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Mend Times

Starting over in Rwanda.

Raj Rajendran has great expectations for Rwanda, a nation whose devastation would seem to invite pity and charity, not entrepreneurial exuberance. His thriving textile operation, Utexrwa, accounts for a sizeable chunk of the country's manufacturing sector. With his kindly monomania about the goodness of textile production and copious public spirit, he seems like a businessman from another age, maybe a character out of Dickens. He recently made time to meet me at his factory in Kigali's outskirts, on a Saturday morning. He was about to fly off to Switzerland to talk to a World Bank group, and the story of success he told me at breakneck speed made it clear why the World Bank would be interested in him.

Rajendran came to Kigali from India, where he had run textile factories for 25 years. In 1999, Utexrwa's owners contacted him to ask if he would take on the job of getting their company going again. The interahamwe--the militia that served as the genocide's shock troops--had looted the plant and killed almost one-third of its workers.

In a short time, Rajendran had restored the factory to full capacity, eventually taking it over himself. Then he had an epiphany: Rwanda's climate was perfect for growing mulberry trees and raising the silkworms that feed on them. At an official reception in 2000, he met Rwanda's leader, Paul Kagame, and his overflowing eagerness to be photographed with the president made the normally solemn Kagame laugh--an event so extraordinary that everyone took notice of him. Kagame liked the silk idea and encouraged Rajendran to import trees from India and plant them on government land. And, eureka! The mulberry trees thrived, the silkworms adored their leaves, Rajendran bought up an Indian silk mill to get the machinery to spin it, and Rwanda was in business. With the delighted self-regard of the happily obsessed, he told me that he intends to make Rwanda the world's leading producer of high-quality silk.

Raj Rajendran represents the future in a country that, 15 years ago, looked like it might not have one. In July 1994, at the moment the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) commanded by Kagame ended the genocide and took power, the best bet was that the country was headed for years of meltdown: cycles of ethnic terror on the order of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nearly one million people were dead; thousands of bereft orphans were wandering around homeless. The RPF itself had blood on its hands, its soldiers responsible for thousands of deaths on their march south. An HIV/aids epidemic was simmering, brought on by the rapes that we now know were a tool of the genocidaires. The interahamwe had fled across the border to Congo (then Zaire), along with sympathizers and family members, a collection of nearly 1.5 million refugees who immediately became a humanitarian crisis. With the unwitting help of international agencies that lavished aid on the Zaire camps, the killers regrouped as a military force. They made incursions into Rwanda to remind their fellow citizens they were just across the border, waiting to "finish the job," as the sinister saying was whispered. Two terrible wars in what's now Congo--in 1996-97 and 1998-2003-- resulted from Rwanda's determination to root out the genocidaires and their allies.

Rwanda, in short, faced daunting odds. But, today, although the violence next door in Congo continues, the country is at peace inside its borders. Some 30,000 soldiers have demobilized and come home from Congo. Rwanda is a darling of development agencies: Kagame believes it can be the financial, transportation, and communications center of a vitalized central Africa. It seemed to me the place had lost the air of a haunted house in the two years since I visited. Gleaming banks and office buildings crowd central Kigali. NGOs proliferate, with their droves of idealistic young Westerners working on health, education, and social service projects. Flocks of American missionaries alight to build churches and evangelize. Indeed, hundreds of snappily dressed Rwandans packed the cavernous new Pentecostal church I attended on Palm Sunday, a modern-minded branch that encourages worldly success rather than self-abnegation. There is now a study-abroad program for American undergraduates in Kigali, a sure sign that the city is, indeed, as its boosters claim, one of the safest in Africa.

And yet, beneath all these outward signs of success lies a difficult, maybe intractable, predicament. The problem is reconciliation. No post-catastrophic society has faced the unimaginable task of creating a polity where large numbers of victims, killers, and all those in between must live together, side by side. In postwar Europe, Jewish survivors emigrated en masse to Israel and the United States. In Cambodia, survivors of the Khmer Rouge went back to their villages, where they lived with killers--but, unlike in Rwanda, survivors were the overwhelming majority, and the political cadre who had terrorized them was a minority. Even in the former Yugoslavia, a territorial division today mostly separates Bosnians from Serbs. The moral and psychological complications that face Rwandans are massive and mind-boggling. Kagame is a pragmatist, and pragmatics are a balm to deep wounds. But, underneath the bustle and the schemes, the new buildings and the paved roads, lies the invisible rubble of psyches.

