Narcisse, a Hutu in his early twenties, went to work for the American organization the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the summer of 1994. The mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by the Hutu-dominated regime in Rwanda had started in the spring of that year, and had ended only in July. After the forces of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) routed the government army and the militias loyal to it and took over the country, they installed a new government made up of a coalition dominated by Tutsis from the RPF, most of whom had been in exile in Uganda, and including moderate Hutus who had survived the genocide.

The period following the genocide and the subsequent mass flight of more than two million Hutus into Tanzania, eastern Zaire, and Burundi was a lawless, confusing time. It was certainly not a moment when international humanitarian organizations were in any position to check on the backgrounds of local employees. International relief organizations, most of whose expatriate staff members do not speak the local languages in the countries in which they work or have much previous knowledge of the countries to which they have been assigned, hire local people as drivers and translators and to fill other low-level positions without knowing much about them.

In a place like Rwanda, the local staff members on average are paid one tenth of what expatriates earn, and they, in turn, usually earn ten or twenty times the salary of someone employed by a local rather than an international organization. It is a division of labor (and a distortion of the local economy) much regretted by expatriates and by local people alike. But no one has come up with a solution. Expatriate humanitarian workers are badly paid by Western standards, even if their salaries are magnificent by local ones. The organizations can’t afford to pay them at the same rates as their regular staff members, and they feel it is unfair to ask them to accept even lower wages. Those who run the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are well aware that the salaries they can offer tend to skim off talented local people whose services might be needed by the hard-pressed government, particularly in a society like Rwanda, where so many of the best-qualified people either were murdered or fled abroad during the killing in 1994. They argue that this is an unavoidable consequence, and the necessary price, of providing help that is desperately needed.

Narcisse soon became a part of the IRC’s effort in Kigali, admired by both his foreign and his local colleagues for his work as a translator and driver. Like most Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike, he preferred not to speak to foreigners about his experiences during the killing in the spring and early summer of 1994. That he had remained in Kigali after the RPF took over the city in early July of that year suggested to his co-workers that he had not been involved in the massacres. IRC staffers knew that Narcisse’s family was related to some of the most important Hutu militants involved in the genocide, and that his own father had been summarily executed shortly after the RPF fighters first arrived in Kigali. But, if anything, that seemed to confirm that he had not taken part in the killing. Many people with fewer connections to the old regime had fled the RPF’s advance. It seemed unlikely that Narcisse, with his family background, would have remained behind had he been guilty of anything.

For more than a year and a half, officials of the new government showed no interest in Narcisse, even though during this period they rounded up tens of thousands of Hutus they suspected of complicity in the slaughter. While this was going on, Narcisse continued to work for the IRC. Then, in April 1996, he was suddenly arrested and jailed, his name added to the list of the more than 70,000 men, women, and children accused of taking part in the genocide. Like many of them, he was arrested without having first been formally charged with anything. In Rwanda, even almost two years after the genocide, there were very few judges. Almost all the Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the legal system had been murdered, while those loyal to the old regime of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development, the party of the late president, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, had fled the country after the RPF’s victory. There were very few courthouses (most of them had been looted and burned); nor, until a legal statute covering the prosecution of genocide was passed by the Rwandan parliament in early August of 1996, was there any procedure under Rwandan law to deal with crimes of the sort of which Narcisse was suspected.

As a result, all 70,000 suspects, whether they had been formally charged, or even examined by a magistrate, remained crammed into prisons, most of which had been built by the Belgians during the colonial period and had been intended to house no more than 15,000. Conditions in these jails are terrible, as even government officials concede. But, they insist, the Rwandan government does not have the means even to feed the prisoners, who depend for their food on the International Committee of the Red Cross. There have been few claims that the inmates have been tortured or abused, and foreigners, including journalists, are regularly allowed to visit the prisons.


But no one will say when most of the detainees will finally come to trial. Justice is not moving swiftly either in Rwanda or in the international war crimes trials set up under United Nations auspices in Arusha, Tanzania, where, to the consternation of most Rwandans, only a handful of suspects have been indicted. The first trial, of a Hutu village mayor named Jean-Paul Akayesu, who was charged in the massacre of 2,000 people, has just been delayed for a month at the request of the defense. In Rwanda, the swearing-in of new judges this June and the passage of the new statute defining different degrees of responsibility for genocide this August have given prisoners like Narcisse some hope that they can emerge from their limbo. Moreover, some new prisons have been contructed, most of them by the IRC, for which Narcisse worked. Still, to clear a backlog of 70,000 cases, most of whom insist that they are innocent, will most likely take years.

