The former Development Secretary returns from Rwanda
The former International Development Minister, Clare Short has sent a series of exclusive reports for the Today Programme about the political situation in Rwanda following the genocide of the 1990's. Ms Short will be answering your emails after 0900am on Thursday 3 July.
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Clare Short in Africa.
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One of the men on trial for genocide
Watching the gorillas in National Volcano Park
Don't get closer than five metres.....
It was a relief to land in Kigali. The overnight flight had been tiring and came with an unwelcome stopover in Nairobi airport at an hour of the morning when only Today programme presenters should be awake. To make it worse, in the half-sleep of the transit lounge Richard Quest on CNN was shouting about the terrorist threat to Kenya. The attempt last year to fire a surface-to-air missile at an Israeli charter taking off from Mombassa had proved the danger was real. And following a specific recent warning British Airways has suspended its flights to the region.
As we pass over Lake Victoria on the next leg of our journey I reflect that Rwandair Express is probably not top of al-Qaeda’s hit list. But Kigali airport does have its own history of disaster and bloodshed. It was here, in 1994, that President Juvenal Habyarimana’s jet was blown out of the sky. His death was taken as the cue for the start of the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus. In three months, nearly one million Rwandans lost their lives.
Rwanda has come a long way since. It is this story of hope Clare Short says she wants to tell in the coming days. On the way here she also lets slip she is something of a national hero in these parts. And so it proves. Camera crews and a large delegation await us on the tarmac.
It goes on. In one afternoon, we meet and interview practically every senior cabinet minister in the country. We end the day in a Chinese restaurant with the current President, Paul Kagame, a former soldier now preparing for democracy. He tells us the presidential elections will take place at the end of August, with the parliamentary poll a month after. A softly-spoken man, who seems almost shy at first, he admits he sees the forthcoming campaign with its need for public speeches as something of a challenge.
There simply aren’t enough hours in the equatorial day for everything we are trying to do here. We start at seven thirty with a breakfast meeting with the UN, the IMF and every other international body in town. Then it’s off - out of the city, into the land of thousand hills, to meet the “real people”.
After two hours driving, we find some of the perpetrators of the genocide. These men have served jail terms and are now building houses for survivors of the killing. A crowd gathers around us and Clare is able to get both victim and aggressor together to give us their stories. But too soon we have to leave.
Next we are taken by military boat along Lake Kivu to a coffee washing station. The simple cleaning process trebles the value of the beans and the amount paid to some five hundred local growers. We go on to a school nearby. It had repeatedly come under attack by rebel Hutu militias. One time the gunmen ordered the children to separate into Hutus and Tutsis. They refused. Both groups died as a result. Their story is terrible yet compelling, but once more we have to leave before we are ready. A helicopter is called in to get us back to Kigali before the sun sets punctually at six o’clock. Back in the city there is only time for an interview with the President before we can decide to call it a day.
Gacaca is the word Rwandans use for their own unique system of village justice. Around the country men and women who took part in the genocide are standing before their victims’ families, survivors and their entire local community and testifying to their crimes. It is harrowing to watch.
The court is created by placing benches in a square on the grass. A panel of nineteen judges sits along one side. The guilty men stand in the middle. Two men are called on the day we visit. The first admits to being a part of a genocidal mob who killed women and children. But he refuses to say he ever wielded a blow.
The crowd of several hundred locals become angry and demand he admits his guilt. He continues to refuse. He also claims he stopped his militia from attacking an old woman in the village. This tactic backfires when it emerges she is sitting watching him talk. She gets up and testifies that he stole her cattle and assaulted her.
The crowd is annoyed by the man, but the people remain calm and when it is over he walks away.
The second genocidaire to give evidence takes the opposite approach. He details his crimes, including the slaughter of five children. He looks ashamed, a broken man. The people of the village listen in silence.
After a packed three days we’ve have got nearly all the material we need for our broadcasts, so it is time to relax and take the trip to see Rwanda’s famous gorillas in the mist. We set off at six for the National Volcano Park in the north of the country. An early start is necessary as the gorillas move higher and higher up the mountain throughout the day. We arrive just in time for Clare to do a live introduction to her first piece for the programme - the story of Rwanda’s journey from the genocide of 1994 to its first elections later this year.
We enter the park prepared for a long trek - but we have fantastic luck. Within fifteen minutes we have found a group of gorillas quietly munching their way through the surrounding vegetation. They seem totally unfazed by our appearance, giving us only passing glances as we stare and take pictures. However, I am also keen to record any sound they make. As we are not allowed to get closer than five metres I have brought an extra long microphone capable of picking up the faintest of sounds. This seems to have been a good idea as they don’t make much noise, but I think I might just be able to pick up the sound of the silverback - the adult male - chomping his way through some leaves. I point the mic and lean forward. Suddenly one of our guides rushes towards me, whispering animatedly. He is terrified the gorilla will think the microphone is a gun and attack. I take another look at the sheer size and power of the silverback and decide to take his advice.
We leave on Friday. It has been an incredible and moving trip, all the more so because Rwanda remains off most tourists’ wish list of places to visit. At present it is safe and there is an enormous amount to see and experience here. I hope to come back. I only hope it is not because the present optimism is ever again replaced by the horror of the past.
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