Wednesday, April 20, 2005


In late February this year I had the pleasure of meeting President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

When you have been threatened with extinction you don't have the luxury to bury your head in the sand, to avoid the hard questions, to ignore your history, to drift forward without defining your destination, and to sit and wait for other people to "bring you peace, to eradicate your poverty, to set 'development' goals for you."

Rwanda was really a hard place for me to understand. It was difficult before I went there, because it was really hard to imagine what kind of atmosphere the place would have after one group of people tried to annihilate another.

I wondered how they relate to each other if at all. If I would be able to tell who Tutsi were and who the Hutu were. I wondered whether everyone had seen the killing, or survived attacks, or hidden during the attacks, or lost a loved one in the period.

Where there people who were not affected directly, or was every individual traumatized. I had never really had a chance to talk to a Rwandese person and ask them any questions. I was more than curious. I wanted to empathize, but I could not get my small heart or head around the sheer gravity and magnitude of what I was dealing with, and so I wondered more... how are they surviving?When I arrived there with the BBC crew that I was making a documentary with, I immediately (subconsciously) began to look at people's features so I could place them in context, so my body language would adjust appropriately, so my voice would adjust to empathize or be passive depending on who I was talking to.

I could not control any of these thought processes going on in my mind, and it was especially very confusing when I met people who were Tutsi in the presence of a Hutu person, then I really did not know what to do. In the recesses of my mind, something said the one tried to kill the other, and so even though I did not even know their names, my subconscious felt it was an "injustice" to mentally treat them the same way, and my body language and tone of voice followed the dictates of my mind.You have heard the statistics. 800,000 or more Tutsis and moderate Hutu's were killed by the Hutus... that statistic played over and over in my head... and I wondered what I would do if I was president of Rwanda after the Genocide, and on top of that, if I was from the victim tribe in the genocide. How would I possibly keep a clear head, heart, and purpose so as to be seen to run the country justly?

This is the context in which I met President Paul Kagame. I had read about him and had been visiting different parts of Rwanda for about 4 days. I had visited a genocide memorial located at a technical training institute, where may people were killed and buried in mass graves. Hundreds of bodies had been exhumed and preserved in lime, and were now on display on wooden racks in many classrooms that had been intended to be used for teaching before the genocide.

I had visited the prisons and met the genocidaires. You don’t know what to expect and you are not disappointed, since they just look like normal men. They are curious though because they don’t look angry, frustrated, red-eyed, murderous or deranged. They are just men in pink shirts and pink shorts, doing their chores like institutionalized people would, at a boarding school or even at a training camp of some sort.

I visited what they call demobilization camps, where young Hutu men who had fled to the Congo after the genocide, are taken in by the government. It is also like a camp but with no uniforms and it has not determined whether these are genocidaires or innocent people. They are counseled for months in order to prepare them for reintegration into the society.

I had my hair braided by a Congolese woman who was in Rwanda as a refugee from her own country. She says Rwanda is the safest place in the world, that you can walk in the middle of the night alone and no one would lay a finger on you. So she sought refuge and security in Rwanda. I bombarded her with questions about what underlies the peace, calm and security. What do Rwandese people talk about? Do they talk about the genocide? In what kind of tone do they talk about it? How do Tutsis talk about it, and how do Hutus talk about it. Are the Tutsi angry? Do they Cry? Do they console each other? What kinds of bonds have been formed from that common experience? What kind of strategies do they have to protect themselves in future? Do they wholly rely on government to provide that protection? Do the Hutu fear retaliation? What does either tribe tell their children about the genocide? What do they say about missing relatives who are either in Jail or in who died in the Genocide? Do they feel like the children who witnessed the genocide lost their innocence? Do they willingly tell the ones born after the genocide about it, and does this take away the children’s “innocence”?

