A Past at Rest in Rwanda

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/05/08):

It happened just 14 years ago — the slaughter of roughly a million people here in only 100 days. “More people had been killed more quickly than in any other mass killing in recorded history,” writes Martin Meredith in his book “The Fate of Africa.”

And yet today there are few visible traces of the genocide that began in April 1994. It’s not that Rwandans have forgotten, but that they seem to have willed themselves to live in the present. That makes this place feel different from other post-conflict states I know, such as Iraq and Lebanon, where the past and present are congealed in a wound that never heals.

During a week spent traveling the country, I found that Rwandans rarely brought up the events of the past. They almost never named the ethnic groups involved in the 1994 genocide — the Hutu perpetrators and the Tutsi victims. Expatriates would speak a kind of code, referring to “H’s” and “T’s.”

At the Hotel des Mille Collines, made famous by the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” you try to imagine the desperate refugees crammed together in a space that now features a fitness club and a poolside bar with live music. But here, again, the present has obliterated the past. Trying to fall asleep, you think how big the bedroom is, how many more people it could hold.

A glimpse into the horror came from a family friend, Antoine Rwego. The Rwegos were Tutsis, the tribe that was favored by the Belgian colonizers but then repressed by the Hutu majority after independence in 1962. His father was a veterinarian; his mother worked in a bank. They were part of a privileged minority, so they were targets.

Rwego remembers when the massacres began on April 7, 1994. Soldiers came looking for his father, but he was away. Rwego, then 16, escaped over the wall to the house of a Hutu neighbor who had married a Tutsi. His 12-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother were not so lucky. They were murdered by armed men who invaded the family compound. Rwego heard the screams next door, but he could do nothing.

After several days, young Rwego fled the neighborhood and miraculously found his father. They hid in another part of town until May, when someone from his old district chanced to see them. On May 16, his father was tricked out of hiding on the pretext that he was needed for a medical emergency. He never came back.

For Rwego, it was not a question of forgetting but of continuing: “Why had I remained alive? So that I should do something for others.” He got top grades in school, earned a medical degree and now is a doctor with Rwanda’s national AIDS research organization. He is a reserved, stoical man, like most Rwandans I met, but as he told this story, he brushed a tear from one eye.

If you visit the Kigali Memorial Center here, you will look into the very heart of this tragedy. The story is meticulously told: from the Belgian colonialists’ decision in the 1930s to assign Hutu and Tutsi racial identities to people who had lived together for centuries; to the rise of “Hutu Power” as a racist ideology to sustain a corrupt Rwandan elite; to the planning for genocidal killings during the early 1990s, which the West knew about but did nothing to stop; to the final result, the slaughter of men, women and children, as recorded in the tableaux of the Children’s Memorial:

“Francine Murengezi Ingabire. Age: 12. Favorite sport: Swimming. Favorite food: Eggs and chips. Favorite drink: Milk and Fanta Tropical. Best friend: Her elder sister Claudette. Cause of death: Hacked by machete.”

And yet life went on. The government of Paul Kagame, a Tutsi who led the armed revolt that ended the genocide on July 4, 1994, rules the country now with a firm hand — maintaining order here even at the occasional cost of human rights. The “genocidaires,” as they’re called, are brought to justice in a process that has included some abuses but has avoided the worst sort of revenge. Rwanda is again a bright, tidy spot in the center of Africa, and people talk of an economic boom.

As my friend Dr. Rwego says, it is a question of breaking free from your history, even when you hear in your mind the cries of your brother and sister: “To stay in the things of the past, it prevents you from changing.”