Many who have spent some length of time in Rwanda will know that the place has a certain feel to it. Perhaps they can’t quite put their finger on it, and some might even ignore it – but one common observation persists: there is something sinister in the air. It might come from knowing that the genocide of 800,000 people took place in 1994, which is not so long ago. The killing was ferocious, and when it was over, the killers and victims went back to living side by side. “Hi Neighbor”. Inevitably, they suffered from the memories of the genocide – either because of who they lost, what they did, or in many cases, both – and on top of that, they suffered from fear of revenge and repressed emotions. This repression was an executive order: the government insists that notions of ethnic identity and the competition for power between them gave rise to the genocide, and all discussion of ethnic differences was consequently banned. Identification cards detailing ethnic affiliation were taken out of use, and the few who publicly speak of separate ethnic groups – particularly when pointing out that moderate Hutus were killed alongside Tutsis during the genocide – are accused of supporting terrorism or espousing genocide ideology, both crimes that come with lengthy prison sentences yet hopelessly vague definitions. Still, everybody knows who is Hutu and who is Tutsi.
In May last year I returned to Rwanda for the first time since 2008, when I worked in the humanitarian aid sector in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, a stone’s throw from the Rwandan border. I was not surprised to find that development had progressed fast. That’s what all the newspapers had said. Shiny sky-scrapers, spanking-white hotels and cookie-cutter luxury homes were being built throughout the capital Kigali. The streets were spotless, homelessness or dire poverty were not evident, traffic jams were rare and there was very little ambient noise for a capital city. It could have been Europe; it could have been fake. I also saw considerable development in the border town of Gisenyi. American freeway-style, a shiny new green road sign hung across the way announcing one’s departure from Rwanda and arrival in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was a priority: the government is zeroing in on Gisenyi as a prime tourist destination, investing in infrastructure for affordable luxury tourism. Gisenyi must look clean and nice and stand in stark contrast to its troublesome sister city of Goma, which lies on the Congolese side of the border and which was first described to me as the third ring of hell before I first arrived there and saw that it was very nearly true.
And Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu, is indeed beautiful. A long sandy beach is introduced by vibrantly green, manicured grass and deliberately, meticulously, strictly placed trees. On each of its extremities, calm lake water laps against rounded rocks in soft, almost regular intervals. Paradise controlled. From a nearby promontory one can look upon Goma’s blue haze and the red smoky light emanating from the Nyiragongo volcano above it, both city and mountain as beautiful as danger confined to a distance. On the day of my visit a wedding was taking place. The bride and groom were being photographed as the sun glinted across the lake and shot through the trees in golden afternoon beams, the kind you can stare at directly, but only just. Their loved ones looked on smiling. A happy ending.
But the unease was still there. Yes, a few bombs fell on Gisenyi and surrounding areas after my visit, collateral damage from rebels fighting in Congo. But that is not what I mean. Rwanda is still too quiet, and just as Gisenyi’s lapping lake waters conceal nothing less than widespread destruction should the earth’s crust choose to move in such a way, Rwanda itself conceals deep social malaise. Lake Kivu is an exploding lake, which means that the methane gas and carbon dioxide contained within it, if suddenly brought to the surface by an earthquake or an explosion from the volcano, could kill all breathing beings within a 15 mile radius. That, at least, was the radius covered by Lake Nyos, which exploded in rural Cameroon in 1987, killing 1,700 people. The 15 mile radius surrounding Lake Kivu encompasses well over a million people. The area is highly seismic. This could happen, and it would be devastating.
Of course, Rwanda’s social malaise does not reflect these geophysical anomalies, nor is it, in all likelihood, about to explode. However, similarities exist in that freedom of expression in Rwandan society is repressed, identities that help give meaning and shape to human existence are systematically ignored and the infrastructure and economic developments that have emerged did so alongside the makings of an authoritarian regime. The media is muzzled, opposition parties are stifled, threatened and harassed and with the Anglophone reorientation, where English is fast replacing French as the official language of government and education, many French speakers feel marginalized, making linguistic identity a contentious issue despite the fact that all Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda. Non-Governmental Organizations that deal with human rights issues told me they are kept from doing their work through constant and costly bureaucratic hurdles, leaving them little if any time to call out human rights abuses committed in the country. When western donors suspended some development aid in 2012 to protest Rwanda’s alleged support for Congolese rebels that year, the government asked all employed citizens to contribute a month’s salary to plug the financial gap. There is no doubt that these funds were used responsibly for development – that is the beauty of Rwanda, where tolerance of corruption is extremely low and development aid is truly improving quality of life. But the few who refused to pay were publicly shamed or socially ostracized in a ruthless exercise of social control. Rwandans are supposed to do as they’re told.
And in many cases, chillingly, they do. Pay your taxes, vote for Paul Kagame; kill your neighbor. The September 2013 legislative elections saw a near 100% voter turnout and yet another landslide for the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front. In 2010, President Paul Kagame won re-election with a suspicious 93% of the vote. At a conference in London a few years later, a Rwandan journalist cited this high percentage as proof that the Rwandan people love Kagame, apparently unaware that political analysts in the global West – and many people with common sense more generally – tend to view such a high percentage as clear evidence of foul play.
