People and Places

Rwanda Dispatch II

Posted on June 27, 2015

In my first blog about our Rwanda trip, I focused on the good, the considerable good that Rwanda offers.  From its people to its landscapes to its amazing animals to the ways it has hit the “reset” button and is rebuilding the nation, largely in the shaping vision of its president, Paul Kagame.  I promised to talk about some of the troubling aspects of Rwanda and of our trip. 

It is easy to start.  Genocide.  It looms as the backdrop to almost everything.  People situate events as “before Genocide” and “after Genocide.”  There are genocide memorials throughout the country, some shockingly stark (bashed in skulls, mummified remains).  The numbers are staggering.  At the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, some 250,000 victims are buried. 


Near the lovely hotel in which we stayed at Lake Kivu is a hill where 50,000 Tutsis resisted their attackers for a month, until the army was flown in.  Only 1400 escaped.  The actual stories are simply horrific, too terrible to share here. 

We learned a lot about the Genocide.  That it was the culmination of a longer history of widespread and periodic violence, that Colonialism helped set the stage for the Hutu-Tutsi animosity, that it was absolutely planned, that it was a colossal failure of the UN and the western powers.  In talking to one man who lived through it, he said he has forgiven Bill Clinton because Clinton has said it was his biggest regret, that he visits every year and funds projects, and that he said he was sorry.  He reserved his ire for Kofi Annan, who was then head of UN Peacekeeping and kept UN forces from intervening, despite the pleas of the Canadian commander on the ground, Romeo Dallaire.  Annan never shared Dallaire’s messages with the Security Council and the killing escalated.  As my Rwandan friend said, “Annan has never said he was sorry.  He could have stopped the killing, but he refused.”

The impact of the Genocide is everywhere:

  • No one now discusses ethnic background – we were warned never to ask if someone was Tutsi or Hutu;
  • There is a law forbidding political parties based on identity or categories of people (critics say it effectively creates a one-party system);
  • The ubiquitous security forces and the #1 desire of everyone with whom we spoke: security and order;
  • The re-education and re-entry camps for Hutus who participated in the genocide and are now coming back from the Congo, where they mostly fled;
  • The huge number of participants who remain in prison and the tens of thousands who went through the remarkable community hearing process called Gacaca, where participants confessed their crimes to the community, asked for forgiveness, shared where bodies had been left (a big part of closure for survivors), and were then sentenced by the community court.  They completed almost 2,000,000 cases across the country and today, in many villages, survivors live with neighbors who murdered their parents, siblings, children, and other family members. 

The machete was often the crude weapon of choice, with people hacked to death, and it remained unsettling for me to drive down roads and to see people everywhere carrying machetes (they are constantly used by farmers).  In such a poor country where any farm utensil is valuable, many of those machetes we saw used in fields were surely murder weapons some 20 years ago.

What is happening in Rwanda now seems like fertile ground for psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and more.  I can’t pretend to understand its reality.  Is forgiveness the necessary foundation for moving forward (and avoiding the endless cycle of murder and retribution that seems to grip the Mideast)?  And is that different than reconciliation?  Can the old ethnic identities be truly dropped and replaced by a national identity? 

President Kagame has only two years left in office and the Rwandan Constitution requires him to step down.  There is a powerful national debate now underway, with many (maybe most) afraid of what happens without him at the helm, and yet fears that to change the Constitution for a widely supported leader creates a precedent for a future despot.  There are traces of the despot surrounding Kagame: little public dissent tolerated, a highly controlled press, suppression of opposition politics, and even rumors of murder and more dangerous human rights violations.  While we admired the accounts of public servants being held accountable and having contracts, it was more than once said that failure often means jail.  If true, there are intimations of yet another African strongman who comes to power through democracy and then works to suppress it (not just an African phenomenon, btw: think Erdogan in Turkey and Putin in Russia).

But I also find myself wondering if Rwanda is doing something so hard with stakes so high, that it needs a Kagame more than it needs true democracy right now.  There seems little doubt that the great majority of Rwandans want him to stay in office and while the legal basis for making that happen does not exist without a change in the Constitution, the broad will of the people is in some ways fundamentally democratic.  It scares me that he might stay, but I think it scares me more that he might step down.