Narcisse does not claim to be innocent, and according to his former colleagues at the IRC, he has not actually been charged with killing anyone. He is said to have given the members of a Kigali branch of the militant Hutu Interahamwe militia—the group that carried out most of the killings in Rwanda in 1994—a list of names, as well as the whereabouts, of people who were subsequently hunted down and murdered. Narcisse does not deny this. But, he has insisted, when the killing began he had in fact done all that he could to protect the Tutsis on the list, and had helped them find hiding places in the Rwandan capital. But then his father discovered what he was up to and accused him of betraying his fellow Hutus who were engaged in a struggle for survival with the Tutsis. (The militant Hutu line then and now—one hears it all the time from the refugees’ leaders in Zaire—is that the genocide, if it took place, was preemptive; that the Tutsis were planning to kill all the Hutus but that the Hutus had struck first.) Narcisse’s father demanded that he reveal where the Tutsis had concealed themselves. Narcisse claims that at first he refused, but that eventually he gave in, knowing as he did so that he was consigning them to their deaths.

Members of some international relief agencies have been accused by human rights organizations like the London-based Africa Rights and by the Rwandan government either of trying to cover up the crimes of their local employees or of secretly sympathizing with the old regime—a charge that led Rwandan authorities to expel the French humanitarian agencies working in Rwanda in December of 1995. But none of the expatriate workers at the IRC’s headquarters in Kigali seems to doubt Narcisse’s story. They remain fond of him and talk wistfully of the possibility that new evidence that others earlier identified the victims will exonerate him. The IRC’s director in Rwanda, John Keys, believes, however, that in a hierarchical, patriarchal society like Rwanda, Narcisse had little choice. What good, he asked rhetorically, were Narcisse’s opinions or his personal sympathies when faced with his father’s authority? “In any useful sense,” Keys insisted, “Narcisse had no choice but to tell his father what he wanted to know.”

The Tutsi victims of the genocide see things differently. There can, they say, be no compromise over the issue of justice. Were people like Narcisse not being arrested, Rwandan government officials contend, there would have been retributive massacres on a much larger scale, instead of the comparatively rare cases for which there is clear evidence. As Paul Kagame, the former chief of the RPF who now serves both as Rwanda’s vice-president and as its minister of defense, puts it,

The genocide is the defining event in Rwandan history…. Our choice from the beginning was to let people take the law into their own hands or detain a large number of suspects while we built the capacity to judge them.

While reconciliation is essential, he said, there is no question of the Rwandan government bowing to outsiders who wanted it “to cut out the justice.” Kagame, who remains in command of the armed forces, is clearly the most powerful man in Rwanda. The president, Pasteur Bizimungu, defers to him as does the Hutu prime minister, Pierre Celestin Rwigema.


Both in Kigali and in the countryside I often heard ordinary Rwandans, Tutsis and Hutus alike, denounce the international organizations, claiming that they are more concerned with cases such as that of Narcisse, and with pointing out the human rights abuses of the new regime, than they are with seeing the people who committed genocide brought to justice. “When you look at the number of the prisoners,” Kagame has remarked, “sometimes in Rwanda we get the impression that you are forgetting that this is a direct result of the magnitude of the crime.”

This is not to say that Kagame or his subordinates deny the squalid conditions in which the detainees are held; they express their regret that people have been held so long without trial. Such statements have not, however, satisfied most international human rights activists concerned with Rwanda. They insist that in view of the new government’s impressive efforts to organize reconstruction in Kigali, its failure to do more for the detainees must be the result of a policy of not improving conditions, not of a lack of resources. Amnesty International has been even more scathing, insisting in a recent report that the policy of rounding up people suspected of the genocide amounts to “a pattern of arbitrary arrests.”

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of Amnesty’s claim. Unlike some other humanitarian organizations, notably the Zairean branch of the Catholic relief agency Caritas, which has tended to defend the Hutu militants in exile in Zaire, Amnesty has shown no favoritism. Not only has it been forthright in condemning violations on all sides but in a recent report it asked the “international community” to take urgent steps to prevent the continued rearming of exile groups in the Zairean camps.

