My Trip to the Two Rwandas

08/09/2010 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Rwanda I experienced last week while on assignment for PBS NewsHour was two different countries at the same time. The first was the Rwanda the government wants you to see (and is reportedly paying a British public relations firm a lot of money to make sure you see!). I saw this Rwanda for the first six days of my trip, traveling to the countryside to film electricity being wired up to village homes; visiting health clinics where citizens have national health plans, priced at only $2 a year.

It's this Rwanda where, unlike in many other big African cities, you can safely walk the streets at night; where police are more likely to stop you for not wearing your seat belt than a bribe. One afternoon I walked right up to a series of government ministries, planted my tripod in the parking lot and leisurely filmed without so much as a glance from security. Try that in Kinshasa, Cairo or, for that matter, Washington DC. It's for these reasons that Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, is a favorite of aid donors and luminaries such as Bill Clinton, Rick Warren and Bill Gates. And given what ruins the country was in following its 1994 genocide, the progress is truly impressive.

It wasn't until my last day in the country that I saw the other Rwanda: the one that has been described as a "police state" permeated by a "climate of fear." Where, in the run up to Monday's presidential election, newspapers have been suspended and two government critics, one a politician the other a journalist, have been murdered under mysterious circumstances. I don't think authorities ever intended for my reporter and I to see this Rwanda first-hand, until we apparently crossed a line: interviewing the woman considered to be the government's chief political opponent, Victoire Ingabire, who is currently living under arrest, barred from standing in the election.

Our visit to Ingabire was worrying from the start. Across from her house, sitting on folding chairs under the shade of a tree, were two men, watching the comings and goings. Their affiliation was made clear when, moments after we pulled up, an olive drab land cruiser with military plates arrived in front of the adjoining house and one of the watchers jumped up to open the gate. The military has apparently moved into the unit next door to Ingabire's!

When we pulled into the driveway I couldn't help but notice Ingabire's assistant padlock the gate behind us. Once inside, the front-facing curtains were drawn. As we started the carefully lit interview, the power cut. Halfway through, a helicopter buzzed overhead. All coincidence perhaps (Kigali is not immune to blackouts after all), but certainly foreboding. So I was a little surprised that when we were finished we were allowed to leave Ingabire's home without incident and didn't appear to be followed.

It turned out, though, that officials were waiting for us at our next stop: Kigali International Airport. Here we were plucked from check-in and lead by police to a back office to be questioned by a series of six or seven security men, all but one of them plainclothes, who alternated between asking us questions and talking into mobile phones, sometimes going out of the room to confer in small groups. Our bags were searched. OK, that's to be expected. As a cameraman, I travel with bits and pieces that look suspicious. But their intent was betrayed when they came upon a stack of our research documents.

Suddenly even the most oddly shaped light fixture was no longer a concern, shrugged off in favor of getting a look at those notes. We made the snap decision to not protest because we knew the contents would help rather than hurt: the business card from the Foreign Minister's office, cheery community policing newsletters we'd been given, lots of Kagame campaign photos. We also knew that if push came to shove, we'd have to refuse handing over our videotapes - the real meat of our week-long shoot.

Apparently the contents of our notes were enough to clear our path to return to the check in line... but not until several pages of local Kinyarwanda-language radio scripts were photocopied: relevant because Rwanda's genocide ideology laws are what are often used to charge people seen as jeopardizing the stability of this still ethnically fragile nation. Once these had apparently traveled up the chain high enough to be thoroughly vetted and they were satisfied, we were told we were free to go. They never even finished searching my gear bag.

Looking back I still wonder what they had to gain from shaking us up. Did they not realize they were reinforcing the very notions their PR machine is being paid the big bucks to dispel? When we discussed our situation with a local Rwandan friend, he said wearily, "It's difficult here. All those whom the government hates, they want you to hate, too."

Some longtime Rwanda watchers are more concerned by dynamics within the ruling RPF party than in the current public struggles between the government, the opposition and press. Phillip Gourevitch points out that Kagame will be term-limited after this election so (unless he orchestrates some kind of "Putin") the battle over his succession starts the day after the election. Jason Stearns has been tracking recent infighting inside the RPF, complicated by fallout from Rwanda's pullback of proxy forces from DR Congo last year. You get the sense from his blog Congo Siasa, a must-read if intrigue in Africa's Great Lakes Region is your thing, that this battle for succession is already underway.

Seems like there's a lot more to deal with inside Rwanda than picking up some journalists for interviewing a controversial politician.

About the author: Jason Maloney is the co-founder of The Bureau for International Reporting (www.thebir.org ), a non-profit news organization dedicated to the coverage of foreign affairs topics and the author of Your America: Democracy's Local Heroes.