This week is a thoughtful and quiet one in Rwanda. Businesses close early, people travel to their home villages to be with family. “I’m just staying inside,” said a close Rwandan friend I spoke to yesterday over the phone. “I don’t want to be around so many people. At this time of year, I usually just want to be alone.”
April is Rwanda’s memorial month, during which the country pauses to commemorate the 800,000 lives lost during the genocide of 1994. Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the start of the most intense period of violence, the roll-out of what’s now seen as a well-planned strategy to eliminate the country’s minority Tutsi and their Hutu sympathizers. In three months in the spring of 1994, nearly a tenth of the population was massacred.
An overview of commemoration events includes the requisite statement from the U.N. Secretary General and the Rwandan president’s strong public condemnation of the international community’s “abandonment” of Rwanda in its darkest hour.
During most of the year in Rwanda, the genocide is discussed primarily as a milestone that marked the end of one lifetime and beginning of another; the word “before” carries a much larger meaning in Rwanda. Discussion of the tragedy is highly regulated in the public sphere, and many public commentators tread carefully to avoid falling into the realm of the intentionally vague rule against “inciting genocidal ideology.” The government has even made it illegal to discuss ethnicity; everyone is now Rwandan. These legal restraints, coupled with the cultural tendency to cope with challenges individually and internally, make April the one time of the year when genocide enters public discourse.
And even now, the discussion is largely shaped by the leadership’s narrative. Lingering resentments, pain, and fear are confined to whispered conversations. So while government officials and international visitors gathered near the once-besieged U.N. compound to remember April 7, 1994, I found myself wondering how others throughout the country respond to this day.
Rwanda is undergoing remarkable development, and in many ways is one of the world’s most promising examples of post-conflict reconstruction. But with all of the attention garnered by Kagame’s efforts to make Rwanda the darling of Western investors, it’s easy to forget that nearly 90 percent of Rwandans live in rural communities where daily life hasn’t been so transformed by the progressive policies and development that characterize the capital. According to the U.N.’s human development index, Rwanda ranks 165 out of 179 countries in terms of overall well-being. Just this week, the national police announced new security efforts to protect genocide survivors, who are often threatened to keep them from testifying against perpetrators. Since 2007, the police have recorded over 2,000 cases of murder, torture, and intimidation of genocide survivors.
“To truly reconcile, people need to see how their lives change in a meaningful way. Reconciliation needs to have practical implications,” said Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, speaking in Washington a few weeks ago. Of course, Rwanda has found peace, but it is the broader and deeper changes that will test long-term reconciliation.