However, Rwandan officials take the view that the human rights groups, by sticking to their “mandate” and concentrating on violations, do not see the broader situation, and ignore the constraints under which the new regime in Kigali is forced to work. Moreover, foreigners’ appeal to their mandate has a particularly bitter sound for Rwandans who have lost relatives in the genocide, as did all the Tutsi leaders and almost every member of the RPF. It recalls the failure of the United Nations Peacekeeping force (UNAMIR), which insisted at the time of the genocide that it had no mandate to intervene since its job was “peacekeeping,” not, to use the UN’s term, “peace enforcement.”

Every Rwandan official I spoke with took the same position. “It is to prevent mass killings that we’ve been holding people,” one told me, adding, “If so many people had died in your own country, I would like to see if you would tell us the solution to this difficulty is so easy. For us, what your human rights groups say is a principled position is really a failure to put what is going on here in context. Foreigners come here, and the first thing they want to talk about is the prisoners. We want to talk about the context—that is, the genocide.”


Few observers, whether foreign or Rwandan, deny that exercising control over at least some elements of the RPF is difficult for the government as things stand. In his speeches and press conferences, Kagame often boasts of the army’s stern discipline; but in fact he and some of the other leaders have not always been able to restrain ordinary Tutsi soldiers from taking revenge on Hutus who are not guilty of any crime. In April 1995, RPF soldiers ran amok in the Kibeho refugee camp, killing 3,000 Hutu refugees.

The Kibeho massacre not only demonstrated the weakness of the regime in controlling the RPF forces, but also shattered much of the trust that had existed within the government between cabinet members drawn from the RPF and those who came from the moderate Hutu political parties. When Faustin Twagiramungu, the Hutu prime minister, resigned, it was generally assumed, even though he was replaced by another Hutu, Pierre Celestin Rwigema, that power had shifted to Kagame and to the Tutsi hardliners. Since the massacre, moreover, there have been numerous incidents of RPF soldiers killing Hutu villagers in reprisal for the increasingly frequent attacks on Tutsis mounted by Hutu soldiers of the old regime from their safe havens in Zaire. These killings have confirmed the worst fears of international human rights activists.

Against all the evidence, the government claims that its soldiers have committed no abuses at all. And as more and more guerrillas have infiltrated from Zaire into western Rwanda, the cycle in which Hutu guerrilla attacks are followed by government reprisals has often recurred during the past year. Local government officials try to cover up the killings by their own forces, but the truth usually leaks out before long. It is hard to keep secrets in a place as small, and with such good roads and communications, as Rwanda. When, for example, forty-seven Hutu prisoners were found dead in the southern commune of Bujarama last June, the mayor at first claimed that they had been killed by Hutu guerrillas. Within a week, after reporters had interviewed some of the survivors, it began to appear more likely that government troops, under attack from Hutu fighters from refugee camps in Bukavu, Zaire, had chosen to kill their prisoners instead of letting them free to, presumably, go off to join the growing cross-border insurgency.*

Such incidents have given governments hostile to the RPF a pretext for challenging the new regime’s legitimacy, particularly the French, who were the old regime’s strongest supporters and had sent troops to Rwanda in 1992 and 1993 to block any RPF attacks that threatened to topple it. Even in the weeks following the genocide, French officials did little to conceal their hostility to the RPF. Initially, French officials tried privately to pressure the UN Security Council into accepting the concept of a double genocide—the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis and an RPF aggression against Rwanda. “The genocide or genocides?” President Mitterrand once shot back in response to a reporter’s question. And even after the full story of the genocide had become clear, French officials continued to insist there was blame enough to go around. “One could not,” insisted the then-foreign minister, Alain Juppé, on August 25, 1994, “say that good was on the side of the RPF and evil on the other.”

In the two years since the RPF’s victories, French officials have seized on such events as the killings in Bujarama to impugn the moral legitimacy of the new Kigali regime, although they prefer to do so privately, and usually off the record. The French government has repeatedly called upon the RPF-led government to agree to negotiations with Hutu leaders in the camps. Although French diplomats do not say so openly, it is clear they want nothing less than a compromise between those responsible for the genocide and those who were its victims. And the killings at Kibeho and Bujarama have played into the hands of the French.

