The Extraordinary Renewal Of Rwanda

The shaft of light from a somber stained glass window at the heart of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is said to symbolise hope.  Designed by Ardyn Halter, the son of Auschwitz survivor Roman Halter, it depicts the descent to genocide and is set atop a series of steps indicating the points where warnings could have been heeded, where turning back was still an option. But the world watched mutely as the final barrier was breached, and Rwanda descended into hell.

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What I had always assumed to be the conflagration of existing tribal rivalries turned out to be a misconception. The Rwandan account claims no distinction between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes in physical appearance, language or cultural beliefs. Status, it appears, was always based on wealth rather than ethnicity.

The message then is that genocide wasn’t inevitable. Colonial compulsions and manipulative politics played on class divides and led Rwanda down the path to devastation. The details are too many to fit into one short post. But briefly: the stage was set as early as 1933, when Belgium fanned divisions in its African colony by issuing distinguishing identity cards.

Two decades later, the Tutsi king’s attempts to usher in democracy and independence was countered by orchestrating a Hutu rebellion. Tutsi fled the ensuing purges in droves. The ‘divide and rule’ propaganda was further manipulated post independence in 1962, including the use of discriminatory quotas.

Chafing at harsh refugee laws and opposition to naturalisation, Tutsi exiles in Uganda set up the Rwandese Patriotic Front to facilitate a return to their homeland. In 1990 the military wing of the organisation invaded Rwanda. The incumbent government requested and was granted help from France to put down the rebellion. A peace accord favouring the RPF was signed in 1993 that upset Hutu hardliners in the government, who then whipped up hate by encouraging vitriolic racist broadcasts on the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines.

The mysterious shooting down of president Grégoire Habyarimana’s plane on April 6 1994 was the final catalyst for an all out massacre. A coded fax by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire – Canadian commander of the UNAMIR – warning of the presence of arms caches and impending plans for ethnic cleansing, was ignored by the UN.

The Interahamwe, a Hutu extremist group instantly seized power and nearly a million Rwandans – Tutsi and moderate Hutu – were systematically exterminated in the course of just one hundred days between April 7 and mid July.

Neighbours turned on neighbours. Women were brutalised and deliberately infected with HIV. Catholic priests abetted the merciless slaughter of thousands of parishioners cowering in churches*. Members of the UN Security Council meanwhile collectively excluded the ‘G’ word from every resolution on Rwanda.

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Mass graves in the grounds of the memorial centre.

Two days after the start of the massacres, the RPF army initiated a fresh offensive that culminated in the capture of Kigali, and put an end to the genocide under the leadership of  Paul Kagame: a Tutsi refugee from Uganda, who went on to become vice president and president. And poster boy for progress.

Kagame scripted Rwanda’s extraordinary climb out of the dark and devastating chasm of mass murder, and transformed the economy of this tiny landlocked state with few resources. Rwandans today boast a national identity unencumbered by ethnic tags. Reconciliation processes, they claim, have seen perpetrators and victims move forward with grace and dignity. A practice called Imihigo, encourages accountability and community participation in governance.

Most impressive of all is Rwanda’s position at 49 on the Corruption Perception Index 2013 (up from 53 in 2012!)…..well ahead of many European nations, and miles ahead of democratic India. Also, an ambitious plan aims to raise Rwanda to international middle income range by 2020! A textbook example of the power of leadership with vision, albeit an authoritarian one that has increasingly come under pressure for its questionable democratic credentials.

It is hard to believe you are in sub-Saharan Africa when you disembark at Kigali. The airport and immigration experience is pleasant, the roads smooth and well marked, tourist infrastructure friendly and welcoming. The capital is spotless, thanks to the ban on plastic, and a compulsory community enhancing program called Umuganda, in which the president and his council of ministers lead by example in cleaning the streets every last Saturday of the month.

“If one billion of us adopt Umuganda, we could clean the entire world!” quipped an astounded R.

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Just past the memorial section with soul searing descriptions of the genocide, is another stained glass window by the same artist that depicts steps leading up from the carnage and into the future. While Rwanda’s future appears bright beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, tensions persist.

Security is tight. Scanning of bags and frisking at hotels and malls is mandatory and meticulous. While our guide brushed it off as a precautionary measure post the bombings in Kenya, it is evident that fear of insurgency from exiled genocidaires across the border, and a slide back into chaos is very real. Forced reconciliations and the sidelining of Hutu loss in the genocide, many feel, might also exacerbate simmering tensions.

