. Though many Rwandans still struggle to get by, Kagame’s government gets stellar ratings from the international aid community for its poverty reduction efforts, including the "one cow per family" program, which has buoyed up the poorest of the poor by providing them with livestock. Underlying all of these successes is a strict anti-corruption policy that has borne visible fruit. Even Rwanda’s harshest critics concede that the country’s policemen rarely take bribes.
And critics there are. They assail the government for its cowing of the media and its lack of tolerance for dissent; opponents of the government have an alarming tendency to disappear or turn up dead. Rwandans know that expressing negative opinions about Kagame, the centerpiece of a strictly organized one-party state dominated by the army and intelligence services, is likely to end badly. "People are afraid to say what they think," one Rwandan told me. "This is a place of many secrets."
In many ways, nonetheless, Rwanda’s post-genocide story is largely a positive one. The signs of material progress are ubiquitous; other African leaders speak of emulating Rwanda’s model. Despite the weight of its past and its extremely limited resources, the country has made remarkable progress toward domestic stability. Like Hyppolite, many Rwandans are moving forward, eager to embrace what life has to offer.
Yet you don’t have to look hard to find the darkness. Hints of it are everywhere. Twenty years is not that long.