I had been shown around by 2 Tutsi men who both fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) when they took over the country and stopped the genocide. Both had lost parents and siblings at the hand of childhood friends who were neighbors. One of them told me the guy who had killed his father used to go for sleep-overs at his house when they were younger. They had always lived next door to each other and that he still lives next door to their family. I asked him how he deals with this. He said many people have to deal with it, and that there was nothing he could do about it. When I asked him if he ever sees this guy, he said he did. I asked if he has ever talked to him, he said he says hello to him every morning!

I was shocked and asked him why he would do such a thing. He said that he did not want to be suspect if anything happened to the man and explained that in a bid to discourage counter-genocide, the government had taken a firm stance against anyone who retaliates for the killing of their family members. To set an example, the government had 2 Tutsi people executed. They had gone home and found their families dead after the genocide. Their neighbours were safe and sound. After being told that the neighbours were the murderers, they killed the neighbours. In order to send a clear message that this kind of killing will not be condoned, the government made it clear that people will effectively be prosecuted. That is why this guy says hello in public to the guy who killed his Dad.

I had also visited a Tea Factory in a predominantly Hutu District, where we were interviewing farmers about the effects of the recent privatization of the Tea factory to their business (That is a story on it's own).As we crisscrossed the country making this film, we often saw prisoners in their pink uniforms working on the side of the road, digging trenches, and doing other road work. I was told they were all genocidaires... and again, I could not get my head around the scene... they were mostly unguarded, sometimes stading around chatting and laughing. In my mind I kept on seeing the dead bodies I saw on television while in Kenya (I was only 13 then) and our local news was showing how thousands bodies were coming down a river all the way from Rwanda into Kenya, to drain into lake Victoria where the bodies were floating and being eaten by the fish., which people boycotted for a while. And now seeing these guys here at the side of roads everywhere in the country where they did this, the most difficult part was that their survivors and relatives of their victims were using these roads (most Rwandans don’t have cars and walk very long distances along the highways) and there seemed to be no chaos about to erupt... It did not make sense at all...

I would hesitate to ask the people who I thought were Hutu any questions to do with the genocide, as it was the first time in my life when I was consciously meeting anyone who had killed... and the problem was I did not know if they had. My mind was doing this blanket presumption of innocence on all "Tutsi looking" people and a presumption of guilt on "Hutu looking" people.This was the same with asking about what tribe someone was. I don't know why I felt the urge to know who everyone was, which "side of the line" they fell on... but I could only gather courage to ask the "Tutsi looking " people their tribe, and then follow later with "Where were you during the genocide?"… I could not help it.

Any way on the last day of our visit, we meet the president and the first question he asked me was "How do you find Rwanda?"... I said it all in a couple of sentences... "It is very alien, full of questions, full of mystery, it is hard for me to relate Mr. President, and that is why I wonder what it is like to be in your shoes..." We had an hour long discussion about many things, though my questions had to be succinct as I was trying to get in as much as possible not only for the film, but also for my own understanding.One of the answers, that Mr. Kagame gave that I will never forget, was "No One Owes Us Anything!" This was after I asked him "What did Rwandese people learn from the Genocide?" he gave this answer very quickly and then continued to elaborate that if you make a habit of ignoring your problem, choosing not to understand it and then effectively deal with it, then the ultimate result is what happened in Rwanda.

I pondered over that remark, and thought about a few of the policies that we had had time to talk about and the ideas behind them. The sale of loss making state enterprises, the reform of land tenure, the lowering of import and export tarrifs, dependency on Aid, encouraging more trade between African counties and making it easier for people to move with their goods across borders... (To be highlighted in another post).

My short visit with Mr. Kagame, exposed me to a man with such a Sharp sense of purpose, like is VERY rare in the few African Leaders I have met, actually it is singularity of vision that I have only seen in very successful businessmen, whose enterprise has targets, competitors, and a winning strategy and like you find only in someone who understands deeply where his people have been, where they are, and where they have to go. It was evident in the things he said, the way he said them and the people he had surrounding him.

That is the mental space that I perceived the president of Rwanda to be in. The edge where purpose dictates his steps. Rwanda is going places.


Roberto Iza Valdes said...
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Roberto Iza Valdes said...
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