But optimism and pride is equally palpable. Dorcy Rugumba, acclaimed theatre director, who lost many members of his family on day one of the genocide, voices his people’s optimism in this Guardian interview:

“You just have to trust that the killers will not raise their children in hate, and that those children will succeed in inventing their own future, and not follow in their fathers’ ways. Because people are not predestined to be bad, you know. You have to believe that or you’d be lost.

Writing this, my second genocide post, I am not so sure I do.

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*We did not visit the church memorials. But here and here are a blogger friend’s accounts of two horrific sites. Be warned….her images are not for the squeamish.

And below is a list of some fascinating stories from Rwanda:
Rwandan Stories
A Good Man From Rwanda
Portraits of reconciliation
Frontline: The Triumph Of Evil 


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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

65 thoughts on “The Extraordinary Renewal Of Rwanda

  1. A very poignant tale, you have wonderfully narrated the various facets and aspects of the human conflict and consequences…great post!!!

  2. About a year ago, I met a Rwandan genocide survivor, Jean, through a mutual friend. I will never forget the story he told – how his mother took his two siblings and fled to Kenya, while he and his father fled west towards the DRC. One night, as they were hiding out near the border, his father was captured by the militia. Jean said his father was “lucky” to be shot and not killed by machete.

    Jean grew up an orphan, and had to wait many years for the news that his mother had died of sickness in a refugee camp, and that his siblings had been taken in by relatives in Canada. Eventually Jean managed to find them on Facebook and reconnect. What amazes me is that he has no bitterness or resentment because of what happened, in spite of the fact that he was robbed of both parents and a stable, normal childhood.

    R is right, imagine what a difference we’d make if every country adopted Umuganda! I’m glad to hear of the steps Rwanda has been taking – not just towards reconciliation but also overall development. And I’m not surprised you hinted at the not-so-rosy side of Kagame’s regime. Thank you, Madhu, for this powerful and thought-provoking post.

    1. James, I remember being moved by Jean’s amazing story. That dignity and strength is palpable in Rwanda, and I am hopeful it will prevail there. But I wish there was a way of putting an end to the periodic resurgence of human bestiality around the globe.

      There is a ‘Swach Bharath’ (clean india) campaign underway here at the moment led by our new PM. Not sure if he was inspired by Kagame, but it is a superhuman task that I hope won’t go down the way of many of our earlier campaigns. Fingers and toes crossed 🙂

  3. A sad, but informative post, Madhu. Good that the story be repeated so that hopefully, humankind will stop looking away when thiings like this are happening.

    1. We hope and pray humankind has learned its lesson every time, but the mistakes keep recurring periodically. Almost every two decades! That’s scary Angeline.

  4. Thank you from me too. I’m shamed by my ignorance of what was happening in Rwanda. What drew you to travel there? Umuganda sounds like a concept worth replicating in many ways. I’m afraid I feel unoptimistic too, having just witnessed a vituperative encounter between two men over a traffic incident. A small thing, but indicative of something in human beings that seeks conflict.

    1. Our main focus was to see the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. I had read about how much Rwanda had progressed since the horrors of the nineties but we were still amazed by the extent of their progress. I hope to return for a longer visit.

      I am not optimistic for the same reasons Meg. The veneer of civilization appears too fragile to withstand inherent human greed and bestiality every single time.

  5. How horrible that things spiraled into hell the way they did. This is a great encapsulation of the history of this particular genocide, Madhu. Your photos are beautiful and moving as always too. Thanks for sharing.

      1. You’re welcome, Madhu. It’s great to find some time to visit my old blogging friends. Now that I’m settling in here in China, I’m getting into a better routine for visits. 🙂

  6. The Rwanda story is a sad one. Even those claiming the moral high ground of religion joined in the killing which shows that the natural inclination of mankind is brutish without effective control. The UN is a toothless entity with supporters of major contenders for world domination blocking anything effective from happening in a crisis in order to establish their authority. What one wants the other will block on principle. I suppose in a sense that’s better than an undisputed world dominating power imposing its will on the world for its own gain. Whichever it is, the bulk of our world population is suffering today in one way or another.

    1. I agree fully Ian. The Rwanda debacle is a particularly poignant example of the lack of humanity in world politics.

  7. Very well written, informative post Madhu…. I don’t feel ‘like’ is appropriate here because of the subject matter, but great job.

  8. You did well squashing it down into a blog post. Well researched, written and put. It’s truly horrifying, and at the same time what a transformation in the years since!

    Most of the time I believe Dorcy Rugumba, but sometimes it is hard.

  9. You have visited a genocide memorial that few of us will ever see, Madhu. I admire you for tackling this subject. We need to be reminded of these evils and I pray that renewal and optimism win out over the factions and resentments that will always lurk. I don’t think that ever goes away, regardless of the efforts. The Cambodians we talked to are still fearful of what can happen again. The symbolism in the stained glass windows is both creative and poignant.

