The grass-verged roads of Kigali, Rwanda’s largest city and capital, are full of motorbike taxis carrying young people to work.
When night falls, even women feel safe walking alone. It’s hard to believe that these same streets were once stained with blood.
Dogs gorged themselves on human corpses, while the world looked on in horror – and shame – having failed to intervene in the swiftest and most brutal genocide in human history.
On 6 April 1994, Hutu extremists in the government and armed forces enacted carefully laid plans to exterminate the Tutsi ethnic minority.
Within 100 days, up to one million Tutsi and moderate Hutus had been murdered; bludgeoned, hacked, burned, shot or blown to pieces. Friday is Rwanda’s genocide memorial day.
President Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi rebel leader who ended the slaughter, will lead proceedings. As usual there will be three months’ official mourning to ensure Rwandans never forget.
Peace at a price
Last month, Kagame triumphantly hosted the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, secure in the knowledge that he has turned a charnel house into the region’s most secure and stable country.
Human rights groups argue that there is a cost: Rwanda’s political opposition has been neutered, its media cowed and that free speech is at a premium. But do most Rwandans care? Is Kagame the acceptable or even, given what’s gone on before, necessary face of dictatorship?
The president, whose family fled to Uganda in 1959 after an earlier pogrom, went on to lead the exiled Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
His ability to liberate the country in 1994 from Hutu extremists, when he had a much smaller, less well equipped force, has earned him a reputation as a military tactician of some genius.
The real debate surrounds his political methods. Securing hell Jonathan Zaragoza, 33, a Spanish academic and refugee specialist, now working in the Rwandan charity sector, says what Kagame has achieved is, in many ways, remarkable.
“He’s turned Hell into a place that is relatively secure, with good economic growth and jobs. You hear differing reports, but health provision is much better. He’s been particularly good with women. No other country in Africa has so many women in parliament.”
Richard Nijimbere, 37, country director of Maison Shalom, which helps Burundian Refugees in Rwanda with the backing of the Rwandan government, says that after Kagame came to power, there was the impression that Tutsi were helping themselves to the top jobs. “But he did step in to stop that.”
He added that Rwanda society has changed: “I think that for younger Rwandans, ethnicity is not much of an issue. Younger people will say, ‘oh, it’s just you older people going on about the same old things’”.
Kagame wants to consign the dubious Tutsi/Hutu ethnic divide to the dustbin of history. The distinction may have originated in socio-economic differences.
The supposed racial divide can be traced to the toxic intervention of Belgian colonists.
The European occupiers, having initially favoured the taller Tutsi for their “racial superiority”, engineered the backlash against them once they starting showing an interest in independence.
By 1960, Rwanda’s Belgian rulers were telling the Hutu majority that Tutsis were in fact, alien interlopers.
The colonists had also introduced, in 1933, identity cards that marked Rwandans’ ethnic identity – thus facilitating the slaughter of Tutsis at roadblocks set up by the Hutu genocidaires 61 years later.
So how did Rwanda rise from the absolute depths (with almost a third of its population killed, disabled or displaced in three months) to become the “Switzerland of central Africa” in just 24 years?
The commitment and determination of Kagame and those around him must get most of the credit. Officials and NGO workers in Rwanda talk of two key strategies in Kagame’s post-genocide reconstruction.
One is that Rwanda tells NGOs what needs to be done, and not the other way around. And two, rather more nefariously, it’s believed that Rwanda has continued to leech wealth from mineral–rich Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, the tortured non-state, to the north and west.
“Uganda and other countries in the region are doing it too. But at least it looks like the Kagame government is not using the money to build palaces, but to build health centres and schools,” said a source.
Rwanda ranked number 48 in the latest Transparency International world graft index, just behind Malta and ahead of Italy and Greece.
This is an almost shocking lack of corruption compared with its neighbours, Burundi, Uganda and DRC, which all languish below 150. “Political development has yet to come,” said Mr Zaragoza.
“You have to look where Rwanda’s come from though; it’s surrounded by DRC and Burundi and Uganda. But I think political change will come in the next five to ten years.”
Other voices remain critical of Kagame and his reluctance to relinquish power. In October 2015, he played the old dictator’s trick of doctoring the constitution in order to stand for a third time.
In last October’s poll he recorded his best-ever result – 98.63 per cent of the vote, despite the participation of two opposition candidates.
Ahead of the election, Amnesty International said that “decades of attacks on the political opposition, independent media and human rights defenders have created a climate of fear in Rwanda”.
Critics fear oppression will simply put a lid on problems and cause future grief.
Adopted from inews.co.uk