Rwandan President Paul Kagame and First Lady Janet Kagame lay a wreath at a genocide memorial in Kigali on April 7. (AFP/Simon Maina)
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and First Lady Janet Kagame lay a wreath at a genocide memorial in Kigali on April 7. (AFP/Simon Maina)

20 years after genocide, Rwanda safe, clean, undemocratic

“Do not forget the genocide,” said the voice of a state broadcast announcer in Kigali crackling through a cheap car radio, referring to the organized slaughter 20 years ago of more than 10 percent of the population. “We are all one now,” he said, speaking in Rwanda’s common language of Kinyarwanda, and meaning that Rwandans no longer identify themselves as being either Hutu or Tutsi.

Shelves of human skulls of all sizes rest in a memorial beneath the former Catholic Church in Ntarama, just a short drive from Kigali. In 1996, two years after the genocide, I visited a church in the south in Nyamagabe on a verdant hilltop scented by nearby Eucalyptus trees. Inside the church, bits of flesh and hair were still decomposing, giving off a stench that seemed to fill my nostrils for days.

Today Rwanda is a remarkably different nation. The streets are clean with hardly any litter or cigarette butts. The government has gone green, banning plastic bags to the point of treating any found in luggage as contraband. The nation seems safe. Back before the genocide, a Western relief worker told me he did not like posting women near Army bases for fear they might be raped. Today common crime is rare, as soldiers patrol Kigali’s streets with Chinese “Bullpup” automatic rifles.

But Rwanda is also more politically closed now than before. Back then, opposition activists were organizing their own political parties. They were seeking to fill a space, a few told me, between the government led by the Hutu president and former military officer, Juvenal Habyarimana, and a then-threatening guerrilla movement led by a Tutsi exile named Paul Kagame.

A few independent journalists like Sixbert Musangamfura were active, too. He ran the critical Kinyarwanda-language weekly Isibo, and managed to dig up dirt on each the Hutu-led government and the Tutsi-led guerrillas. Today, however, it is hard to find any active journalists inside the nation, as journalists have either fled into exile or been intimidated into self-censorship.

The government began cracking down on the independent press in the late 2000s in advance of presidential elections. The country’s once-leading independent newspaper, Umuseso, was suspended during the electoral campaign while its editors faced various criminal charges. They fled into exile to launch a new independent weekly, The Newsline. Rwandan authorities ordered officials to confiscate any copies found at border crossings. Rwandan courts have tried and sentenced other exiled editors, such as Jean Bosco Gasasira of the online weekly Umuvugizi, who was sentenced in absentia to years in jail over a column critical of Kagame.

Agnés Uwimana and Saiditi Mukakibbi ran the independent, Kinyarwanda-language bi-monthly Umurabyo until they were arrested in 2010. Convicted on charges including defamation and “genocide denial,” they had reported critically on agricultural policies; the 2010 murder of another independent journalist, Jean-Léonard Rugambage; and now-President Kagame’s falling out with some of his former military comrades, including an ex-spy chief–who, more recently, was found strangled to death in South Africa.

No case may better show Kagame’s attitude toward dissent. Journalists began tweeting about possible Rwandan government involvement in the ex-spy chief’s murder, prompting a Twitter account impersonating the South African jurist Richard Goldstone (spelled “Goldston” on the account) to try and discredit them through personal attacks. Suddenly, during the heated exchange, the vitriolic comments were no longer coming from the Goldston account but from Kagame’s official Twitter account, as if he had hit the wrong button on his computer. The government later admitted some responsibility, saying the Goldston account had been “run by an employee in the Presidency.”

Kagame is a tall, elusive man who led the guerrilla force that stopped the genocide back in 1994 without any help from the international community. This feat still allows him to claim a level of moral authority. Kagame is a descendant, like many of his ruling comrades, of exiled Rwandan Tutsis. They fled into Uganda and other neighboring nations following a violent Hutu takeover in the years leading up to Rwanda’s independence from Belgium in 1962.

Three decades later, Belgium distanced itself from the Habyarimana regime as evidence mounted of its human rights abuses. France, however, rushed in arms and advisers to defend its Francophone military ally. Today another change in Rwanda is that English and not French is the nation’s other official language after Kinyarwanda, and French is strangely barely spoken anymore, even in Kigali.

Today when Rwandan state broadcasters declare that Rwandans no longer identify themselves as either Hutu or Tutsi, they help reinforce a common, national identity that is no doubt essential to healing genocidal wounds. The fact that both Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, also helps. But the government’s claim of Rwandan unity also glosses over one inconvenient fact. Roughly 84 percent of Rwanda’s population is Hutu, according to sources like the annual The New York Times Almanac, and about 15 percent is Tutsi.

Rwanda’s demographics have changed only slightly since the genocide. An estimated 800,000–people mostly Tutsi civilians, along with thousands of Hutu moderates and their families–were killed in less than 100 days in 1994. Over the years since, hundreds of thousands, or perhaps the same number of Tutsis whose parents or grandparents fled Rwanda back during the violence surrounding independence, have since repatriated to the nation.

“I love him so much,” said Genereuse about Kagame. A young woman running a business in Kigali, she said her family fled Rwanda back in the early 1960s over the nation’s “ethnic problems.” She freely identified herself as being Tutsi.

“This is not something we talk about any more,” said Francois, referring to the divide between Hutus and Tutsis. He served as a soldier in the previous, Hutu-led government during the genocide. “Talking can get you in jail,” he said.

Modern Rwanda is in many ways a progressive nation looking to curb corruption, promote development, and protect the environment. But it is by no means a democracy, and it is a nation without a free press.