Week of 9.11.09
Reporter's Notebook: Horror and Hope in Rwanda
By David Brancaccio
If ever there were a tortured comparison, it is the idea put forth by some that Rwanda is Africa's Switzerland. The capital, Kigali, certainly greets you as Switzerland would. The airport arrival scene is unusual for the developing world. There is no crush of small boys grabbing at suitcases. Things are subdued, orderly; even the sunrise runs on time every day of the year at 6 am since the equator is just up the road. Rwanda is tidy, too, unlike any developing country I have ever seen. There are lakes, Swiss style, and we are up in the hills. There is even a chill at night, in June.
Children on their way back from school in Eastern Rwanda.
Of course, Switzerland also has that reputation for its five hundred years of neutrality, peace, and brotherhood among men; that is where the comparison with Rwanda tumbles off the edge.
We had been warned about traffic on this day, with a big charity soccer match planned for Kigali's huge stadium. Soccer stars from around Africa have taken time out of their schedules to come here to play, with money from every ticket sold going to orphan victims of Rwanda's genocide. How often does that topic come up, fifteen years later? It turns out, about once every two minutes.
There is enough traffic to generate a haze in the air, like an American city in the pre-catalytic converter 1960s. Still, the drive turns out to be manageable and we arrive at our first destination a bit early. The guard carries an automatic weapon, Swiss-made, and a sheet of paper that reads, "Appointment of Mr. David Brancaccio, PBS Television, with His Excellency Paul Kagame, President of the Republic, 10:00."
A girl fetches firewood in an area of Rwanda where many refugees were resettled after the genocide.
Meeting the President
The presidential conference room is airy but spare: some lightly-upholstered chairs, an African ziggurat motif in one concrete wall; a market scene painted in the native style and two flags on poles—one Rwandan, one presidential. Rwanda doesn't have many natural resources, but the staff offers us cups of two of the countries major export crops, tea and coffee. As we light the scene for the interview, everyone keeps mentioning that President Kagame will be a very tall man. They say it often enough that I start to imagine a man the size of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.
A very thin man, about my height, enters the conference room in a blue blazer, Dockers, and an open-collared shirt. Years leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front to military victory after military victory mean you don't have to wear a tie if you don't feel like it. Some say Kagame was the most skilled on-the-ground military tactician since World War II. In his book about the genocide, United Nations Lt. General Romeo Dallaire admiringly describes Paul Kagame in his field commander days as having the mien of a stern professor. Perhaps it is Kagame's trademark round eyeglasses.
Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, shares his philosophy about international aid. (photo: William Campbell)
Kagame's government is autocratic but he has rebuilt a country from scratch as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society with a surprising degree of hope for the future amid the sadness. Kagame is the guy who brought back into Rwanda from exile many of his defeated enemies. He leveled with his people that he wasn't sure exactly what to do with these "genocidaires" but that he could not let them fester in refugee camps breeding the next generation civil war.
A Financially-Independent Rwanda?
I am here to talk about public health in Rwanda, but that subject is linked to another in which Kagame is especially engaged and focused: the pitfalls of international aid. He had written a column in The Financial Times calling for developing countries like Rwanda to wean themselves from international aid. The country is grateful for the help it gets, he says, but the president is getting tired of governments and charities deciding what his country needs, whether or not Rwanda needs it. Donors need to work with countries to define what success is, give the money, and expect developing countries to produce results without writing prescriptions for how the problems should be solved.
That's fine if countries like Rwanda can guarantee transparency and accountability, I observe. President Kagame agrees that keeping corruption out has to be the other side of the bargain. He says he cannot understand how his article was seen as a rejection of international aid here and now. He wants to use the money to fix his country so it will not need aid, as opposed to staying poor so the international aid industry can stay afloat.
The Rwandan capital, Kigali, in the late afternoon.
Kagame's plan is to grow the Rwandan economy seven-fold in one generation, to make the country poverty-free by the year 2020. Now that's an outcome I'd like to cover. The president says I would be welcome to come back with my family to Rwanda, any time.
In the late afternoon, we film scenes of Kigali, a city in a country very much under reconstruction. As I take some still photos, a young man approaches asking for money. He looks unstable and offers a government form that I take to mean he is officially disabled or an orphan of the genocide. He shows me the furrows in the bones of his shaved head. The furrows are deep, like the marks of outstretched fingers in wet sand. They must be the marks of blows from a machete. If the man is 25 now, he would have been ten when it happened.
