Frontline World

RWANDA - After the Genocide, December 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
7/3/03 7/7/03 7/11/03 7/15/03 7/19/03 7/19/03 7/20/03 7/23/03
7/11/03 Frustration pacifique mukeshima Domina Nyirandayambaje Aloys Habimana
a billboard for the gacacas
"Gacaca Courts: The Truth Saves," advise billboards posted throughout Rwanda.
Yesterday was a day loaded with frustration. My fixer, Jean Pierre, arrived early in the morning. We set off to observe a gacaca in a town north of Kigali. As we left at 8 in the morning, the sun was shining and Kigali was just getting up to full bustle. I was in high spirits, glad to be getting out into the country and getting to work.

It was a hair-raising two-hour ride on a road still bombed out from the 1994 civil war. We traveled at insane speeds, swerving to avoid potholes, brushing by people riding clunky Chinese bikes, kids holding out strings of fish to sell and women with bundles of sticks balanced on their heads.

on the road
Entering Kigali, the traffic is crazy as usual.
Along the way, I chatted with Jean Pierre, who has been guiding journalists around Rwanda for years. He told me how he survived the three months of the genocide (by hiding in a septic tank). His parents and brothers and sisters were all killed, he said. He related all this rather matter-of-factly: In Rwanda, telling what happened to you during the genocide is one way of establishing your bonafides with outsiders -- as a victim, not a perpetrator of violence. I suppose JP has told his story dozens of times.

The detachment with which people tell such stories surprises me. At one point, JP asked what I thought of working in Rwanda. I told him the truth -- which is that I already find it hard and emotionally draining, especially when you hear the stories of genocide survivors. He couldn't understand what was so hard about this until I finally just told him something like: "Look, it's a difficult thing to think about people losing their whole families." He nodded, although I had the feeling he'd decided that I'm a bit soft.

Rwanda's Neighborhood
United Nations Involvement
Root of Hutu/Tutsi Tension
Rwandan Civil War, 1990-1994
Rwanda's 1994 Genocide
Rwandan Patriotic Front
Paul Kagame
So, we arrive in the village, and guess what? The prefect for the area had decided to call a meeting of all the mayors. So no gacacas today. Sorry, come back next week. And while JP is sorting this all out, I sit in the car in front of the local prison, a converted school. Prisoners in pink pajamas lounge on the lawn a few feet away with no guards, kicking back as villagers wander by. This is how many of the 100,000 or so accused genocidaires in prison here have become just another part of everyday life.

We get back in the car and head toward Kigali, hurtling along at the same high speeds. As we blow past people walking along the side of the road, I'm reminded of something an American expatriate told me a few days ago (I didn't believe it at first, so I've made a point of confirming it with Rwandans): The history of Rwanda is not taught in the schools here because, besides agreeing on the atrocity of the genocide, no one can quite concur on what exactly should be taught about the country's pre-genocide 20th-century history.

We pass a few billboards about Rwanda's present situation. The first, advertising the gacaca courts, features a frightened woman, a man with a machete and a burning hut. "The Truth Saves," it reads in Kinyarwandan. The other is simply black English text on a white background: "Pay Your Taxes: Reduce Our Dependence on Foreign Aid." You can read these billboards as an effort by the government to form a new national identity, one with a future -- defined by truth telling and economic development -- brighter than the past.

Still, a tiny Tutsi minority, comprised mostly of exiles who returned from Uganda as part of the invading rebel army during the 1994 civil war, rule over a population which is 85 percent Hutu. I wonder whether the majority Hutus buy the official current government mantra: "We are all Rwandans."

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