JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In scattered villages on steep green hillsides, many who killed their neighbors in Rwanda’s genocide 20 years ago now live side by side with relatives of the dead.
Speech that creates ethnic divisions has been outlawed. Local tribunals called gacaca courts have allowed many offenders to be released from prison in return for confessions and expressions of remorse. And a generation of young people who grew up after the mass killings embody the hope of a new breed of Rwandans who identify not by ethnicity but by nationality.
Rwanda has made stunning progress since what was one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies, when more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists. Life expectancy has doubled since 1994 to more than 60 years. Economic growth consistently reaches 8% annually. And the number of deaths of children under age 5 has plummeted in the last two decades from 230 per 1,000 to 55.
In the years since the hundred days of bloodletting, in which as many as a million people were killed, the small Central African country has wowed donors and investors, though lately human rights advocates have criticized President Paul Kagame for displaying an increasingly authoritarian approach.
Kagame says that improved education and an end to poverty are the most effective ways to prevent a return of violence. The government spends a quarter of its budget on health and 17% on education, according to the World Bank.
The positive news out of Rwanda stands in sharp contrast to the results of the West’s vows that “never again” would the world stand by as the massacres that occurred in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s unfolded.
In 2002, the Rome statute was established, setting up the International Criminal Court to prosecute individuals on charges including genocide and crimes against humanity. And in 2005, a summit of world leaders adopted the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” which obliged the international community to step in when civilians are under attack and their governments fail to protect them.
But unfolding tragedies underscore United Nations failures to protect vulnerable populations when wars break out.
In the Central African Republic, sectarian killings of Muslims have been taking place for months and a proposed U.N. force substantial enough to halt the slaughter has yet to be deployed, even as most of the Muslim population is driven out of the country and its mosques burned.
Elsewhere in Africa, international intervention has shown mixed success. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, to which the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide fled, U.N. peacekeepers have been criticized for failing to prevent attacks on civilians by armed groups, although last November — with a new mandate to use force — they helped Congolese army forces defeat the Rwandan-backed rebel group M23. In South Sudan, U.N. peacekeepers failed to prevent an estimated 10,000 ethnic killings last December, although the death toll may have been worse without the U.N. presence.
The Rwandan genocide was set off April 7, 1994, when a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutus, was shot down near the Kigali airport. The source of the attack is disputed, with Kagame’s government saying that Hutu extremists in Habyarimana’s military assassinated him as an excuse to exterminate Tutsis.
Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front had invaded northern Rwanda in 1990 from Uganda in a bid to oust the Habyarimana government, but after nearly three years of civil war, a peace deal known as the Arusha accords was signed, calling for a power-sharing arrangement that was to lead to elections.
The downing of the plane undermined the peace deal and triggered the mass killing of Tutsis and some Hutus by Hutu extremists. Some of the perpetrators were radio hosts, who used their programs to call Tutsis “cockroaches” that should be exterminated.
Neighbors killed neighbors. Entire families were wiped out. Some were killed in Roman Catholic churches where they had sought refuge and several Catholic nuns and priests have been convicted as perpetrators.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, deployed to implement the Arusha peace deal, did nothing to halt the bloody rampage, blaming a restrictive mandate. Western powers failed to intervene. Then-President Clinton has since apologized, acknowledging last year that as many as 300,000 lives could have been saved had the U.S. acted.
After three months of fighting, Kagame’s forces reached the capital, Kigali, and drove the Rwandan army and government-backed militias from power.
The rebel movement Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which includes some of the perpetrators of the genocide, continues to operate in eastern Congo, launching cross-border raids. But Rwanda has faced international criticism for its backing of M23 rebels, accused of using child soldiers and carrying out atrocities. Rwanda has denied the accusations, but the U.S. froze military aid to the country in 2012 over its support for the group.
Kagame speaks scathingly about the U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo, the largest in the world. “You have a [U.N. peacekeeping] mission in Congo spending $1.5 billion every year for the past 12 years,” he said in an interview last year. “Nobody ever asks, ‘What do we get out of this?’”
For Kagame, lectures about human rights abuses are the West’s way of trying to exert control in Africa.
“For the past century, including the last 50 years of independence, Africa lost immense opportunities largely due to unbalanced relationships within the global community that were often predatory and even abusive in nature,” he said in a 2012 speech marking Rwanda’s 50th anniversary of independence. “Today, new ways of perpetuating the old order have emerged in a subtle manner, often disguised as the defense of human rights, free speech and international justice.”
Kagame frequently exhorts his fellow citizens to work hard, remember the genocide, but to move forward. He extols the virtue of Rwandan democracy and self-reliance.
Rwanda is ranked by the World Bank as one of the easiest places to do business in Africa. Though the most densely populated country in Africa, the nation of 11 million is self-sufficient in staple crops, according to the World Food Program, and acute malnutrition among children ages 6 months to 5 years is 3.6%.
Monthly work details, in which all citizens are required to participate in Saturday cleanups, have something of a Soviet feel to them — but the country is as neat as a pin.
“We must work hard because if we wait for others to develop our country, we will not make progress,” Kagame said last month. “Any external help must only come as an addition to our own efforts to better ourselves.”