Rwanda: a nation with a dark past and tenuous future

Andrew Sullivan

Issue date: 9/9/08 Section: Features

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Andrew Sullivan* is a McGill student who spent his summer working on projects and publications in Rwanda while living with his parents. Originally from Ottawa, Africa has been his home for the past six years.

Many assume Rwanda is a young nation recovering from the Genocide, still covered in blood. When telling people my family was moving to Rwanda, most responded with: "You mean Rwanda is safe? Aren't they still killing each other?" Fortunately, the answer is no. Rwanda withdrew from the Congo in 2002, reformed its constitution in 2003, and has not seen combat missions-other than peacekeeping-since. Paul Kagame, the hero of the 1994 liberation of Rwanda from Genocidaire forces, is currently in office and seeking re-election in the fall. However, the traces of Genocide and social unrest are still an everyday reality.

Behind the peaceful screen

Meet a Rwandan for the first time and you may wonder what happened to that person during the Genocide in 1994. Which political group did they belong to? Was their family murdered? Did their neighbours hunt them? Are they still married to the husband awaiting sentencing for his role in the Genocide? The sad truth is that everyone has a Genocide story. The shocking truth is that it can happen all over again.

Recovering from a death toll of around one million has been an extremely difficult process. Tourists travelling within Kigali, the largest city in Rwanda, see Rwanda as a hopeful country with a strong sense of democracy, trying to rid themselves of corruption and mass poverty. 

In another light, Rwanda is led by a man turning into a dictator who is trying to take the country into his own hands. There is no freedom of the press and the neighbourhood-watch-style community policing functions as a Big Brother. District administrators and the general public have to file report cards on their behaviour demonstrating positive contributions to the workforce, society, and government.

I spoke with one ex-patriot who has been living in the northern region for the past 30 years. He mentioned what some refer to as "the second genocide," in which fatalities may have been as high as the massacres of 1994. Between 1997 and 2001, thousands of people were killed by the current regime in what many believe was an effort to scare the Hutu population into submission. The government has now taken a stance which prohibits the Hutu population from burying their dead at any memorial commemorating the genocide.

Government discrimination against the Hutu population continues despite peace efforts. Recently, a Hutu neighbourhood in downtown Kigali was razed to the ground. The New Times, a government-run newspaper, claims neighborhood residents were given compensation, advance notice, and alternate housing. In fact, there was no notice or compensation, and the provided housing is priced beyond resident means-paid via a loan which many will pass along to their children. Additionally, it is located far from the city, and the added distance forces those who work downtown to spend the majority of the salary not devoted to paying off loans on transport. As a result, many evictees are now either squatting or homeless.

After spending no more than 20 minutes taking photos within the razed neighbourhood, a police inspector and armed guard approached and asked why I was taking photos, claiming they were tipped off by one of the residents in the community policing system. After I explained how photographers like the angles and textures of the buildings, he was satisfied that I was not there to jeopardize the Rwandan façade of peace and reconciliation. Though official reasons for the eviction of the Hutu residents were vague, one resident of Kigali repeated what she had heard: "They [the Tutsi] were tired of looking at [the Hutu] and tired of the dirtiness." Whether or not this is true, remember: years of ethnic strife were set off by little more than rumours and word of mouth.

 An incomplete tour

Tourists spend an average of less than three days in Rwanda and so remain oblivious to the current situation, especially since the Rwandan travel industry hinges on two options: genocide tourism and eco-tourism.

Busses full of visitors arrive everyday at Gisozi, the national memorial and museum in Kigali, to recall the events of the 1994 war. The more adventuresome take a short side trip to visit the church memorials in Nyamata and Ntarama, where victims' personal effects are on display along with their skulls and bones. Each memorial has a guide who survived the massacre, in an attempt to create a more palpable sense of what happened. Tourists with stronger stomachs can visit Murambi, an ex-technical school which houses the remains of several hundred lime-covered bodies on display to busloads of tourists shuffling silently from room to room. The pinnacle of genocide tourism: returning to the hotel for the evening to listen to foreigners discuss how they felt about the results of mass death over a cold beer.

Wildlife lovers also see a side of Rwanda far removed from what Rwandans experience. Rwanda's eco-tourism involves visiting the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, where visitors fork over $500 for the permit alone. The government justifies the high price by giving five per cent of every permit sale to the communities on the route to the park entrance.

After staying at decent $50-250 hotels, eating meals comparable to those in bad North American restaurants, and only seeing what the government allows, each tourist leaves the country with a skewed sense of hope.

Yet those who have spent more time in the country outside of what some call "Tutsi town" (Kigali) or who have kept their ears open to the rumblings of the people will say goodbye to Rwanda thinking only one thing: it might happen again.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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