Monday, 27 July 2009

Hotel Rwanda

[I'm back from my trip now, happy but exhausted. I'm going to cover the details over the next few posts.]

Day Two, Kigali.

In the morning, Chrissy and I went to the genocide memorial. It's a large, beautiful museum set on a hill in one of Kigali's suburbs. I wanted to see the place, not only because it's one of the few daytime activities in Kigali, but also because I'd read so much about the genocide during college.

The building itself is extremely tastefully done, no doubt generously funded by some Western country or another in a moment of intense, post-1994 guilt. The displays don't pull punches against any of the guilty parties; there's plenty of candid explanations about the Hutu architects of the killings, the role of the Belgians and French in supporting the genocide, and about the ordinary people who participated in the carnage.

The sheer scale of the killing is not what sets the Rwandan experience apart, although 10% of the national population died during that time. What I find craziest about it is the number of people who participated in the killing. Kigali in 1994 was not like the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust, with exterminations done by the military in remote places -- this was ordinary people killing their neighbors in all different parts of the city. Even today, many of the families of the victims have to live side by side with the people responsible for their deaths.

Although the musuem started out pretty factual, it built up emotionally towards the end. The last room was a display on ten-ish children who had been killed during the genocide, with pictures and descriptions about what they liked to do before they died. I kinda lost it there. I wasn't really expecting to cry, but the awfulness of the whole thing was just too much for me at that point.

At the end of the children exhibit, the museum opened up onto a garden terrace that overlooks the entire city of Kigali. I had a sense of relief when I walked out of the horrific displays and saw the new Kigali -- orderly, safe, clean -- ticking along just perfectly. But at the same time, it looked almost fake, like the past had just been brushed under the nice new Kigali. As we walked downhill from the memorial to the main road, I found it strange to see middle-aged people on the street going about their business. I just couldn't stop wondering how many of those people killed -- or helped to kill -- an innocent person during the genocide.

On the way back to Chris' house, my moto-taxi stopped at a red light for a few minutes. In front of us was a pickup truck full of soldiers and prisoners in pink outfits. The pink suits are used to identify Rwandans who have been convicted of genocide crimes. Because the sheer number of people who committed crimes is so high and prison resources so strained, the government assigns them to public-works projects throughout the city. This group looked like they were going to do some digging or street cleaning.

Like many other East Africans who run into a mzungu on the street, the pink-shirted guys were motioning at me and trying to get me to strike up a conversation. But unlike most East Africans, these guys had almost certainly tried to kill innocent people in cold blood. I couldn't have smiled back at them even if I wanted to -- it just felt so unfair that the genocidaires were living out relatively painless punishments while the people they killed or maimed get nothing.

If running into genocidaires was tough for me, I can imagine how difficult that legacy is for Rwandans. Although there is a lot of discussion and controversy over both the reconciliation process and Rwanda's development path, the man at the heart of it all is certainly Paul Kagame. Kagame was originally the leader of the anti-genocidaire, Tutsi-dominated RPF rebels who restored peace to the country and ended the massacres in 1994. While there have been a few elections since that time, he's been in power for the past fifteen years.

Later in the day, I got to listen to the perspectives of two successful, pro-Kagame Rwandans who believe that the country is on the right track. The first was from Patrick, a friend of Chrissy's who has worked extensively in both military and civil roles in the Kagame regime, as well as in non-government position. Patrick acknowledged that the President had done a lot for the country in the economic sector, but he pointed out that Kagame had really secured national peace by offering a de facto olive branch to the country's Hutu majority. Even people who had participated on interahamwe killing squads before the RPF victory ended up supporting Kagame because, well, he didn't order them killed even though he could have. At Patrick's place, we watched a good (although not very hard-hitting) interview of Kagame by Fareed Zakaria:

The second pro-regime view came from Jeff, one of my business partners and the CEO of a Kigali-based startup. He pointed out that lasting peace between the ethnic groups would only really be possible when the country was growing and prosperous enough to provide reasonable jobs to most of the young men. His idea is very plausible, and similar to the argument that widespread unemployment and hopelessness among youth in many Muslim countries leads to easy recruiting by al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. As a businessman, Jeff felt that the government's ability to attract foreign direct investment and promote economic growth was the greatest thing it could do for the country -- in Kigali at least.

Although the current regime remains overwhelmingly popular among Rwandans, it has come under attack from many groups abroad. Kagame and his former military allies have been accused of war crimes themselves, and have been indicted in Spanish and French courts, as well as criticized by certain members of the human-rights community:

Even Kagame's supporters concede that the country is profoundly lacking in press freedoms and freedom of expression. As in many other countries, earlier jailings and harassment of anti-government press have led to widespread self-censorship by locally based media. Reporters Sans Frontieres, for instance, doesn't have great things to say about the matter:,20737.html

Despite the obvious shortcomings of Rwanda's current path, I tend to think that the Kagame regime does more good than harm, at least in the short term. It has prevented further civilian killings, led a relatively successful reconciliation process that avoids further violence, and created a stable and growing economy with some foreign investment. All of these things are improvements -- surprising successes, even -- given the shattered state of Rwanda in 1994-5. The smoothly-running capital, the growing industrial base, and even the high prices suggest that things are on the right track, at least economically.

In the long run, however, I think that the lack of political freedoms and a viable opposition will become a major problem for the country, as they have for many other African countries. After all, when Mugabe first came to power in the Breadbasket of Africa, the world was thrilled to see substantial reform and growth; they simply turned a blind eye to the leader's lack of respect for civil liberties and his willingless to silence his opposition. You only need to look at Zimbabwe today -- hyperinflation, civilian killings, mass starvation -- to know how that one turned out. I hope that Kigali's upward trajectory will give its citizens the confidence to demand for political freedoms as well as increased prosperity.

That was Rwanda -- a little more than I planned to write. Next up, Burundi.

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