By now, however, such extensive violence against unarmed people is comparatively rare. Although there is little evidence of remorse either among the two million Hutus who fled the RPF advance, or among the five million who remained in Rwanda, the record of the Rwandan government gives little support to claims that there has been an orgy of anti-Hutu bloodlust on the part of the Tutsis, who now make up no more than about 700,000 of the 7.5 million Rwandans, including the two million abroad. This does not mean that the Hutu majority is allowed a proportionate voice in government. Vice-President Kagame and the group of RPF officials around him undoubtedly make the important political decisions in Rwanda; but at the same time, in most parts of Rwanda except the west, relations between the Hutu and Tutsi communities are being restored and Kagame himself talks incessantly about the need for reconciliation.

Many Rwandan officials privately voice the suspicion that the hostility to them in Paris and some other capitals derives not only from sympathy toward the Hutu-dominated regime of Juvenal Habyarimana, which most of the Western nations supported, but from the West’s bad conscience about not having done more to prevent the genocide. “If they can establish a moral equivalence between us and the génocidaires,” one official told me, “then they are off the hook morally.” The stark reality, he went on to say, is that there are now only two serious political choices available. There could be justice, through prosecution in the courts and appropriate punishment, followed by reconciliation, which is the policy the RPF and its supporters say they want to follow. Or there could be a compromise, without prosecution, between the government and at least some of the representatives of the Hutus in exile.

The latter approach is the one favored by the French government, by the Catholic agency Caritas, in the refugee camps in Zaire, and privately by Vatican officials. They justify this view not by overtly supporting the Hutus but by claiming that such negotiations are the only hope for peace. Despite appeals from the UN and the Kigali government to do so, the Vatican has refused to encourage the Hutu refugees to return to Rwanda. During a visit to one of the camps in Goma, Zaire, an envoy of Pope John Paul II told the assembled refugees—Rwandans, Hutus and Tutsis alike, are overwhelmingly Catholic—that it was premature to talk of return. And although many priests had been complicit in the genocide and fled to Zaire when the RPF triumphed, there was not a word of reproach for their conduct from the Pope’s representative.

These exiled priests have established close relations with the Catholic hierarchy in eastern Zaire, and, more and more, the two hierarchies have come to speak with one voice. The refugee camps have increasingly become both a political base for those loyal to the old Hutu regime and staging areas for cross-border raids into Rwanda by Hutu guerrillas—a development that has been partly the result of the inability of the UN or the more powerful nations to do anything effective to arrange the refugees’ return. At the same time, those arguing for power sharing between the RPF-led government in Kigali and the loyalists of the old regime have become more outspoken. Philippe de Dorlodot, a member of the order of the White Fathers based in Kivu, Zaire, has insisted repeatedly that there was not one genocide in Rwanda but two—the first committed by the Hutu Interahamwe militia in 1994, and the second, a slow-motion genocide being carried out against the Hutus in Rwanda by the RPF right now.

This account hardly acknowledges what the refugee camps in Zaire have become. When the guerrilla bands that infiltrate from the camps into Rwanda carry out assassinations, they target prospective witnesses against the génocidaires. Their attacks have been increasingly successful. Human Rights Watch reported this summer that “some 100 survivors of the 1994 genocide” had been killed, including potential witnesses. In the southwest, around the border town of Cyangugu, and in the four provinces on Rwanda’s western border along Lake Kivu, the RPF troops can now often only move in force; and in these places, unlike in the rest of Rwanda, the RPF is behaving more and more like a beleaguered army of occupation. Mines laid by the guerrillas have been discovered throughout the country, even on the outskirts of Kigali itself.

The attacks are a direct result of the way the camps are organized. From the beginning of the great Hutu exodus into Zaire in June of 1994, the international relief organizations and UN agencies were unable to control what was going on in the camps, several of which contained more than 200,000 people. Unlike the Tanzanian authorities, whose troops have maintained control over the Hutu refugees in the camps on their territory, the hugely corrupt and ineffectual Mobutu government has done hardly anything to stop militant Hutus from running the camps and organizing attacks on Rwanda. There have been a number of reliable reports, moreover, that government officials close to Mobutu have been selling arms to the Hutu fighters.

One unintended result is that the international relief effort, for all the lives it has saved, has also been helping the remnants of the old regime’s regular army, the FAR, and the Interahamwe irregulars while they rebuild their strength. Without an outside military force, whether Zairean or international, to disarm refugees and protect relief workers, there is no way of delivering aid without the cooperation of those who control the camps—that is to say, the génocidaires themselves. Several relief agencies, notably the IRC and the French branch of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), were so appalled by being forced, in effect, to serve as the supply corps and medical service for the revived Hutu war effort that they ceased operations in the camps—an extraordinary gesture for groups committed to working anywhere that the need for them exists. And even officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), while opposing the pullout of the two organizations, conceded, in the words of one of them, Soren Jessen-Petersen, that they were in a “lose-lose” situation.

Many Rwandans have come to believe that as long as the camps exist there will never be peace in the region, for they serve as bases for attack not only on Rwanda but on neighboring Burundi as well. Since last spring, Hutu guerrillas in Burundi have been observed training with FAR soldiers in the camps, and there were also rumors that the two forces were conducting joint attacks in Burundi. If true, this would help to explain the recent battlefield successes of the Burundian Hutu guerrillas against Burundi’s Tutsi-dominated army, which led the Burundian government to expel many of the Rwandan refugees living in its territory and, eventually, to the July military coup that installed Major Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, as the new president of Burundi.

The UNHCR has, however, rejected all suggestions that the Zairean camps be closed down. Sadako Ogata, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, is aware of what is going on in them, but she has repeatedly rejected the suggestion of a number of international aid officials that the camps be shut, whether by a direct order or through a steady cut in food allocations, as UNHCR has been doing with Tajik refugees in northern Afghanistan. Such a move, she argued, would only make the situation worse, leaving people without assistance. Instead, she has talked only of drawing up schedules for phasing out the camps, or moving them away from the border, but without giving any specific timetable.

It is not, of course, UNHCR’s job to resolve the political conflict in Rwanda, but its goals seem contradictory. Ms. Ogata has called for justice through prosecution of the killers. At the same time, she has not only insisted on the need for reconciliation but she has been reluctant—according to some NGO workers out of fear of retaliation against her staff in the Zairean camps—to allow UNHCR officials to testify before the International War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha. Such a decision, however prudent, suggests that UNHCR does not believe that the punishment of the génocidaires is a central concern at present. By contrast, the usually cautious and secretive ICRC has allowed its delegates to give evidence in Arusha, albeit anonymously.


There is a real question whether the goals of reconciliation and justice can be pursued simultaneously in Rwanda. To many, including the US ambassador to Kigali, Robert Gribbin, they cannot. Reconciliation, he believes, can only finally take hold—for all the efforts the Rwandan government has already taken in that direction—after justice has been meted out through trials both in Rwanda and at the war crimes tribunal. Gribbin told me he was pessimistic about the current possibilities of further reconciliation, pointing out how long it took Southerners and Northerners to recover from the wounds of the American Civil War. The best that could be reasonably hoped for, he said, was an end to the cycle of violence.

Everyone else I talked to in Rwanda agreed that time is not on the country’s side. While the trials in Rwanda and in Arusha are only just beginning, the Hutus in the camps grow stronger militarily and more intransigent politically. When I first visited some of the prisoners suspected of genocide in August 1994, they openly admitted their guilt; now, with hardly any exceptions, they say they are innocent. And I was told that some in the Kigali government itself are worried whether it can make a strong case against many of the prisoners. It also apparently fears that the trials will degenerate—except in those rare instances where people confess—into unsustainable accusations and fervent denials. That, at least, is how some international aid workers explain the delays in bringing to trial many of the people the government is holding.

But, of course, the longer the Kigali government delays, the easier it will be for those who wish to establish a false moral equivalence between the present regime and its predecessor to make their case. In fact the Tutsi-dominated government, in trying, after the Hutu genocide, to govern a largely Hutu country, is in an all-but- impossible position. As one official of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) put it to me:

Imagine the Jews had won the Second World War on their own. There are a few remaining Jews left, because some of the concentration camps have been liberated in time. Now the Jews need to persuade their surviving fellow Jews that they will secure justice for them. But they also have to persuade the international community that they will treat the Germans fairly, and persuade the Germans that they will govern Germany not in the name of the Jews but in the name of all German citizens. And, just to make matters almost entirely hopeless, there is a Nazi army across the border in Poland. That, in a nutshell, is the situation the RPF faces in Rwanda.

It is precisely because their situation is so difficult that the Rwandan authorities have so little patience with foreigners, particularly journalists, human rights workers, and diplomats from France and some other European Union countries, who seem more interested in questioning them about their human rights record than, as General Kagame put it recently, remaining “open-minded” about the government’s commitment to reconciliation. Unless there is some change in the situation in the Zaire camps, they insist, the war will start again, and with it, perhaps, the prospect of a second genocide. Much depends on the outcome in Burundi: if Major Buyoya is overthrown and militant Hutus take power in Burundi, this could seriously threaten the current Rwandan regime. But Rwandan officials insist that much also depends on what attitude the foreign powers take not only toward the refugee camps in Zaire but toward Rwanda itself.

“The international community behaves as if they stopped the genocide,” the mayor of a small southern Rwandan commune said to me. “They didn’t. It was our own effort, our own military victory that ended the genocide. You ask why we are bitter. First, you in the West left us to die. And now that we’re trying not to make a Tutsi state or a Hutu state but a post-ethnic state, you seem to be doing everything in your power to see to it that we fail. You won’t close the camps, even though the first priority of our government must be security, and that is the only solution to the security situation. You won’t turn over the people who planned the genocide to our courts, and you won’t give us the kind of aid that we need to rebuild our country. When the old regime was in power, your governments gave lavishly and without conditions.”

The more one travels in Rwanda, the more it becomes clear that, however irrational it may appear from New York, Paris, or Brussels, the leaders of the RPF and many ordinary Rwandans as well genuinely expected the Western nations to act to halt the genocide. This will be familiar to those foreigners who lived through the siege of Sarajevo, where people constantly asked why the West was not intervening. “The world deserted us,” a Rwandan official told me. “I think it is rather unrealistic for them to expect us to accept their excuses and proceed as if nothing had happened. I lost twenty-seven members of my family, while the UN peacekeepers were sitting out at the Kigali airport, claiming that there was nothing they could do, and the Belgians and the French were landing—not to help us but to evacuate the Europeans from Rwanda.”

On this question the facts are not in dispute. In April 1994, when the slaughter of the Tutsis was beginning, the resident foreigners, who were not being attacked by the Hutu militias, were evacuated by Belgian and French paratroopers. It is a familiar story in Africa. Trouble erupts and a European force intervenes not to stop the killing but to repatriate its own nationals and those citizens of other rich countries who want to leave. It was a time of such horror in Rwanda that the panic was understandable. What was less understandable was the categorical refusal by the French and Belgian governments to consider evacuating any Rwandan nationals not married to Europeans.

Few doubt that whatever the attitude of most Europeans living in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, the expatriate staffs of the relief agencies were reluctant to leave Rwanda and abandon their local employees. Indeed, some aid workers opposed the evacuation as it was getting underway, arguing that to leave the local workers behind was to condemn them to certain death. But after ten Belgian paratroopers were killed by Interahamwe thugs after being horribly tortured, neither the European and North American governments, which now provide much of the funding for humanitarian relief work, nor the NGO officials at the organizations’ headquarters believed they had any choice. They realized, at the same time, that the Belgians were killed in such a monstrous way precisely to provoke the remaining foreigners into flight so that the génocidaires could get on with their killing.

The aid workers who predicted the worst were to be proven right. When international humanitarian relief agen-cies again set up operations in Kigali a few months later, they found most of their former local employees had been killed. The feelings of guilt on the part of the foreign NGOs were intense but no more so than the mistrust their behavior provoked on the part of Rwandans, who now doubted, however unfairly, that the commitment of the foreigners was genuine. And it is this double psychic burden that continues to mar the relationship between the NGOs working in Rwanda and the new government.

Moreover, many if not most Rwandans, both those who are loyal to the current regime and those who are less enthusiastic about it (outright opposition is not something that is often voiced in Kigali these days), believe that the foreigners who ran away during the genocide have only returned for their own or their government’s purposes. They admit that the rebuilding of their country, which was sacked by the retreating forces of the former regime, could not have been accomplished without the perseverance of the NGOs. Not only medical services but roads, schools, and electricity, among much else, have been restored by foreign aid. At the same time, it is clear that no matter how much the NGOs do, it will never be enough.

Rwandans see the aid workers not as the representatives of individual private voluntary organizations, with limited influence and resources, but as stand-ins for the rich, powerful countries that could have prevented the genocide but failed to do so. They look at the white vehicles of the ICRC or of Medicins Sans Frontières and see the white armored vehicles of a UN force that was never deployed to protect them. This association of the NGOs with a world that stood by has, if anything, intensified since the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping missions at the end of 1995. While the UN peacekeepers were in Rwanda, the blame could be laid on them, however unjustly. But when the official foreign presence in Rwanda was reduced mainly to the diplomats in their compounds, and international staff members of a few UN, EU, and US agencies, the NGOs became the most visible representatives of the international will, or the failure of it, in Rwanda. The bitterness was directed at them.

