1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
An emotionally distraught woman is carried out of Amahoro Stadium during the 20th anniversary commemoration of the 1994 genocide. Twenty years on, Rwandans are still scarred by their past.Image: Getty Images

Rwanda’s genocidal past haunts its present

Sophie Kirby
December 8, 2014

#blamemyparents features Jean Claude, a young man conceived in rape during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. While the country has undergone a transformation since then, the tiny nation can’t escape its history.


Over a 100-day period in 1994, scenes of brutality played out across Rwanda. The country’s lush landscapes transformed into killing fields and churches became slaughterhouses in an ethnic conflict that saw extremist members of the Hutu majority murder minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped. An estimated 800,000 people died.

Twenty years on, the small African nation of almost 12 million people seems to have taken great strides in dealing with the genocide and its legacy.

The lawlessness of the past appears to have been replaced by order and cleanliness, as #link:http://www.todayszaman.com/life_a-green-and-clean-african-country-rwanda_319900.html:many visitors to the small landlocked country remark#. Rwanda’s government, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, has #link:http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.NAHC/countries/RW?display=graph:reduced the poverty rate#, channelled funds into improving infrastructure and launched reconciliation projects like #link:www.gov.rw/Umuganda-takes-place-across-Rwanda-marking-20-years-of-Liberation:a compulsory monthly community day devoted to sprucing up the country#.

“Today, you see people living side by side, working together, developing the country,” Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, #link:www.foreignaffairs.com/discussions/interviews/rebooting-rwanda:said in a recent interview#. “After total disintegration, the country is making progress, because the country has come back together.”

REUTERS/Noor Khamis
Rwandan President Paul Kagame delivers his speech during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in Kigali April 7, 2014.Image: Reuters

Under its policy of reconciliation, the government has #link:http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/09/international/africa/09RWAN.html:banned ethnic categories#: now Hutus, Tutsis, and the country’s third ethnicity, the Twa, are told to see themselves simply as “Rwandans.

‘Division more stark than before’

#link:muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/human_rights_quarterly/v036/36.4.conway.html:But many international observers say the measure has only served to mask ethnic tensions.#“Everyone pretends ethnicity doesn’t exist. But within the family, everyone knows what they are,” says Professor Timothy Longman, an expert on Rwanda #link:www.bu.edu/polisci/files/2014/03/Longman.pdf:who has conducted extensive research in the country for organizations including Human Rights Watch.# “In many ways, the division between the groups is more stark than it was before.”

Mistrust felt by Tutsi survivors of the genocide towards the Hutu, who make up around 84 percent of the population, has led to greater physical segregation, too, Longman says, pointing out that the population of the capital, Kigali, has swelled with Tutsis; the majority of Hutus living in the countryside.

Reliance on international aid

Rwanda has also undergone what #link:www.nationalreview.com/articles/254972/rwanda-s-economic-miracle-deroy-murdock:some have called an ‘economic miracle’in the past two decades#.

Kagame’s focus on infrastructure and #link:http://www.transparency.org/cpi2014/results:success in tackling corruption# has encouraged foreign investment and international aid, such as a recent pledge by the World Bank to “#link:www.worldbank.org/en/country/rwanda/publication/new-world-bank-group-development-strategy-will-help-rwanda-create-jobs-boost-agricultural-productivity-and-spur-private-sector-investments:invest $1 billion or more new resources in the next five years.#” Rwanda’s GDP has grown an average #link:www.worldbank.org/en/country/rwanda/overview:of 8 percent annually since 2001#.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an adviser to Kagame’s regime, has #link:www.tonyblairoffice.org/news/entry/tony-blair-meets-with-visionary-leader-paul-kagame-during-latest-two-day-vi/:named him a “visionary”# for the transformation.

Rwanda’s leaders “have become the new darlings of the international development community for embracing environmentally-sound, and at least ostensibly business-friendly forms of sustainable, long-term economic development,” says Frank Smyth, an investigative journalist who has covered Rwanda since the genocide for major US publications.

International assistance accounts for much of Rwanda’s growth, as the country has few natural resources and low levels of industrialization. “The government can claim that the economy is growing, but the growth is primarily because of major investments. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Longman.

The danger of relying too much on international investment was highlighted in mid-2012 when Rwanda #link:www.worldbank.org/en/country/rwanda/overview:experienced a sudden and sharp drop in aid#, leading to a decline in growth the following year.

Allegations of abuse

As well as the prospect of fluctuations in international aid, #link:www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0:numerous reports# of repression under Kagame’s government are also causing concern both at home and abroad. On New Year’s Day this year, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, whom Kagame accused of treason, #link:17538671:was found strangled in a South African hotel#.

“Mass killings and other gross human rights abuses have been all but eliminated (but) individually-targeted human rights abuses have intensified and have sadly become the norm,” says Smyth, who is alsoa senior advisor for journalist security at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Rwanda's new rulers have proven themselves to be unyielding dictators in their own right.”

That Kagame still enjoys broad popularity at home is down to the relative stability he has created, says Eleni Coundouriotis, director of the research program on humanitarianism at the University of Connecticut’s Human Rights Institute. “Kagame has set up this regime that’s not a democracy as such, but it has brought stability and peace for people. You can’t ignore the value of that,” she says - though she stresses that the Rwandan leader should be judged on his record as a whole.

According to Longman, the tendency to focus on the country’s relative stability, rather than potential high-level abuse applies equally to international powers. “You have a regime that is good at development, so the international community is willing to turn a blind eye and pour money in, and help to keep a regime in power that’s abusing its own people … I think what’s happened is the regime has suggested to the world that you have to make a choice between economic development and human rights.”

Photo: James Nzibavuga
A district in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, shows the level of development there. Littering is punishable by heavy fines and plastic bags are banned for environmental reasons.Image: James Nzibavuga

Others believe that the country is not yet ready to embrace democracy fully. “The irony is that it may be a necessary dictatorship,” says Smyth. “Any attempt to move to democratic majority rule brings with it the threat of genocidaires or at least Hutu extremists coming back to power.”

With the past so present in the memories of Western leaders and Rwandans, the scarred nation looks set to continue its uniquely progressive and regressive path.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed into law a regulation that bans LGBT 'propaganda.'

Russian law bans LGBTQ 'propaganda'

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage