Big Gamble in Rwanda

One morning last summer, while staying at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, I heard a great commotion below my first-floor window. I looked out, and saw a crowd of about one hundred distraught people pressing around a man who was dressed in a Canadian army uniform and wore the blue beret of a United Nations peacekeeper. Desperation was etched on their faces as they shouted at him in various languages.

This hotel is under the protection of the United Nations!” the officer barked. “There’s no danger!”

I walked quickly downstairs, and as I passed the officer, I saw the name on his uniform: Dallaire. A few steps away, just outside the hotel gate, crude roadblocks made of logs and wrecked cars had suddenly appeared. Crazed-looking young men with bulging eyes clustered around them, waving clubs and machetes. They eyed the gate menacingly, looking ready and eager to kill.

These figures were all actors in a film that is being made of the book Shake Hands with the Devil, an impassioned account of the United Nations’ pathetic response to the 1994 genocide written by General Roméo Dallaire, who was then commander of the UN peacekeeping force. Even though I knew I was witnessing a recreation of events that unfolded twelve years earlier, the scene was a powerful reminder of how far Rwanda has come since the enormous horror that was visited upon it.

After the slaughter of 1994, which ended when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front overthrew the Hutu government and seized power, Rwanda seemed likely to become either a Tutsi dictatorship or a failed state torn apart by ethnic warlords. Instead, it is stable and full of ambition. The central figure in its rebirth, President Paul Kagame, has emerged as one of the most intriguing leaders in Africa. He preaches a doctrine of security, guided reconciliation, anti-corruption, and above all a drive toward self-reliance that he hopes will free his country from its heavy dependence on foreign aid. This program has produced economic growth rates of 5 percent a year, and has won Kagame a fervent base of support among some development experts in the United States.

Josh Ruxin, the former director of a health program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, is so enthusiastic about Rwanda’s prospects that he has pulled up stakes and moved here. He runs a “Millennium Village” project in a rural part of the country that serves as a laboratory for the development strategies of Columbia University economist and anti-poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs.

I’ve worked in fifty countries,” he told me, “and I think this is the only country on the planet that stands a chance of migrating from extreme poverty to middle income in the space of the next fifteen years.”

Yet at the same time, the Rwandan government has been criticized by human rights groups and other observers for restricting free speech and political action. Before the 2003 presidential election, the man who would …

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Letters

Rwanda: An Exchange May 31, 2007