"You see what we deal with," remarked the tall, elegant man standing beside me at the Red Cross tent in Nyanza, outside Kigali. It was the morning's mass commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, which began on April 7, 1994: Nyanza was the site of a gruesome massacre of 5,000 men, women, and children during the first week of killing. We were the only bystanders at a triage center tucked away at the back of the crowd, watching as medical workers struggled to soothe people who had fallen apart during the ceremony. The man was a high government official, there instead of the dignitaries' stand, he explained, because he thought his presence might help. "So many people in such bad shape," he murmured. The close-packed crowd parted for a pair of volunteers carrying a victim, flailing and keening. "It's a real problem," he concluded gravely.

The government's program of reconciliation has taken a number of forms: Thousands of gacaca courts (community-based bodies created to deal with the huge corpus of genocide crimes) involving millions of people have deliberated questions of justice and meted out sentences; a repatriation program of soldiers from Congo provides generous resettlement grants and jobs in the military for some; convicted genocidaires can reduce their prison time through community service projects, some of which build houses for orphans and survivors. But at the center of these efforts has been an attempt to redefine the identities of Rwanda's citizens--to essentially create a non-ethnic nation. The government prohibits the use of ethnic labels, in an attempt to curtail "divisionism" linguistically. The ban is powerful: While unenforceable outside public discourse, uneasiness with the words "Hutu" and "Tutsi" creeps into private conversation as well. During the weeklong commemoration in April, the mandate was clear and heavy-handed: Everyone remember, and remember in the same way. For a week, the country came to a halt. There were no weddings or issues of government documents; schools closed; everyone had to attend meetings in their neighborhoods or villages--and if they didn't, police redirected them.

The project of redefining the way Rwandans conceive their own identities is an ambitious one to say the least. The hope is that the next generation will be weaned from the labels. And Hutu and Tutsi really were such flimsy, arbitrary ethnic constructs that it should be possible, at least in theory, for them to wither away. The problem is that the genocide conferred indelible meaning on them: The line between Hutu and Tutsi was the line between perpetrator and victim. Underneath the official mechanisms of remembering, there is a constant, low-level battle between the two camps. "We are all Rwandans now!" pleaded the Tutsi accuser at the gacaca session I attended, imploring the prevaricating witnesses to his brothers' deaths to tell the truth about what they saw. But they were obdurate and uncooperative. An American who taught English in Rwanda told me how he stumbled into a minefield when, in order to get students conversing in English, he introduced what he thought was an anodyne subject: dogs. The discussion exploded, furious students who had seen dogs eating corpses in 1994 facing off against enraged students who thought bygones should be bygones and the calumnies against dogs should cease. No one said who was Tutsi and who was Hutu, but the positions were clear.

Meanwhile, along with Kagame's insistence on national unity has come a heavy- handed governing style that critics denounce as authoritarian. They make this case mostly from outside the country, because there are no outlets for strong dissent inside Rwanda. Kagame and the RPF, they argue, are power-hungry opportunists who exploited Western guilt to seize the moral high ground and rebrand themselves as Rwanda's saviors. From their viewpoint, the creation of a non-ethnic national identity is little more than a sham to pretty up Tutsi rule over a cowed Hutu population--a political arrangement going back centuries to the Tutsi kings. They believe that Rwanda is headed for disaster because Hutu resentments are bound to explode. "Nothing! Nothing is better in the country!" I heard a distinguished researcher declaim at an event in the United States last year. A young American in Kigali told me that Rwandan friends speak of chronic fear of falling afoul of Kagame's security forces. "When people get to know you, they tell you they don't really feel safe at all," she said. And it is true that the police and security forces make the LAPD look like English bobbies. When I left a commemoration event late in the evening, the president had not yet spoken, and the gendarmes at the exits were reluctant to let people go home. I got a shove from a scowling soldier that would have earned him a civil suit in the United States. Such menaces small and large are the stuff of daily life for ordinary Rwandans.

Yet the one counter-fact that even die-hard antagonists stumble over in their indictment is that Kagame has made good on a commitment to bring security and stability to Rwanda. Peace inside the country has held since the end of the second Congo war, despite the influx of demobilized genocidaires from Congo and the release of tens of thousands of prisoners. The country is a long way from liberal democracy. But the virtues of the status quo lie elsewhere. Kagame, a man educated in the hard school of war, is a different leader than he was in 1994. He has gambled big on what peace can mean. I thought about this as I listened to a lovely psychiatric nurse at an HIV clinic for women describe how she treats patients who come to her with post-traumatic stress disorder: "I take their hands to establish contact. ... I explain that no one is hunting them now, that they aren't going to die, that no one is going to kill them." No one is going to kill them: That simple fact, on which this clinician and her patients depend, is, 15 years later, Kagame's towering, inarguable achievement. It is not the same thing as reconciliation--perhaps in the end reconciliation is a chimera--but it is what Rwandans have for now.

Christine Stansell is Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago.

By Christine Stansell