    1. Despite all the reports we read, we would never be truly aware of the horrors that take place around the world if we didn’t travel to these places Lynne. The impact of the Killing Fields was especially shocking for us.

  10. A very bad situation, expertly told. These memories give me shivers, and I always felt bad for Rwanda, such as a small country, such a large history (and most of it war-torn).

  11. So beautifully and thoughtfully written, but still so difficult to read. I will focus on hope, that the cycle of genocide and hate will finally end.

    Hope you are safe and enjoying yourself where ever you are!


    1. Thank you for reading Elisa. I am just back from a wonderful week reconnecting with my sisters and extended family.

  12. Madhu, this is such a powerful post on probably one of the most intriguing countries for me on the planet. The more I read about Rwanda the more I believe that if people try really hard and commit to it – in this case Umuganda and national reconciliation – a brighter future is truly apparent. Think of countries like Iraq and Syria, no matter how depressing their situations are, let us all not lose hope. Rwanda sounds a perfect place for people to believe in themselves and the good things the world deserves.

    1. Very true Bama. Rwanda’s turnaround is a great example to follow. Not just for strife torn countries around the world but for dysfunctional ones like ours as well. Here’s to hope! 🙂

  13. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Your post on genocide does hit some positive notes. Like you, Madhu, I am less optimistic about people’s ability to view “others” as different and unequal. I hope that Dorcy Rugumba’s view of the next generation’s ability to overcome hatred prevails.

  14. Extraordinary story, Madhu. What a tangled mess! I knew little of this and aside from the wonderful notion of our politicians cleaning the streets I’m not too hopeful for the future. But we have to be, don’t we? Hugs, darlin’. Thanks for sharing.

  15. This was a very poignant post Madhu. Thank you for sharing a part of Rwanda’s history that I knew little about.

  16. Rwanda was indeed an atrocious event with everybody turning their eyes away for… a hundred days? that’s a long time to avert one’s eyes. Thanks for sharing Madhu.
    Be good

  17. beautifully written. Hate could and must be conquored, as shown by Mandela and now Kigame. We in India and Pakistan should learn about hate management and about cleaning the streets from Ruandah. This post is also informative, I did not know so much.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment Shakil. We in the subcontinent have a lot to learn from the Rwandan episode. Primarily not to be taken in by political rhetoric from either side. It is disheartening to see educated people believe the propaganda. We can only hope😊

  18. The same old sad stupid story we hear again and again. You would think people would be tired of it by now. Evidently not.
    And yet your account of Rwanda’s ascent — however fragile, however tentative — is a sign of hope. I hope you are having good days, optimistic days, wherever you and your sisters alight.

    1. We did Judith and I am grateful. For family and especially for my freedom that I tend to take for granted until my travels underscore its value. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  19. That was humanity at its worst, across the tribes, races and religions, right from the scheming Belgians, down to the feckless animals masquerading as humans. Sadly, I can see virulent spores of the very same dynamics in the middle east and Afghanistan, and inland too. Trust humans to never learn from histories. Kudos to you for that comprehensive piece on Rwanda.

  20. Wow, this is so powerful Madhu. I have read a lot about the genocide and still find it hard to believe that it happened and it continues to happen to this day around the world. It is so insanely awful. I would love to go to Rwanda. I have read a lot of books about hope and the beautiful culture there despite the atrocities. I look forward to reading more about your experience there.

    1. We barely had three full days in Rwanda Nicole. I would love to return for a longer visit myself. Their resilience was inspiring.

  21. I hope the reconstruction of the country goes unhindered and uninterrupted now. Your post is very thoughtful and informative though I can’t help but be hurt reading this history (and all otehr history). Why is it that most if not all is written in blood?

  22. The violence and brutality in Rwanda is one of those things I just cannot fathom. I canot understand how it began, why it continues, or what it would be like to live in conditions like this. I just can’t comprehend it.

    1. Me neither Juliann. Especially when the brutality is inflicted on one’s own people. The presentation of the Cambodian killing fields was even more shocking.

  23. a very sad and painful story beautifully and thoughtfully written, Madhu. thank you for sharing this very informative post.

  24. The divide and rule propaganda runs rampant everywhere, it appears. It is sad that money and power trump humanity in so many cases.

    1. Always Marcy. I am convinced the main manipulators in every case, do not even believe in relgion or ethnicity. You would think the ‘masses’ would know better by now.

  25. It’s amazing the difference a few years can make at smoothing over the scars, at least superficially. I’ve also heard that Sierra Leone is starting to be a tourist destination again. Let’s hope the calm remains in both places.

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