For their part, the international relief agencies say they may not be able to continue working in Rwanda. They point out that, strictly speaking, there is no humanitarian disaster in the country. The crisis, they say, is political. This outrages officials of the Kigali government, who recall that between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, Rwanda was a favorite beneficiary in Africa of both European governments and private voluntary organizations. Switzerland gave more direct aid to Rwanda than to any other country. By the end of the Eighties more than 200 donors were involved in more than 500 projects in Rwanda, which employed tens of thousands of people. Throughout the more than two decades since independence, between 1963 and 1988, Rwanda received on average approximately 200 million dollars per year in development aid.

What members of the current government in Kigali do not seem to realize or wish to acknowledge is that by 1990, the Habyarimana regime, beset by falling prices for tea and coffee, Rwanda’s two principal commodities, was already beginning to have trouble getting more development aid from foreign donors. The rules of the game were changing, and the free spending for foreign aid of the Sixties and Seventies was coming to an end. Many Rwandans not only fail to grasp this but also believe that the genocide created a special moral obligation on the part of the West to give aid. Vice-President Kagame has repeatedly called on rich foreign countries to make an especially generous effort now in order, as he puts it, to re-establish their relations with Rwanda “on a moral footing.”

It is hard to tell whether foreigners who now work in Rwanda, and are sympathetic to the regime, are more ashamed or embarrassed by such appeals. “They just don’t get it,” a USAID official told me regretfully. “What they don’t understand is that the terms of the aid game have changed. The cold war is over. Donors are cutting back.” The same view can be heard from Sadako Ogata of UNHCR. The donor nations, she says, increasingly need to be persuaded that their assistance will lead to a solution to the problems of a given region before they pledge money for UNHCR, or the other specialized UN agencies and the NGOs. In this sense, Rwanda is actually better off than some other countries. After an international conference in Geneva on Rwanda last July, there was some increase in funding commitments from donor nations, including the US, members of the European Union, and Japan. But it is not enough, and most of the donors have warned that funds can’t be counted on for the future.

Few foreign visitors talk frankly to Rwandans about the new system of humanitarian triage they are facing. Indeed, in government offices or at the newly redecorated American club in Kigali, where many expatriates gather in the evenings, the underlying reasons for deteriorating relations between the NGOs and the government are rarely mentioned. Government officials talk with exasperation of NGOs that claimed to do work for which they had generous funding but which they never did. The aid workers, when they are willing to criticize the authorities at all (and, in my experience, that many do not is less a matter of prudence than of genuine sympathy for the deeper grudges against foreign governments that Rwandans bear), usually make jokes about the escalating demands of the authorities for money and equipment to speed up timetables for the repair of courthouses and water systems. Such glossing over of sensitive subjects is common in Rwanda these days.

For anyone who spent time in Kigali in the spring or summer of 1994, while the genocide and the exodus were going on, it is astonishing how few traces of that period remain. Although some buildings, notably the parliament and the airport, are still pocked by shells or scarred by small-arms fire, there is little at first glance to distinguish Kigali from any other city of the region. Under the government dominated by Kagame, most public buildings have been repaired; the electricity works, as does the water system; restaurants and shops abound; and the markets are bustling and full. If anything, Kigali gives a stronger impression of normalcy than Nairobi, where the atmosphere seems dire and unsafe, let alone of Bujumbura, across the border in Burundi. The new government has even repaired the street signs.

What reminds the visitor of the past is the number of people who do not seem to know their way around Kigali. Many of the drivers for the international humanitarian organizations, for example, say they come from Kigali but are in fact Tutsis who were born in exile in Burundi or Uganda. Their parents left Rwanda as children following the 1959 anti-Tutsi pogroms just before independence from Belgium; they returned only after the RPF took Kigali in July 1994. These repatriated Tutsis tend to speak English rather than French as a second language. That alone is enough to set them apart from the native-born, usually Hutu residents of the capital (and enough, many foreigners believe, to ensure France’s undying hostility to the new regime).


Almost every Tutsi in Kigali was murdered during the genocide. And if returning Tutsis are sometimes unfamiliar with the streets and alleys of the capital, they know all too well which members of their extended families were killed. Whatever rancor and bitterness people feel, however, is not expressed as openly as one might expect. The official position of the new government is that the “ethnic” division of Rwandans into Hutus and Tutsis was a false one. No such distinction existed, they claim, before missionaries and German colonizers came to Rwanda at the end of the nineteenth century. That is why, government officials insist, the idea of Rwanda as a “post-ethnic” state is not wishful thinking as most outsiders believe but, in fact, a restoration of traditional Rwandan norms.

