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Rwanda: From nightmare past to hopeful future

“Forgive but don’t forget,” were a last few words from President Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda.

My colleagues from the International Reporting Project and I met with President Kagame toward the end of our two week visit to the small African country. In two hours (I don’t remember any time in my 20 plus years as a journalist that I have ever had two hours with any president of any country) we covered population growth, the 1994 genocide, rumors of his running for a third term, his thoughts about the Arab Spring and much more. I think he would have let us discuss much more with him if he had time… and if his staff would have let him.

Perhaps the most poignant answer from Rwanda’s leader was his response to the question from one of my colleagues, Mary Rose Madden from WYPR, about the Catholic Church. Have they apologized enough? “We forgive, but not forget. There is no reason why the church never apologized. The direct involvement was evident.”

His words hung heavy in the air. And at that moment I had a vision of Paul Kagame, the warrior. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has been a soldier for most of his adult life.  He joined the National Resistance Army (NRA) in 1979, and spent years fighting in Uganda.

But his first love, of course is his home country, Rwanda, and he eventually helped form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In the early 1990’s through the 100 days of genocide in 1994 he saw first hand the pools of blood, Tutsi’s slaughtered at the hands of Hutu’s. All the while, the Catholic Church standing by and in some cases even sending Tutsi’s to churches for “safety,” only to be killed in the sanctuaries.

So, when asked if the Catholic Church had apologized enough it wasn’t surprising to see pain in Mr. Kagame’s eyes. The President said that the Vatican has “not done enough,” adding that its genocidal role is “one of those things we have decided to forgive but not forget so that we move on.”

I was a bit taken aback at how thin and tall President Kagame is, and I do mean thin. Surely his suits are tailored to his narrow frame. But don’t be fooled by a lean physique. Mr. Kagame is anything but frail. His passion for his country and what he’s fought for is felt in every measured word in his answers to us during the interview.
There were no newly revealed answers from the head of state in our conversation with him but his personality came through as well as his determination to move beyond his country’s hellish past.

National identity cards now identify people as “Rwandan,” not Hutu or Tutsi.

Kagame has banned plastic bags which are not bio-degradable. And I was surprised to see everyone, even in the outlying villages, wearing shoes. It’s now the law.  His ambitious plan to reinvent Rwanda includes taking a page … even a chapter… out of Singapore’s autocratic book on leading a country.

What I can tell you about Rwanda is that there are no easy conclusions to come to about this country.
The roads are in great shape. There is virtually no trash. People are kind and helpful. The landscape is stunning.

However, free speech doesn’t really exist and the media is tightly controlled. Many young journalists are anxious to change that but most of them fear for their lives if they cover politics.

I’ll have more on my visit with journalists as well as a look at another growing population in Rwanda: the endangered Mountain Gorillas.

Tamara Banks, pictured here in the front row, third from left, traveled to Rwanda on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP).

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