Today is National Genocide Day in Rwanda, marking the 16th anniversary of the start of the genocide that claimed nearly a million lives out of a population of 8 million people. I happen to be in Rwanda, and took a drive this morning out to the Ntarama Genocide Museum, about 20 miles outside the capital Kigali. The road to Ntarama is an immaculate, two lane highway, constructed just a few years ago. As it winds gently up into the lush hills overlooking Kigali, it passes through the bustling suburb of Kicukiro, where newly prosperous Rwandans have built large white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs, terraces, balconies, and satellite dishes. A banner proudly advertises the Kicukiro College of Technology.
Risen from the ashes of genocide, Rwanda is in many ways an African success story. President Paul Kagame, the Tutsi leader who defeated the genocidal Hutu extremists in July 1994 and has served as Rwanda's president since 2000, runs a tight ship. A poster at the airport warns arriving visitors that the country has outlawed plastic bags: it is better for the environment and helps keep the streets clean. Indeed it does - there is little of the trash on the streets of Kigali that is ubiquitous in other poor cities. Under Kagame's undeniably strong but technocratic hand, Rwanda has enjoyed robust economic growth since the dark days of genocide. In the past decade and a half, per capita GDP has nearly tripled, admittedly from a desperately low base.
The country has clearly benefited from foreign assistance--on the road to Ntarama, signs announce projects of all sorts by various NGOs and multilateral agencies. Foreign aid accounts for about half of the Rwandan budget. But the government is determined to wean itself from aid dependence. Kagame has increased tax collection and pushed privatization and investment. In 2009, Rwanda signed its largest deal yet--a $325 million contract with the energy and power company ContourGlobal to produce 100 megawatts of electricity from methane stored under Lake Kivu. Investors are also interested in Rwanda's rich mineral deposits such as coltan and gold. The Chinese have built an embassy in Kigali noticeably larger than any other in town. Meanwhile, Kagame's government is desperately trying to improve infrastructure, which was essentially non-existent at the end of the genocide. Today, wireless is readily available throughout Kigali; my cell phone works better in the Rwandan countryside than in many New York suburbs; billboards in town advertise internet banking; paved roads traverse the countryside.
As our car speeds along the road to Ntarama, we pass through banana groves and other well tended fields. Past Kicukiro, towns are few and the neat brick houses give way to mud-walled huts with straw or corrugated metal roofs. I see no more than half a dozen other cars on the road, but hundreds of people walking or biking, carrying unbelievable loads on their heads and backs--yellow water jugs, bundles of kindling wood, newly threshed reeds, children.
I ask my driver, Allen, a Tutsi, about Hutu-Tutsi relations in Rwanda today. He immediately gives me the party line: "That is all behind us. Today, we are all Rwandans." Alongside the road, on the edge of a banana grove, I notice government soldiers toting machine guns, interspersed among the trees. Why are they there, I wonder? My driver tells me that today, especially, it is dangerous. "There are many people still with hate in their hearts, and other people who cannot forgive."
Kagame launched a process of "reconciliation" which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Hutu perpetrators of the genocide now living among Tutsi survivors. In return for admitting their guilt and renouncing their ways, the génocidaires have been released from prison and sent home to live among the relatives of those they killed. When I ask Rwandans what they think of this reconciliation, most give me a pained look, but say that there is no other way.
The Ntarama Genocide Museum is about a mile off the highway, up a red dirt road that has been carefully graded. On the right, a cluster of houses is discernable in the fields, built by the Rwanda Red Cross to house orphans after the genocide. On the left is the museum, a simple brick church set among flower beds. In 1994, thousands of Tutsis from the area fled to the church, thinking it provided a safe haven from the carnage around them. Instead, the Hutu militia surrounded the church, flung grenades through the small windows, and hacked to death their Tutsi neighbors cowering inside. A metal rack in the back of the church holds hundreds of skulls, each with a jagged crack across the top marking the work of machetes. Some of the skulls are tiny - no bigger than an orange. The walls of the church are lined with ragged, bloody clothes peeled long ago from the victims and now slowly disintegrating in the musty air. Next to the altar is a table with the instruments of death - rusty knives and machetes. The woman showing me around, tall with long tight braids pulled into a pony tail, has a wool scarf wrapped around her neck even though it is a hot, muggy day. Her cell phone rings and I hear her ring tone's refrain: "Never again, never again."
When I sign the guest book, I notice that only five or six people a day visit the museum, and most are foreigners from Europe and the United States. Even on this anniversary day, I am the only visitor there. Back in the car, I ask Allen if Hutus would ever visit one of the country's many genocide memorials. He shakes his head emphatically no. "Hutus and Tutsis do not like to mix," he tells me. "If I go into a bar and see Hutus, I will leave. I do not feel safe among them." One policy Kagame put in place after the genocide was to remove any indication of Hutu or Tutsi from national identity cards, but as Allen's words reveal, they still know who is who. Today, I am told again and again that "we are all Rwandans." Kagame himself insists that he measures his own success by whether Rwandans view him as a Tutsi leader, or a Rwandan leader. Many Hutus do seem to support Kagame, perhaps fearing Tutsi retribution without his steadying hand, and happy to prosper from his strong economic management. Across the border in Congo, Hutu-Tutsi fighting continues, with disastrous consequences for both. Kagame has been criticized for his authoritarianism and heavy-handed constraints on political freedoms. On this day, I leave Ntarama thinking that full-fledged democracy sometimes needs to take a back seat. Kagame's legacy will be whether he can build the institutions of democracy, as he claims to want to do, in this blood-soaked land that has suffered so much.