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Rwandans Wait to See if Election Will Bring Healing or Division

August 9, 2010 at 7:06 PM EDT
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A heavy voter turnout in Rwanda was reported Monday at the second presidential election after the 1994 genocide. Special correspondent Kira Kay of the Bureau for International Reporting has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next tonight: In the African nation of Rwanda, a heavy turnout was reported today in presidential elections that take place in the lingering aftermath of genocide.

We have a report from special correspondent Kira Kay of the Bureau For International Reporting.

KIRA KAY: In the rural hills of Rwanda, thousands of people have come to pledge allegiance to their president, Paul Kagame, who is running for a second seven-year term.

“He is the only one,” they chant. And, in many ways, that is true. Kagame is the man who led this country from the depths of genocidal violence to become the developing state it is today. And although there are other candidates on the ballot, he is the overwhelming favorite.

PAUL KAGAME, Republic of Rwanda President (through translator): Democracy, good governance, and development — our country’s path is clear.


KIRA KAY: In 1994, Kagame, a minority ethnic Tutsi, was a rebel leader in exile. In April of that year, Hutu extremists began the organized massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The world didn’t intervene to stop Rwanda’s genocide, so Kagame and his troops did. Today, memorials to the genocide dot the country.

PASTOR ANTOINE RUTAYISIRE, Anglican Church of Rwanda: We are still burying the bones of some people who got killed during the genocide. We are still judging the criminals and the murderers who took part in the genocide.

KIRA KAY: Pastor Antoine Rutayisire says the first step to putting his fractured nation back together in the years after the genocide was to find some justice for the victims, a daunting process when neighbors and sometimes even relatives were the perpetrators.

PASTOR ANTOINE RUTAYISIRE: The justice system couldn’t cope with the pressure of 150,000 people in jail at the same time. So, finally, we opted to go back to our traditional system, where the community who saw people committing the crimes will do the investigations.

KIRA KAY: This experiment in community justice, called gacaca, led to over 400,000 prosecutions over the past eight years, though most of those convicted have been released back into society.

Today, people of both ethnicities live side by side, perhaps more as a matter of necessity than in real forgiveness. But violence has not returned. And other efforts to further heal wounds are still ongoing.

This radio soap opera, running for seven years now, is hugely popular. The old-fashioned drama comes with a message.

WOMAN (through translator): Do you think there should be no justice? How can people ever reconcile?

MAN (through translator): But can they reconcile with the people who hurt them?

KIRA KAY: But the government’s big bet is that, by improving the quality of life of its 11 million citizens as quickly as possible, a return to violence can be averted. And they need it to start from scratch.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH, author and journalist: You had huge groups of displaced people, homeless people, survivors living in the ruins, wrecked buildings, wrecked infrastructure, and no real clear way to envision how all that was going to come together.

KIRA KAY: Philip Gourevitch is a journalist who first came to the country one year after the genocide, trying to make sense of how neighbor could turn against neighbor.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: The order from above was to kill. And now the order from above is to live together and to build and to be proud and make purpose and to construct a nation. To look at the country now, it’s really not something one would have imagined.

KIRA KAY: Because Rwanda has made such strides, President Kagame has become a favorite of world luminaries and attracts large commitments of aid.

A key priority is building up the country’s infrastructure and encouraging international investment. Global studies rank Rwanda as one of the least corrupt nations in Africa. There is free education up through the ninth grade now taught in English, instead of French, a sign of where this former Belgian colony sees its future.

There is also national health care. Even the poorest in the country have access to a plan priced at $2 a year. At this clinic, Francine Mukashaka (ph) waits to get her three-month-old daughter, Chance (ph), vaccinated for a 50 cent co-pay. She tells me she is grateful to her government.

DONALD NDAHIRO, Millennium Villages Project: This is a total transformation.

Donald Ndahiro is overseeing a project that is bringing electricity to an entire village. Each family pays an $80 fee to wire their house up to the main line.

Vestine Kanzayiri (ph) tells me it’s another step towards development. Now the kids won’t have to do their homework by candlelight.

DONALD NDAHIRO: They know to get economic benefits like here, you have to join with your neighbor. You have to contribute together to tap this electricity. Then I think there is more stability and social cohesion among people.

KIRA KAY: But, recently, especially in the months leading up to this presidential election, there have been charges that this carefully managed development has come at a price to human rights and freedom.

KENNETH ROTH, director, Human Rights Watch: The government, despite the real progress that it has made on the economic front, despite the fact that, at least superficially, things look secure and stable, has become increasingly repressive.

KIRA KAY: Kenneth Roth is the director of Human Rights Watch and has been ringing alarm bells over Rwanda’s increasing political clampdown.

KENNETH ROTH: Basically, there’s three parties that most Rwandans consider genuine opposition. Two of them were never allowed to register. A couple of their leaders, their presidential candidates, are facing criminal charges. A vice president of one of the parties was murdered.

If you look at the written press, there are two very prominent papers that are seen as opposition. Both have been suspended during the entire pre-election period. Their editors have fled the country. A major journalist for one of them was murdered.

VICTOIRE INGABIRE, leader, FDU-Inkingi Party: People are not free to do what they want. People are not free to say what they say — they want to say.

KIRA KAY: Victoire Ingabire is one of those opposition candidates who is not being allowed to run in this presidential election.

VICTOIRE INGABIRE: We are excluded in this process. And this is why we say the Rwandese people today don’t have no choice.

KIRA KAY: The government insists Ingabire’s party and another one failed to comply with filing requirements. The leader of a third party is in jail for illegal protests and other charges.

Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo says they didn’t play by the rules.

LOUISE MUSHIKIWABO, foreign minister, Republic of Rwanda: We wanted to make sure that we create systems, we create institutions. Yet, when it comes to elections, for example, the outside world wants us to skip the rules and to ignore the laws and allow people to do things.

KIRA KAY: Minister Mushikiwabo denies the government is guilty of political violence or repression and says the country’s progress is more important than its image.

LOUISE MUSHIKIWABO: Do we forego some of the important things we have to do as a nation so that we please the outside world? Or are we accountable to the people of this country, and we should do what we have agreed to do for the people of this country?

KIRA KAY: Victoire Ingabire is a controversial figure. A Hutu, she is reintroducing ethnic language to the political arena and was recently charged under the country’s genocide ideology laws for accusing the Kagame’s troops of war crimes during 1994.

People worry that this country, that the people here aren’t ready, that such discussions of ethnicity will lead to violence.

VICTOIRE INGABIRE: I don’t agree with that. It is the vision of the government. We don’t accept that the government of Kagame used the genocide for — and political, because you can see that everything that you propose and they don’t agree, they use the genocide as reason why they refuse the proposal.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: We look and we say, there’s no freedom. There’s not real freedom of political contest. And there’s not real freedom of speech. There’s not freedom of expression. You can’t just say anything you want. And why not just let people make the most extreme statements and take them on?

But, you know, in Europe, after World War II, not just in Nazi Germany with Holocaust denial, but with many places, parties get banned. Even we have speech laws. And in a country that’s been this polarized, that’s the debate.

KIRA KAY: But Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth worries.

KENNETH ROTH: You don’t achieve genuine reconciliation by simply suppressing discussion of the problems. That’s a way that you build fear and you build divisiveness, which may look fine at the moment. Things may look temporarily stable. But there is a brewing discontent which one can feel when you talk to Rwandans. And there’s a real fear I have that, at some point, that will explode.

KIRA KAY: Despite criticism from at home, as well as abroad, few international observers are monitoring these elections. President Kagame is expected to win reelection in a landslide.

Those opposition candidates authorized to run against him supported him during his first election campaign. At a recent election rally, Kagame showed his confidence by saying, whoever doesn’t like the Rwanda way of democracy should go and hang.

Even during a busy campaign season, the final Saturday of every month is reserved for an exercise in nation-building called umuganda, when Rwandans come out for a few hours of mandatory community service, cleaning schools, bringing water sources to remote communities.

PASTOR ANTOINE RUTAYISIRE: We live together at peace, but we are not together at peace in our hearts. There is still a lot of suspicion. There is still a lot of fear. There is still a lot of frustration. And it’s quite understandable. The genocide happened just 16 years ago. You don’t heal a nation in one generation. It’s impossible.

KIRA KAY: Rwandans are waiting to see if this election will bring more healing or further division.