And now there is talk of Kagame running for a third presidential term in 2017, even though he has already served his two-term limit and has been in de facto control of the country since 1994, when he led the Rwandan Patriotic Army to oust the previous genocidal government and took on a dual role of Vice President and Minister of Defense. This means that if he runs again, he will be president until 2024, and will reach the 30 year mark as leader. Another 10 years after that, also plausible, and he could give Colonel Gaddafi a run for his money in staying power. There is in fact little doubt that if Kagame wants to seek a new term, he’ll be reelected, though not precisely because of election rigging as is widely observed in countries with long-serving rulers. Rather, Rwanda controls the vote by managing the flow of information, popular perceptions of Kagame as the only person able to keep various vague security threats under control, intimidating voters, and by preventing opposition groups from forming or campaigning. Prior to the legislative elections in 2013, the opposition Green Party had attempted for over a year to officially register as a political party. It was prevented from doing so by local authorities who thwarted their required meetings and by bureaucratic nitpicking. Police in various districts of Kigali would simply deny Green Party president, Frank Habineza, the right to open an office in their area, while several of his party conferences have been violently broken up by elements suspected to be acting on the government’s instructions. The party was finally allowed to register a month ahead of the 2013 elections, which did not leave it enough time to campaign, and instead left it no choice but to forfeit participation. At the very least, Mr. Habineza was not beheaded, as was his deputy prior to the 2010 presidential elections, but this is certainly no reason to sit back and relax. When I visited Mr. Habineza in his office, a single room tucked away behind a shopping center towards the outskirts of Kigali, free from all address markings, he told me he continues to receive threats to his personal safety.
A short walk through central Kigali suggests he is not the only one. Instead of the warm buzz of conversations, deliveryman shouts, taxi honking, and shopkeepers quarreling that are to be expected on a Monday morning in a major city, a general stillness prevails, not of movement, but of sound. People are afraid that if they speak, they will be heard. Some may be willing – after getting to know you well enough or indeed, after a few drinks – to tell their stories and reveal their ethnicity, but strict rules apply. Many Rwandans trust foreigners more than they trust compatriots they don’t know as there is a risk these will inform on them to the authorities if they criticize the regime. This is not simple paranoia: in 2011, British intelligence agencies discovered a Rwandan plot to assassinate a Rwandan national living in London; Rwandan opposition leader Patrick Karegeya was found dead in his hotel room in South Africa in 2013 under mysterious circumstances; disappearances of Rwandans thought to be hostile to Kagame’s regime are routinely reported – and quickly covered up – in Uganda; in Rwanda, people disappear, and no one speaks of them again. Certainly, there are those who speak out, but they do so at great risk to their personal safety.
As I sit here in Europe, writing this, and reading it out loud to myself, I think I am perhaps being incautious in doing so, because I wonder whether this beautiful and intricate sewn doll that I bought in Gisenyi that is sitting in front of me is fitted with hidden microphones transmitting my reading. Maybe ‘they’ can hear me criticizing the regime, maybe ‘they’ can hear my heart beat faster as I think about the country’s secret services’ far reaching powers. An academic at a recent conference in London was visibly terror stricken as she got up to present her work in a room full of pro-Kagame Rwandans, and explained how she feared for her life conducting research in Rwanda. Some thought this reaction was an exaggeration, and perhaps it was. Indeed, my paranoia of microphone ridden dolls most certainly is. And besides, I’m white; I can’t be killed. But foreign journalists, human rights workers and anyone who has an influence on the flow of information leaving Rwanda is undoubtedly a person of interest for the authorities. One journalist I spoke to in Kigali told me that upon returning from an impromptu weekend trip to Gisenyi, a government minister, without prompting, asked her whether she had enjoyed her stay there.
It is hard for me to say, as a complete outsider, whether the majority of Rwandans are happy with this arrangement. The brutality with which dissenters are dealt and the fear that that instills, suggests they are not. But Rwanda has experienced a long history of uninterrupted monarchical governance structures, present pretense of democracy included. Until the country became a republic in 1961, it had been ruled by kings known as Mwamis. The first president, Gregroire Kayibanda, was overthrown in a 1973 military coup by Juvenal Habyarimana, who succeeded him but was himself assassinated in 1994, after which Kagame took power. Given this history, Rwanda has little knowledge of democracy in practice but far too much of what ethnic massacres look like. The 1994 genocide was only one, albeit the most devastating, of a series of ethnic massacres that occurred in living memory. And now, under Kagame, Rwanda is among the safest places in Africa, more so than any major European or North American city. As a white woman traveling alone, I felt safe walking around the city at night, and while muggings do occur, they tend not to be violent, and it is a good deal when that is the most dangerous thing that can happen. So long as you quietly go about your business.
But what is the trade off? Is it worth it, for now? Those in the West who know little about Rwanda will think of it as a victimized nation recovering from genocide, probably corrupt and living in dire poverty. Those who know a little bit more will be aware of the giant economic strides it has taken over the past 20 years, and think of it as a beacon of hope for war-devastated countries everywhere. And there is merit in this view. Emerging stronger and more developed from a genocide, within 20 years, and with no choice but to return victims and perpetrators to each other’s’ backyards, has to my knowledge, never been done in such close quarters.
Still, over the construction drilling for the multinational banks, the beeping of reversing cement trucks for the mansions and the upbeat jingles of the latest cellphone commercial, fear is the loudest noise. In a city full of people where nobody talks, I hear the hollow sound of marching.