Country Background Information
Nearly twenty years later, millions of Rwandans still struggle to move on with their lives. While any given day there will be little mention of anything related to the genocide, the memory and deeds of the genocide remain highly palpable. From scattered memorials marking mass grave sites to the painful absence of loved ones in nearly all families, Rwandans must face the genocide, its historical causes and related consequences, every day.
There is evidence of healing. Rwandans are searching for comfort, respect, societal and individual betterment, and for answers as to why the genocide occurred and how it can be prevented in the future. They are striving to rebuild the bonds of trust that were shattered by the violence in 1994 and trying to live without fear and depression. But the healing will most likely be a process that lasts for generations, especially given that Rwanda does not exist in a vacuum. The Democratic Republic of Congo (some of which was considered part of Rwanda prior to colonialism) has been the site of numerous wars involving not only land and mineral grabs, but also ethnic strife.
To describe the genocide, its past and its impact is not an easy task.
In 1994, close to one million people were killed in just 100 days as part of an orchestrated genocide led by a Hutu government aimed at destroying the Tutsi minority as well as moderate Hutus who were working in real or perceived opposition to the government. At the time, 84% of Rwandans were Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa.
The slaughter was preceded by years of political and social oppression along ethnic lines, first by the Tutsi (pushed/manipulated by German and then Belgian colonizers) over the Hutu, and later by the Hutu (after independence) over the Tutsi. Persecution and massacres of Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu since the late 1950s created waves of Tutsi refugees, many of whom banded together in Uganda to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which later invaded Rwanda in 1990 to try to re-take power.
The RPF invasion sparked talks of peace, power-sharing, and reintegration, but it also fed the genocidal urges of the most influential people in the Hutu government, military and civil society. When the Hutu president's plane was shot down on the night of April 6, 1994, the genocidal fire ignited.
While there has been a tendency to blame the genocide on ethnic divisions and the errant colonial policies of the Germans and Belgians, the roots of the conflict are very complex and not as easily simplified. In fact, many of the factors initially contributing to the violence are still in place today: grinding poverty, hand-to-mouth existence from subsistence farming, class struggle, intense population pressure (Rwanda was and is the most densely populated country in Africa) and a deep, sometimes blind, public respect for authority.
The international response to the genocide was perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. Political indifference, insensitivity and racism "prevented" the international community from stepping-in to stop the violence, despite every indication that a genocide was unfolding in Rwanda. Moreover, while there has been no suit filed yet and no sentence handed down on the French, most Rwandans maintain that the French even trained and encouraged genocidaires to slaughter the Tutsis.
Eventually, the genocidaires were stopped by the advancing army of RPF rebels, mostly Tutsi. As the RPF army seized control of the country, tens of thousands of Hutus fled to neighboring countries fearful of retaliation. Tutsi exiles, who had been living outside of Rwanda for decades, streamed back into the country. Most Hutus were eventually repatriated, although a significant refugee population still exists and some Hutu militias still operate in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, threatening the of Rwandans and Congolese there more so than Rwanda itself.
The jails are now full and Rwandans are seeking justice and accountability for the atrocities committed during the genocide. A UN-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in November 1994, but as of June 2006, the tribunal had handed down only 22 judgments on 28 accused. A community-based process called gacaca (literally translated as "on the grass" in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language) was launched as an alternative means of seeking justice based on more traditional Rwandan practices. However, the gacaca process has not been without its share of challenges, such as an initial lack of participation from community-members (the law now requires participation) and fear of prosecution, among other challenges. In 2004 and 2005, thousands of Rwandans flocked across the Burundian border for fear of prosecution. Regarding youth, approximately 4,000 young people between the ages of 14-18 were imprisoned for their role in genocidal activities, but many of them were released in 2004 due to a presidential decree to ease population pressure in the prisons.
Despite these challenges, however, there is widespread peace in Rwanda. The streets of Kigali are easily some of the safest of any capital city in the world and the rest of the country is no exception. Moreover, the current Government of National Unity has made convincing strides to jumpstart the development process in Rwanda, most notably through its emphasis on security, peace, anti-corruption laws, improvement of roads and infrastructure, and an emphasis on information and communication technology.
Yet, the gap between the rich and poor is widening in Rwanda and perhaps represents the greatest threat to Rwanda's future, along with rising food costs, water shortages, and widespread trauma and depression.
Still, numerous economic, social and environmental development initiatives (both locally and internationally initiated) do exist, and it is too early to discount the chances these efforts have of bringing tangible economic and psycho-social change to everyday Rwandans. One major development in Rwanda, begun in 2004, that has made a significant difference in the way people feel and operate was the opening of the radio airwaves to private radio stations, of which there are now approximately 10.
All of this taking place with the Government of National Unity also struggles to build and strengthen fundamental democratic institutions. While Rwanda has had large voter turnout at elections, including that of President Kagame in 2003, and while women hold the greatest percentage of parliamentary seats compared to any country in the world, there has been widespread criticism that the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has retained its power through intimidation of the opposition, fraud, and by playing on the country's fears of renewed violence and ethnic clashes.
In 2004, the Rwandan government clamped down on human rights and civil society organizations by accusing them of spreading "divisionism" and "genocidal ideology". The leading political opposition party was accused of "divisionism". As Human Rights Watch reports, the Rwandan government "often cites the need to avoid another genocide as the purported justification for such repressive measures." HRW also notes that suppression of so-called "divisionism" may also be an attempt to suppress public criticism of government policies.
Set within this context, the next generations in Rwanda face a wide-ranging and interconnected set of challenges. Youth who were survivors, perpetrators and witnesses of the 1994 violence still need to heal. Tens of thousands of them lost their families and still suffer from wounds both physical and psychological. They want to go to secondary school, but school fees must be paid. Those lucky enough to complete school want to apply their knowledge, but find the competition for limited jobs daunting. In what was, after the genocide, the poorest country in the world, incredible progress is visible in many areas, but there is still much to be done. Global Youth Connect aims to play whatever positive role it effectively can in assisting the youth and the people of Rwanda in furthering their great progress and promise, and repairing some of the damage that international actions and decisions caused to this small nation, its people, and the whole world in the process.
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