On April 7, 1994, the genocide directed against Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus began. 21 years on, Rwandans have made considerable progress on the road to reconciliation and are focusing on economic development.
"I saw people set houses on fire and commit murders – it is very difficult to get these images out of my head," D'Artagnan Habintwali said. He was only five years old when the killing began in his native city of Butare, in the south of Rwanda. Now a student, images of the violence still haunt him. Between April and July 1994, the land of a thousand hills was the scene of massacres, as the government carried out a planned campaign to kill the Tutsi minority. The Hutu majority was encouraged to kill the "inyenzi," the "cockroaches." The slaughter unfolded in front of the eyes of a paralyzed international community. The United Nations estimates that about 800,000 people lost their lives.
Fostering a sense of shared identity
In the last decades Rwandans have come a long way on the arduous road to reconciliation. One of the first things the new government did was to eliminate the reference to ethnicity in identification documents. From then on, the country's inhabitants were all "Rwandans."
The practice of doing regular community work, which was grounded in the Rwandan tradition of "umuganda," was reintroduced not only as part of the effort to rebuild the country but as a way to foster a community spirit. Once a month, Rwandans are called upon to perform communal tasks such as building a house for the needy, laying a road or sweeping a square.
The legal process of investigating the genocide and restoring justice proved to be one of the most difficult aspects that had to be dealt with. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set up immediately in 1994 in Arusha, Tanzania, in order to prosecute those mainly responsible for the genocide.
A total of 65 people were tried at the ICTR; 38 were convicted and sentenced to long jail terms.
On a national level, traditional community courts called "gacaca" were revived in 2001. Between 2005 and 2012 these courts tried almost two million people across the country. International human rights organizations were concerned because the courts hardly met international legal standards, something they said had led to judicial errors.
"Gacacas were there for people to tell the truth, but also to give people the time and a forum in which to talk to each other," said Jean Damascene Gasanabo, a senior official of the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG). "You can't just tell your neighbor it's time to reconcile; we had to initiate this process."
In Simbi, a village in the south, not far from the border to Burundi, more than 5,000 people fell victim to the genocide. Today the community lives together in peace again. A local nongovernmental organization called "Association Modeste et Innocent" or AMI, as in the French word for friend, had promoted reconciliation.
Jean-Pierre Karenzi was involved in the genocide. He spent many years in jail for his crimes. Since his release in 2005 he has been working for the community in Simbi. Today he looks back on his past in shame. "I participated in the genocide, because the government at the time incited us to do so."
Jean-Baptiste Kanobayire also lives in Simbi. The 70-year-old survivor was one of the first to take part in AMI's courses. He suffered a great deal. "But as time went by, I decided that life had to go on," he said. "We came together to join forces and work toward progress and unity."
For several years, the members of the community of Simbi have been organized in an agricultural cooperative called "Duharanire Ubumwe N'Ubwiyunge" – "Working Toward Unity and Reconciliation." Together, the members of the cooperative want to boost agricultural production – for them, a sign of development.
Promoting economic progress
The government in Kigali is also counting on economic progress to help the country achieve lasting reconciliation. A poverty reduction program, with measures such as the introduction of health insurance for all, the targeted improvement of educational opportunity as well as a promotion of the private sector had already yielded results, according to Daniela Beckmann, the head of Germany's state-owned development bank, KFW, in Kigali. Rwanda had reduced its poverty rate by 12 percent within 5 years. It now stood at 45%, Beckmann said, adding that in comparison to other African countries that was an extremely good result. But this did not mean there were no challenges ahead, she warned. After all, Rwanda needs foreign aid to meet half of its budgeted expenses.
Demanding a political opening
Democracy must take root in Rwanda, says the chairman of the Democratic Green Party of Ruanda, Frank Habineza.
As one of the few representatives of a domestic political opposition, Frank Habineza, the chairman of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR), criticizes the income gap, saying that Rwanda was the country with the greatest inequality in East Africa. "Our party is more focused on social justice so that we can distribute resources equitably," he said, "but we believe that for this to be sustainable or possible, it requires opening up more political space, having democracy take root in Rwanda so that people feel confident in investing their money - and even foreign investments come to Rwanda, when people feel that it is safe and the country will be safe for the next generation."
In the next presidential election in 2017, the young party wants to field a candidate to give the population an alternative to Paul Kagame. Since the genocide, the former rebel leader's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has had almost exclusive control over the country's destiny. The RPF won the last parliamentary elections in September 2013 with over two-thirds of the votes.
Focusing on the future
The capital, Kigali, has 1.2 million inhabitants. It is regarded as a symbol of Rwanda's progress. In the city center, one commercial skyscraper after the next is being built. Mayor Fidele Ndayisiba is convinced that "if the pace of development continues, in 10 years time Kigali will be a modern, flourishing city."
Even if the people beyond the city center still have to wait for modernity to arrive, Rwandans are patient and optimistic about the future. Today D'Artagnan Habintwali, the traumatized boy from Butare, is 25 years old. He has almost completed his studies and wants to become a writer. "There will come a time when everything will be alright," he says confidently.