The view is one that most Tutsis seem to endorse emphatically, and that most Hutus living in Rwanda seem unwilling to contradict, at least in front of an outsider. Even to ask someone’s ethnic origin is risky in Rwanda now. International aid workers grow visibly nervous about such questions. “Don’t say ‘T’ and ‘H,”‘ an American aid worker in eastern Rwanda said to me nervously. “You’ll get arrested. You can’t use those terms anymore. It’s a distinction that has been abolished. For the government, to use it is to talk like the people across the border in Zaire—in other words, the language of the génocidaires.”

Historically and psychologically, the Rwandan nation cannot have moved in only two years from being a society in which ethnicity was the defining element of social and political identity to being one in which it is meaningless and false. And yet it is by no means clear what other choice the Rwandan government has except to try to impose this new mythology on the society they are not simply trying to govern but to rebuild. Tutsis made up only about 12 percent of the pre-war population. Today, after the genocide, even if we take account of the mass flight of the Hutus and all the Tutsi returnees, they are probably no more than 9 or 10 percent.

In private, NGO workers are not optimistic that the Hutus in Zaire will return in large numbers anytime soon. The refugees’ return, they say, will be a part of a political settlement, or of a relaxation of tension that might follow the disarming of the FAR and Interahamwe in the camps, or it will not take place at all.

The Rwandan government meanwhile is doing what it can to create the institutions of a non-ethnic state. Partly with funds from USAID, new identity cards are being circulated; for the first time since the era of German colonization, people are not categorized as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa (the pygmy people of Rwanda who make up about 1 percent of the population). And the authorities are making a remarkable effort, through public statements in the press and on television, to promote the idea that the people who committed the genocide fled abroad while, in the main, those who remained are to be viewed as innocent fellow Rwandans, as much victims of the former government and its allies as the Tutsis and moderate Hutus who were the targets of the genocide. “Let’s talk of right and wrong,” Vice-President Kagame has said, “not Tutsi and Hutu.”

Of course, among the survivors of the genocide, there are those who will never forgive the ordinary Hutus who stood by as the slaughter went on and on. But what is surprising in Rwanda is how frequently one encounters people who seem genuinely to bear these people no malice. I spoke to a nurse in the western Rwandan town of Rwamagamda, a man who lost his wife and three of his five children and only survived himself because the RPF took the town on the day his Hutu captors had said they would kill him. “There were,” he told me,

the real killers, and then there were those who simply came to watch. I accuse these last of nothing. Anyone who refused to watch was taking a great risk. You had to, despite yourself. Later people I knew told me they had felt great compassion for us, but could do nothing. And I believe they were right. If you didn’t kill, you ran the risk of being killed. And that’s too much to expect of anyone.

His testimony, but, more important, his attitude, his impulse to forgive, seem to me widely shared. It is accompanied, however, by a tremendous hunger for justice. If ordinary Tutsis are willing to live in harmony with their Hutu neighbors, it is only on the assumption that those who actually organized and carried out the murders will be brought to judgment. And that is the nub of the problem in Rwanda at the moment. Identifying all the killers is bound to be difficult; and of the hundred or so known principal organizers of the genocide only a handful have been indicted, and fewer still are in the custody either of the Rwandan courts or of the international tribunal in Arusha. Most are in Zaire, preparing their return to power from the safety of the refugee camps, or they are in exile elsewhere.

The reluctance of the world’s more powerful nations to have the criminals prosecuted, and, worse still, their seeming eagerness to establish a moral symmetry between the crimes of the old regime and those of the new government—a regime, Rwandans say, that has overseen the rebirth of a country reduced to ashes and mourning—is incomprehensible to some Rwandans, unconscionable to others. I found that many expatriate aid workers would agree. “We worked our hearts out in the Zaire camps for people many of whom were no better than ax murderers,” one told me. “Here in Rwanda the government wants to maintain control over what we do. They blame us for what our countries didn’t do…. From my point of view, after what they have gone through, they’re right to be angry. When they say we haven’t done enough, they’re right. Nothing we can do would be enough.”

October 3, 1996

This Issue

October 31, 1996