"We reached the bottom. We had nowhere to go but up." These words were spoken by an MP from the Rwandan Parliament during a visit to the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. He was speaking to me and three parliamentary colleagues from the UK who were in Rwanda ahead of the national day of commemoration, marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide in which an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed. It is the awful truth that Rwanda had reached depths of despair impossible to imagine.
During a visit to the Gisozi Memorial site in Kigali, we were taken through the turbulent history of the country leading up to the 1994 atrocity. There, and at another memorial site in Nyamata, we faced the shocking reality of the scale of the death toll, the brutality and the affront to humanity. There you see mass graves, victims’ remains, belongings, photographs and profiles – including the circumstances of their deaths. It is the children's stories which are hardest to hear and which bring home the reality the most.
Rwanda 20 years on is unrecognisable from that time. To say it has progressed is an understatement – the pace of development has been awe-inspiring. There are a great many elements to its success, but two key ones are its belief in nationhood and its determination to end corruption. Aid money spent in Rwanda reaches those in need, probably more so than anywhere else in the world. This is a highly commendable achievement, sadly all too rare in the region.
The policy of unity and reconciliation meanwhile has been hugely successful in helping its people look forwards while not ignoring the past. Through the Gacaca courts – a process of traditional justice at community level – many gruesome truths were exposed but in ways that allowed the healing process to begin. It was a risk-filled approach, which paid off.
During a visit to Rwera, a village of reconciliation, we met and heard testimonials from a victim, a génocidaire and a victim's family member. They live communally and work together to build the economic capacity of the village. There are also cases of victim's and perpetrator's families coming together through marriage. "A heart that doesn't forgive is a sick heart," is a sentiment we heard from Louise who spoke after listening to the testimonial of the man who killed her cousin. This is happening throughout Rwanda. People's lives have improved and are continuing to improve, and they recognise that this is due to policies that have been thoughtfully conceived and successfully delivered.
Education is also improving – the largest share of the central budget goes to this sector. The government is investing in future generations to continue the journey to self-sufficiency and consolidating the understanding that peace and stability are essential to progress. Improvements in health, gender equality, food security and economic empowerment are all contributing to collective social development and justice too.
There are of course challenges; not least facing international sanction following the much contested UN report accusing Rwanda of supporting the Congolese M23 rebels. The subsequent withdrawal of aid money for direct budget support created major problems financing essential services. But rather than dwelling on the loss, it has redoubled the Rwandan government's determination for self-sufficiency, ensuring their policy and spend of today is an investment for the years ahead.
No matter what criticisms are levelled at the Republic of Rwanda, there is no denying what is there to see for all who go there. A place with impressive infrastructure; a healthy, industrious and easygoing population; a safe environment; and visible multi-sectoral economic activity. This country has been rebuilt not just from the ground up, but from the foundations.
The post-genocide nation is young and should be judged in context. Every state has to negotiate a broad spectrum of social and political priorities, and most without having to heal a deep and painful wound. Credit must be given where it is due.
Today, 7 April, the 20th anniversary – marking the start of the genocide – will be an occasion to remember, mourn and reflect, not just in Rwanda, but throughout the world. But importantly, it will also be a time to recognise the country's many achievements since the tragic events of 20 years ago as well as look forwards to a future of equality of opportunity, economic growth and stability. With what it has achieved in the last 20 years I am in little doubt that Rwanda will go from strength to strength.
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