Rwanda’s Recovery

When Remembrance Is Official Policy

Trying times: Rwandans at a gacaca trial, June 2002. Antony Njuguna / Reuters

When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel movement led by Paul Kagame, captured control of Rwanda and halted the genocide in July 1994, it inherited not so much a state as a cemetery. In the preceding 100 days, 800,000 people out of a national population of seven million had been murdered, the majority by their neighbors and other civilians. Seventy percent of all Tutsis, the ethnic minority that had been the target of the Hutu génocidaires, were dead, along with 30 percent of all Twas, the smallest of Rwanda’s ethnic groups. Throughout Rwanda, roads, rivers, and pit latrines were clogged with rotting corpses. The infrastructure of the country—houses, roads, hospitals, offices, schools, power stations, and reservoirs—lay in ruins. Nearly all government workers—politicians, judges, civil servants, doctors, nurses, and teachers—had died or fled. Looters had emptied the banks, leaving the national treasury without a single Rwandan franc.

The genocide reverberated across central Africa. Two million Rwandan refugees, mainly Hutus, escaped into neighboring countries in one of the largest exoduses of the twentieth century, producing a humanitarian crisis in cholera-infested refugee camps across the region. The camps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) provided the conditions for Hutu militias to regroup and plot a return to Rwanda to finish the job of exterminating all Tutsis.

As this rebel threat expanded in the borderlands and thousands of genocide perpetrators roamed freely throughout Rwanda, there was no police force to ensure security. Small numbers of distraught RPF soldiers who had arrived to find their loved ones murdered and entire villages wiped out committed revenge killings. In the most prominent case, in April 1995, the RPF killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Hutu civilians in a refugee camp in Kibeho, in southwestern Rwanda. 

Meanwhile, the Tutsi-dominated RPF began rounding up tens of thousands of genocide suspects and transporting them to prisons around the country. By the end of 1995, around 120,000 genocide suspects were languishing in jails built to hold only 45,000 inmates. The national

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