Perhaps our most searing experience was our visit to the Kiziba Refugee Camp, run by the UNHCR and funded by the US government. 


Isolated on a remote hilltop, it “houses” 17,000 refugees who were driven out by the DRC and not fully accepted by the Rwandan government, a people without a state.  It was perhaps the most depressing and hopeless place I have ever visited.  We went with Kepler colleagues to explore how we might run a pilot program for CfA within the camp and met with 20 amazing students in what felt like a dilapidated warehouse.  They talked about their hopes and dreams (to help their people, to be a businessman, to be an engineer), but their eyes said, “Please get me out of here.” 


It was the only time on the trip I almost could not hold back my tears, their sadness and desperation was so palpable.

We had brought soccer balls and things, but it created a near riot as children literally fought for the items, tearing at the arms of our students.  It became scary and felt out of control. 


While there is some semblance of commerce (a coffee shop here, a tailor there), the camp is almost entirely mud huts with UN tarps for roofs, and outhouses for sewage.  Food rations are given out by the UN Food Program, once a month, though we heard that students sell the oil (which provides the fat they need for their diets) to buy phones and other ways to connect.  It is a detention camp, in the end, and I wrestled with what would serve better: a shipment of books and toys and clothing or a crate of AK-47s. 

I remembered Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and his argument that when we strip people of all dignity and hope, then violence is usually the only way to reassert their humanity.  Emma and Phil, who have seen their share of such camps in the Mideast, say that if you want to understand ISIS or Hamas, visit such camps.  In a world with no hope, those organizations offer power, order, dignity, and escape.  I understood that intellectually, but I understood it viscerally after our visit.  If I were condemned to life in that camp, I’d want the AK-47.

We fought our way back to our vehicles and left the camp, silenced and troubled (one of our students softly sobbed).  We talked a lot about it afterwards and I spent that night sleepless, mostly staring at the ceiling.  I emailed our Kepler colleagues at something like 5AM and said that if we could not fix the camp, we could at least find a way to get those 20 amazing students out and we have committed to working on that solution.

I also came away with only disdain for the UN – that camp has been there for two decades and is full of children who have known nothing else but a prison of deprivation and hopelessness.  It was also a scary reminder that the world has more refugees now than any time since WWII and that climate change will mean many more refugees in the future.  Of course, poor countries like Rwanda and Jordan and Malaysia will bear the burden, while the wealthy countries of the west (most responsible for colonialism, climate change, and outsourcing our consumerism to poor countries) will do little.  I feel changed by the experience and still sorting out how. 

So to visit Rwanda is to confront, in very raw ways, human beings at their worst.  To grapple with big, existential questions of complicity and responsibility.  To think hard about institutions and all the ways they can fail and to struggle with the alternatives.  I don’t regret it really, though it made our Rwandan journey a complex, multi-layered, sometimes troubling experience.  One that I think we will all process for quite some time. 

So would I still send someone to Rwanda?  Absolutely.  I leave the country with more hope than heartbreak.  I want President Kagame to be successful and to be the leader Rwandans deserve (and not the ones some quietly fear he might become).   That he be more Lee Kwan Yew, the visionary founder of Singapore, than Erdogan.  I want the wonderful young Rwandans we met to help rebuild their country and lead it forward.  I’d like to learn from Rwanda, a place that has a majority of women in its Parliament, cities that are cleaner than ours, and that may be figuring out how to heal the deepest of wounds (as we still struggle with race, our country’s original sin).  I am going to root for Rwanda and hold out a hope for another visit to those gorillas and maybe even a hug.



One thought on “Rwanda Dispatch II

  1. Betty Egan says:

    Paul, while it was disheartening to read about Kiziba, rampant poverty, the failures of the UN and the fear of losing Kagame as president in this second dispatch, I was glad to hear you left Rwanda with “more hope than heartbreak.” Thanks again for examining both faces of this complex country and offering such a wonderful, detailed account of your journey.

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