Skip to main content

Gerald Caplan is the author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide. He has visited Rwanda more than a dozen times.

When it was over, the country was wrecked, a wasteland. It is almost impossible today to grasp what Rwanda looked like 20 years ago, after 100 days of genocide. Some 800,000 Tutsis, three-quarters of their total population, lay dead, as did many hundreds of moderate Hutus. Even the survivors suffered beyond belief, including girls and women who had been gang-raped, some deliberately infected with HIV. An entire nation was brutalized and traumatized – the "walking dead," to use Rwandans' own phrase.

Everything was in crisis. Rarely had a country faced so many seemingly insurmountable obstacles with so few resources. There was neither money nor infrastructure. Agriculture had dried up and the health, education and justice systems had been totally destroyed. Rotting bodies lay everywhere. Both within and beyond the country's borders were lethal enemies dedicated to completing the grisly work of extermination they had begun on April 7, 1994.

This was the apocalyptic spectacle that confronted a group of predominantly Tutsi rebel soldiers in July, 1994, after defeating the génocidaires and taking over government.

Given this starting point, Rwandans have much to celebrate and commemorate this month. The country is wonderfully unrecognizable. Visiting Africans are openly envious and wonder why their countries aren't as safe, as well-tended, as efficient and corruption-free as Rwanda. Many Rwandans, especially young people, now regard themselves not as Hutus or Tutsis but as Rwandans – a giant leap forward. Poor as it remains (167th of 186 countries on the latest United Nations Human Development Index), Rwanda is nonetheless a social and economic miracle.

No doubt this stunning progress – plus appropriate guilt for the way the world betrayed Rwanda, callously abandoning it to its genocidal fate – helps explain the government's many influential foreign friends. Yet Rwanda also has more than its share of detractors, people all over the world who bitterly despise its government or, more specifically, the controversial and enigmatic Paul Kagame, who has been de facto or formal president for the entire two decades since the genocide.

All of the impressive progress has been made under Mr. Kagame and the ruthlessly disciplined government he insists on. But the many sins of which the government is accused are pinned directly on him as well – the carnage in the Congo, the sad fate of former comrades, intolerance of dissent of all kinds.

Rwandans rightfully point out that they defeated the génocidaires without any outside help. So they ask why they should listen to foreign critics, even friends, 20 years later. Yet the elite loves foreigners – so long as they offer unconditional support. It is criticism that is scorned.

Rwandans also remind us that they still have enemies everywhere, and that their tiny state remains deeply vulnerable. This, alas, is only too true. No one knows how reconciled the large majority of Hutus really are to a government that is widely seen as Tutsi-dominated. No one knows whether some unrepentant Hutus are just waiting for the opportunity to kill Tutsis again. In the Congo, former génocidaires lead a violent anti-Kagame militia dedicated to "finishing the work" of the hundred days.

Hutu extremists across the world continue to undermine the government in every way they can, not least by denying the genocide entirely. At the same time, a motley collection of white critics call for Mr. Kagame's violent overthrow, deny the genocide, and dismiss every sign of progress as fraudulent. International human-rights groups stubbornly refuse to take into account circumstances that would make any government anywhere cautious about how much freedom it can safely permit.

But Mr. Kagame's government does test the patience of even its best friends, who, if they dare to criticize, are not welcomed back. A shameful cold war has broken out with South Africa, and as with every dispute in which it is involved, the government protests too much its utter innocence.

Rwandans have performed miracles in a short time. Now is the time to move forward, to liberalize public space and to allow citizens to question government policies. Both the state and the government are now secure enough to welcome such openness, and what a splendid example it would set for Africa and the world.

The government rightly insists that the genocide must never be forgotten. But its strategy is self-defeating. Each time it abuses trust and then denies responsibility, it make its misconduct a more important story than the genocide itself.