Rwanda, a tiny and poor African country, is just under half the size of Ireland and has a population of 6.7 million. Few people in the West paid attention to this cramped and mountainous land until in the space of three months in 1994 ethnic tensions exploded and an estimated 800,000 people were shot and butchered to death.
Today, though poor, Rwanda presents a brave, benign face to the outsider. The streets and roads around Kigali, the capital city, are well paved and mostly pothole free. Cars and motorcycles cram the crowded thoroughfares.
There is the buzz of a busy, pulsing city. Signs and billboards advertise the hundreds of humanitarian organizations based in Kigali, describing everything from HIV/AIDS projects to agricultural programs. Rappers Tupac Shakur and Sisqo appear as wall murals here and there along the streets.
The cultivation of the land is intense here, prompting comparisons with Ireland. Families are large, especially in the countryside.
“It makes me think of what Ireland may have been like before the Famine,” said Sinead Tynan, the Central African desk officer for Concern, the Irish humanitarian agency based in Dublin, which has a significant presence in Rwanda.
“Every scrap of land is planted. And there is a heavy reliance on a few crops such as cassava [a root vegetable with poor nutritional value], which, if they were to fail, could cause major problems,” she continued.
Disaster has already visited Rwanda. Indeed, its name now synonymous with genocide. On top of the “usual” problems associated with poor African countries — malnutrition, health problems, and sanitation — Rwanda as a nation of people suffers from the psychological trauma of mass murder that took place in virtually every part of the country.
The enormous complexity of the problems facing it sometimes seem insurmountable for the humanitarian agencies like Concern that seek to help.
Though complex, the situation can be summed up thus: the country has been afflicted by ethnic tension because of the traditionally unequal relationship between the dominant Tutsi minority and the majority Hutus.
Although after 1959 the ethnic relationship was reversed, when civil war prompted around 200,000 Tutsis to flee to neighboring Burundi, lingering resentment led to periodic massacres of Tutsis.
The worst of these came in April 1994. The shooting down of the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana near the capital Kigali — suspected by Hutus to be the work of Tutsi rebels — triggered a highly organized attempt by Hutus to eliminate the Tutsi population.
The Hutu killers were known chillingly as the Interahamwe: those who kill together.
Perhaps 800,000 people were massacred before an exiled Tutsi army from Uganda next door invaded and put a stop to the genocide. The exact number of deaths is unknown.
One expert, Peter Uvin, a professor of International Humanitarian Studies at Tufts University, put forward the controversial theory that in the 1980s humanitarian organizations unwittingly exacerbated the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide.
Clearly, however, the tensions were already in place before development groups had started to assist in Rwanda.
Some 2 million Hutus fled after the genocide to Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. They included some of those responsible for the massacres.
The decisions facing organizations like Concern are therefore extreme. Said Tynan, during a recent visit to Rwanda, “We were faced with a situation that there were a million refugees there, but some are mass murderers.”
Eddie Rogers is Concern’s country director for Rwanda. He said that while often the genocide goes unspoken in the local population, its psychological effects are readily apparent.
“Local staff go a bit flaky on you sometimes,” he said. “They may not show up for work for days at a time, and when they reappear, they say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m the only person in my family left. I just don’t feel like working.’ “
His colleague John Minto is a gregarious Englishman. Part of his work with Concern is the administering of a program of small loans to poor countryside families, usually amounts between $20 and $50, which are given as short-term payments to help kick start a cottage industry.
The loans are called post-conflict loans, but Minto said that a better term might be “pre-conflict loans,” because relief workers sometimes sense from speaking to locals that the genocide could happen again.
It would be easy for relief workers such as Rogers and Minto to despair in the face of intractable ethnic hatred. But Rwanda, with international help, has made enormous strides to overcome its problems.
Key to the successes have been Rwandan women, who after the genocide were often left as the head of households; in some cases, with both parents murdered, it was children as young as 12 and 13 who were left to hold families together.
In the south of Rwanda an Irish woman, Lorraine Hanlon, runs a Concern program that seeks to improve the lot of such children by talking to children and local authorities about human rights and the need to better the appalling situation the children find themselves in.
Sinead Tynan admitted that measuring the success of such programs is much more difficult than say a program to improve water sanitation or agricultural productivity. But it is just as important to do the work: if the lot of one child is improved, there has been a success.
“The resilience of the people is extraordinary,” Tynan said. “From Concern’s perspective the people of Rwanda are amazingly spirited and the country is bouncing back in many ways, bouncing back against the odds.”
She added that the small success stories that relief workers encounter day to day are rarely noticed by the outside world.
“The war and genocide left 85,000 households without parents,” Tynan added. “[But] over 7,400 children were assisted through training, literacy classes and activities such as agriculture.”
In Kigali last Friday, a group of locally hired Concern workers, both Hutus and Tutsis, clambered into white Toyota landcruisers after 5 o’clock and as the sun was setting, drove to La Palesse, a local watering hole.
In the vehicles the conversation was boisterous in anticipation of the weekend. One young man who called himself J.P., for Jean-Paul, shouted above the din that people had to stop talking about work because it was after 5 o’clock on Friday and therefore the weekend had started.
“We’re only allowed to talk about Primus,” he shouted. Primus is the locally brewed Rwandan beer. As they ordered bottles of Coca-Cola, Fanta and Primus, and chatted excitedly it seemed impossible that these 20- and 30-something Rwandans would let their country slide backward to its terrible past.