Rwanda: rebuilding a 'traumatised' country

August 31, 1994

By Norm Dixon

JOHANNESBURG — The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) faces a formidable challenge, Dr Ben Rugangazi, the RPF's assistant director for international relations, told Green Left Weekly. The new government must convince millions of refugees to return to their homes and fields, promote reconciliation and establish a real democracy, and rebuild the economy. Progress was being made but Rugangazi appealed for more assistance from the international community to help rebuild the shattered central African country.

Speaking in his small central Johannesburg office, loaned by a sympathetic Rwandan exile, Rugangazi said the entire country has been liberated apart from the small area occupied by French troops. A government of national unity has been formed; it brings together all the political forces in Rwanda except those involved in the genocide. National elections will be held in five years, he said.

In what must be one of the understatements of the year, the softly-spoken RPF leader said the new government "has inherited a lot of problems". "The country is bankrupt. So much has been destroyed. Most sad is the destruction of human lives. There was a genocide in which half a million people were killed in a matter of weeks. There is trauma throughout the country." The killings only stopped when the RPF forces finally overran the old regime's army and allied militia.

The former regime targeted Rwanda's middle classes, civil servants and anybody with an education. "About 60% of the teachers, from university down to primary, were killed. Fifty per cent of medical personnel were killed ... All of them were killed except those few who happened to be outside the country or were so lucky to escape to the RPF zone."

Rwanda's plight has been complicated by the exodus of millions of refugees. "The refugees fled because they did not want to be caught in the cross fire; some fled because they participated in the genocide and felt the RPF would punish them, however the majority fled because of the rotten propaganda of the former government. These forces want to perpetuate fear by saying that the RPF is going to kill the people, and they must run away. They want to deny the RPF the support of these people. The same fear they used to make some participate in the genocide," Rugangazi told Green Left Weekly.

The RPF-led government must persuade the refugees to return. Many refugees are beginning to come back. Rugangazi said this was because the new government was assuring the majority Hutu refugees that there would be no retribution against them. "The majority of the people [who fled] are innocent. The government is even making it clear that there are some who were innocently pushed into participation in the massacres." Only those who played a leading role, who planned the genocide, would be punished.

There is plenty of food waiting to be harvested in Rwanda and the new government has promised that refugees' land, homes and jobs will be safeguarded. "It is just a question of time. Those who come back and find nothing is done to them will spread the word and others will come back," Rugangazi said.

Press reports claiming the homes of refugees were being confiscated were "sensationalism", he said. "People from the ranks of refugees who have been in exile for 30 years are also coming back. They have nowhere to stay. They are finding empty houses so they go in and stay but this is temporary. Immediately the owners return they vacant the houses. It is the policy of the new government to be just. It is not in the interests of government to support people who want to confiscate other peoples' property."

It is essential to win the support of returning refugees, Rugangazi said. "People who are ignorant and poor were forced to do things against their own conscience. It is our responsibility to try to introduce a culture of democracy and respect for human life. I don't see us going wrong. We have been victims of dictatorship and it is not in our interest to repeat what former governments have done.

"I feel very optimistic. The test will come when the people compare what the RPF says and what it does. The people will have to judge us. It is a question of time but we are patient with people who have genuine fears", he said confidently.

A key way of winning them, Rugangazi told Green Left Weekly, was to empower the people. The RPF was beginning to extend throughout the country the democratic structures it set up clandestinely in government-controlled areas and developed as they were liberated. "It will help win peoples' trust if they participate themselves. That is how we managed to function all these years and challenge a government which had a lot of backing from outside powers. We challenged and defeated it because we involved the people in the struggle.

"People at the smallest geographical unit, which we call a cell, meet and discuss issues and their bearing on the political system and national politics. We want people to realise that they must solve the problems that affect them. They shouldn't look always to the top either for solutions or directives," he explained.

Within these structures RPF activists organise people to solve problems while explaining "the political situation, the history of our country and of colonialism, and how the problems that they are living with developed".

Similar councils are elected in the districts, regions and prefectures. "At all these levels, a [leadership] committee is elected with secretaries for all areas of social interest — a secretary for mobilisation, for defence, for hygiene and health, for women's affairs, for youth. So during a meeting when matters arise relating to any of these they are handled."

The new government will move to bring to justice those responsible for planning and implementing the genocide, Rugangazi promised. The government has accepted a UN proposal that an international tribunal try the perpetrators but "the international community needs to hurry up and set up this tribunal".

The RPF is adamant that those responsible for the genocide cannot be allowed to share power as has happened in other parts of the world under international pressure. "With genocide the lines are drawn. You have killers and you have victims. Our position is clear. These people cannot participate in the government or the political life of the country."

The defeated government's troops and militia continue to be protected the French troops occupying Rwanda's west, Rugangazi charged. "They have not detained a single one. Nor have they disarmed them. There are cases where our forces have arrested former government troops with French troops within the RPF zone ... Just a few days ago a BBC reporter saw the chief-of-staff of the former government forces driving in a French military jeep. He was organising the former government troops to come back and fight."

The RPF is under no illusions that rebuilding the country's economy will be easy especially as Africa gets "a raw deal in terms of trade". Despite some aid, Western banks and corporations "get out of Africa much, much more than what Africa receives. It is wrong even to talk of aid. If you give me $10 and a month later take $20, you have cheated me. That is how the international system works. If Africa is to make any progress that has got to change."

However, such a change can come about only "if there is unity, if the African countries don't undermine each other. That is the challenge that the African leadership has to meet. The kind of imbalance in trade could not last if African countries were united, firm and agreed to work together for the common good of Africa," Rugangazi told Green Left Weekly.

Rugangazi criticised those, especially journalists, who explain catastrophes like that in Rwanda in "anthropological" terms as though such events "are a hallmark of a certain primitive instinct within the African people". There are historical and social reasons such as the policies of colonial powers and continued economic exploitation.

"It is not a coincidence that genocide took place in Rwanda. If the circumstances of Rwanda were repeated in another country, you would get similar results. It is high time that the world came to see that these things are not unique to Africa, they can happen any where on earth given the circumstances."

The RPF was willing to assist, where possible, other liberation movements. "Oppression, dictatorship and injustice is the same worldwide and I don't see why the new government of Rwanda should keep quiet when human rights are being abrogated in many quarters of the world."

Rugangazi appealed for solidarity and increased aid from the international community. Emergency aid is immediately needed to allow the refugees to return to Rwanda. He also repeated his call for the rapid formation of an international tribunal to try those who promoted genocide. Lastly, he appealed for international help to rebuild Rwanda's devastated economy.

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