Elvis Enters the Building
Back at the Hotel Des Milles Collines, the actual "Hotel Rwanda," I meet our fixer for the first time. His given name, not a nickname, is Elvis. I had brought the Boston Celtics hat he wanted. It started with Larry Bird, he says. Elvis, a Rwandan who grew up in neighboring Burundi, is a stocky guy in his late twenties and a very wise man. Elvis says he did a project interviewing genocidaires in prison. Seventy percent of them said they murdered simply because the radio told them to do it. Radio was—and remains—Rwanda's central medium. In many villages, what the radio says is taken as gospel.
Construction workers transport an injured man in a woven-grass stretcher in Eastern Rwanda.
Elvis is full of information. Did I know that when former President Habyarimana's plane was shot down near Kigali airport in 1994, the act that threw the gears of the genocide into motion, the wreckage came down right in the backyard of the man's own presidential palace?
The president of Burundi had been on the plane as well. Habyarimana was no progressive, but he was on his way back from a last ditch meeting in neighboring Tanzania to salvage peace accords that might have thwarted the savagery. The plane was blown from the sky by a pair of surface to air missiles fired from a dark hill that we could see in the distance from our veranda. Apparently, one can still visit the wreckage.
There are no dogs to be seen in Rwanda. My colleague, producer Bill Campbell, hears that may be because so many dogs were seen eating human remains during the genocide, and that the dogs, too, were purged. Elvis asks if I have ever been chased by a dog. Elvis has a friend who, with his sister, was the only survivor in his family of an attack during the genocide. The friend had already fled the house when killers came with a list of names. They then used dogs to chase the guy through hills, through swamps. The friend later told Elvis that after three days you think you're getting away. By four days, you lose your mind. The friend did make it to Burundi to tell the story.
Louis Manirafasha is back to being a productive father and husband after being treated for a terrible case of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.
Fixing Poverty, Not Just Disease
It seems a stretch to find hope in a country like this, but we do: a system to use health care to fix poverty, not just disease. The Rwandans have teamed up with Partners in Health, a Boston-based charity co-founded by Paul Farmer, the legendary public health doctor. Some say he is the Albert Schweitzer of our time, although Farmer might give me a knuckle sandwich if he were to catch me using the comparison. Famously a man of peace, it is more likely Farmer would just blush neck-to-receding hairline, which he sometimes does even in a TV interview.
The Rwandan government and Farmer's Partners in Health are bringing some fine medical care to a rural part of Rwanda where many war refugees were resettled. At the heart of the project is something that has all but disappeared in the USA: house calls, remember them? We spend time at a hospital PIH has rebuilt from a shattered husk in the rural town of Rinkwavu near one of Rwanda's eastern game parks. Watch the full story here, and note the preponderance of now-healthier people.
The hospital in Rwinkwavu offers these mothers a short course in ways to make the most out of their limited farm land.
Dr. Bosco Niyonzima, the chief of medicine at Rinkwavu hospital, is a young guy who first went to seminary but soon heard the calling of medical school. He tells me he wants to do further study in the area of mental health, a vast area of largely unmet need in Rwanda. Dr. Bosco offers this statistic: of the children who survived the 1994 genocide, 90 percent witnessed someone they know killed in front of them. The kind of damage that can linger through generations.
Before I depart from Rwanda, I pay a visit to the former president's residence, the man killed at the dawn of the genocide. The house is around the back of Kigali's airport and a docent takes us through its faded glory. Some of the furniture remains, seat cushions flayed by all the UV in the tropical sunlight. The president's gun cabinet is there, in the closet of a kid's room. There is a tiny, formerly secret room reserved for the most private meetings, the docent says. The kidney-shaped pool holds a few inches of rainwater.
And then suddenly, there it is, just behind the brick wall at the base of the lawn: the remains of a downed corporate jet, its vertical stabilizer discolored by the mold of 15 years. There are newer, lighter bricks, repairing the section of the wall destroyed by the nose of the plane. Somehow, the former president was shot down into his own backyard. The plan is to convert this site of assassination into another memorial to the genocide.
In many countries, people feel they must forget the past to grasp at the future. For Rwanda and its people, past horror and present hope live at the same address.
Africa: House Calls and Health Care
Reporter's Notebook: Horror and Hope in Rwanda
Slideshow: A Revived Rwandan Hospital
Extended Interview: Rwandan President Paul Kagame
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