Letter From Rwanda
Gacaca is the centerpiece of an ambitious set of reforms this year that has already seen the writing of a new constitution, overwhelmingly passed by a referendum in May, and will see presidential elections this August and parliamentary elections in September. With the elections the current leadership has calculated that Rwandans will buck the trend of ethnic voting in Africa and instead vote for a party (the RPF) and a president who have proved they can bring stability, offer reintegration to old enemies and begin to revive an economy at rock bottom. The RPF currently leads a transitional government of eight parties, and the prime minister is from a prominent political family identified with Hutu-power politics in a previous period, and from a party now banned because of its divisiveness on ethnic issues. This ban is sharply criticized by the donors as antidemocratic, though given what the last "democratically elected" government did here in 1994, this seems shortsighted.
With a few individual exceptions, the donor community and Western nongovernmental organizations have rather strained relations with the government, which they criticize as inward-looking, paranoid and controlling, and which they accuse of stoking the war in the eastern part of the DRC. This perception of reality is in total contrast to how the Rwandan government and military leadership experience nine years of bringing Rwanda back from the abyss of hate and destruction of 1994. Generous outreach to exiles not personally responsible for the genocide is an ongoing policy, while the reintegration of many former soldiers recently returned from the DRC, in their villages, augurs well for gacaca.
The influential New York-based Human Rights Watch has set the harshest critical tone, with Amnesty International and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group using similar language. A much-quoted UN report blamed Rwanda (among others) for looting the DRC's wealth, though it has been little noticed that the report had to be rewritten twice because of errors, and even some of those close to it say that none of the assertions against Rwanda were supported with evidence.
President Kagame is typically cool about the criticisms: "It is because again we want to do things our own way--they want to give lessons.... This hysteria always mounts when there is a big event: the constitution, the elections. They forecast disaster. We just have to go on with our own business of changing lives here."
Not surprisingly, among the most vociferous critics are the French, who have never forgiven the RPF for winning the war against the French-backed regime responsible for the genocide, and for thwarting the French military's Operation Turquoise, which occupied a swath of western Rwanda in 1994 as part of an effort to preserve its clients. Then, in 1996, the Rwandan military attacked and closed the refugee camps in eastern Zaire controlled by the genocidaires of 1994, where active military training and resupply for another genocide carried out under the noses of the international organizations feeding and caring for 2 million refugees was under way. More than a million peasants then walked home and were resettled, with the help of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, in an extraordinary feat of organization.
However, around 370,000 soldiers and militia of the former regime fled west through Zaire and regrouped in Zambia, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon and Angola, with leaders also in Benin, Togo and Kenya. In one of the astonishing twists of regional politics that have bedeviled the Great Lakes in recent years, genocidaires were taken from their refugee camps across the region into Kinshasa's army. They believed, as prisoners and deserters have testified, that they would return to Rwanda and complete the genocide. Today 15,000 of them are still military players for the Kinshasa government in the DRC's intense power struggle. Rwanda's security, and its moves toward normality after decades of state-sponsored ethnic hatred, harassment and destruction, are thus still threatened by the leadership flaws in the DRC.
But up on hills like Kigese, a very different world of peace may be built by gacaca. The mass participation of these peasants, the confessions and the apologies are the most hopeful sign that Rwanda can become synonymous not with genocide but with an extraordinary reconciliation. Then there will not be another generation of people like Venuste, a middle-aged survivor of the genocide, whose right arm is a stump that still twitches painfully when he writes with his left hand, and who talked to me last month in Kigali of survivors' feelings of "loneliness, unbearable loneliness," through the years since 1994.