The Lessons of Rwanda

The important thing is not how quickly the country is healing but how easily it descended into madness.

By Ellis Cose
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From the magazine issue dated Apr 21, 2008

For a hundred days, beginning in April 1994, a tiny African nation seized the world’s attention by spewing forth unspeakably macabre images that stunned all who watched. Last week, in what has become an annual ritual, Rwandans commemorated their deliverance from evil. The national memorial service in Nyamata, site of a horrible massacre in a church and other atrocities, was punctuated by anguished wails and sobs as people relived the pain of watching loved ones hacked to death. Standing tall in a glaring sun, President Paul Kagame lashed out at European powers that abetted the genocide, ignored its unfolding and now presumed to judge him and his soldiers—the very soldiers who ended the horror upon which the world had turned its back. Those critics, said Kagame, could “go to hell,” enunciating the phrase in both English and Kinyarwanda, lest anyone miss the point.

Kagame’s ire was directed at a Spanish judge who in February indicted officers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the rebel force Kagame once commanded) for mass murders following the genocide. Kagame was also angry at a French judge who insinuated that his men were guilty of shooting down the plane carrying Rwanda’s president. The downing of that plane on April 6, 1994, was the catalyst for the slaughter of Tutsis (death estimates range from 500,000 to a million) by Hutus caught up in an orgy of ethnic cleansing. In this nation of roughly 9 million people, no one was untouched by the rampage, for which ultimate responsibility is still debated and whose lessons remain unclear.

One thing Rwandans learned is that the world cannot be trusted to care about their suffering. To Western powers, “we are not interesting people,” says Kaboyi Benoit, executive secretary of Ibuka—a Rwandan victims’ group whose name translates as “remember.” So even if Kagame did some bad things (and no one in Rwanda is publicly saying that he did), he remains a hero—the military commander who came to the rescue when the United States and the United Nations sat on their hands.

“Coming to say that our leaders should be judged because they stopped the genocide is outrageous; it’s an insult to us,” says John Rucyahana, an Anglican bishop whose family fled to exile in Uganda in 1959. In 1994, Rucyahana was visiting the United States: “When I saw the bodies of our people floating on the River Kagera into Lake Victoria in Uganda … I had to cut my mission short.” He returned to Uganda, gathered up several fellow ministers and headed for Rwanda in a minibus. “We found a home with 26 dead bodies … with dead bodies of a dog and a cat mixed with the human dead bodies, decomposing. [We saw] mass graves, people with rotting machete cuts all over their bodies … And that [convinced me] that if this was to be a nation again, I had to be a part of it.” Rucyahana eventually founded a school for orphans and a prison ministry, and launched an array of social initiatives aimed at rebuilding and reconciling his divided homeland: “I was preaching hope standing on a pile of bones.”

Rwanda today bears little resemblance to the blood-soaked hell it became in 1994. Its verdant hills, pristine streets and unfailingly gracious populace can make one forget the horrors in its past. Its people are proud of how they have come back from the brink, and they nod knowingly when Kagame lectures them—as he did last week—that they should expect favors from no one.

Rucyahana believes the world can learn much from Rwanda’s efforts to quickly wipe away the tears: “We in Rwanda have not the luxury to wait until our pain is over to make a nation.” But perhaps the larger lesson of Rwanda is not about how quickly it is healing, but how easily it descended into madness. “I don’t think there were special monsters [in Rwanda] … I think it is relatively easy to ignite the worst in all of us,” says Rakiya Omaar, director of African Rights, a Kigali-based human-rights organization.

Omaar was in Brussels when the killing broke out but quickly found her way to Rwanda. Last week she recalled a visit to a health-care facility in 1994: “I saw blood in the cubicles for premature babies, huge piles of identity cards, toothbrushes, photograph albums, letters … I promised the people who endured what they did [that I would] make sure that the world found out what happened … that I would never forget them.”

Omaar has spent 14 years attempting to understand that African holocaust. “I’m not so naive as to believe in the slogan ‘Never again,’ because [collective violence] happens all the time,” she says. But she believes Rwanda shows the horrific consequence when such violence happens with impunity, when the belief is allowed to spread that there is no cost for taking human life. Omaar has also learned that education is no cure. Doctors, politicians and teachers were as brutally complicit as everyone else. Those who shielded their neighbors from violence—at huge personal risk—were “almost universally peasants … It was very shocking to me that education isn’t, in the way you want it to be, the answer.” The ultimate, and disheartening, lesson of Rwanda may be that there is no foolproof antidote to genocidal madness—short of creating a universe in which all human life is equally revered.