Friday, June 24, 2005

Different impressions of Rwanda

Not good blogging this but still: this was written before the next post and contains some of my very first impressions of Rwanda

We went to the hotel, Milles Collines, where both Hotel Rwanda is set and A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali was written about (as in, real things happened there too). To add to the authenticity, they are now filming A Sunday there and we think that the writer was there, eleven years on still sitting by the pool writing and smoking. Apparently in recent weeks people have come for a swim to find period UN trucks and refugees pouring in, which must be disconcerting for some - this is why much of Hotel Rwanda was in fact filmed in South Africa.*

So from relaxing by the pool we went to see AVEGA who, as everyone I have baskets to in recent months knows is the widows and orphans association and the people who make the baskets!! We gave them the money raised from sale in Britain and discussed a business plan for their future. We were told that since November everyone in Rwanda now has access to retroviral drugs, though this seems to be uncertain and is not the message we got in Britain [and it is not the message we have had since but that is another story]. The money also pays for trauma counselling and help with transport as many of the widows are now giving testimony to the Gacaca courts. The process involves all involved going to the scene and establishing the truth about what happened.

We were then taken to see the house of a woman who makes th baskets. It was out side town and like mose of the houses here, her house was one of a few overlooking a courtyard. Inside a boy was looking after the strangest looking ducks. The woman's house was two rooms, very sparse but prettily furnished and with pictures from magazines on the walls. She looks after her own children as well as some orphans, the oldest of whom was the football fan, a very striking tall boy. We were told that he was too traumatised to play football.

We were able to watch a basket being made and hear how they are dyed with paint. Hearing the translation third hand through French, I couldn't quite establish how long each basket takes to make, it might have been five days and she gets three pounds for each basket. She said that she couldn't always sell as many as she could make as there was no longer a trade in the local market and we tried to tell her that the British market was about to grow. It was difficult to communicate but I would have liked her to know how enthusiastic people were about the baskets. Plans are afoot to import far more of the baskets and I hope this will finally give her a steady income.

After meeting this warm family, back through dirt roads and past waving primary schoolchildren straight to the uncomfortable luxury of the Intercontinental Hotel, Rwanda's most exclusive. Not a happy contrast.

* Postscript: a few days later still we went to find the pool drained, its bottom covered in rubbish. They were filming one of the final moments of the book, when the refugees at the hotel had drunk all the water and eaten the birds from the aviary. I was rather moved by the moment but no-one else found it very believable.

Running away?

This post was written on Thursday last week, just after the UN criticised Rwanda and Burundi for the 'forced' return of refugees from UNHCR camps

Yesterday we went to Butare, the home of the university and the site of a recent exodus by between
two and eight thousand refugees (depending on whose figures you believe) frightened of the Gacaca process. It was a lesson in media perspectives. The world's media had picked up on the condemnation of the UNCHR ofthe treatment by Rwanda of refugees, who were being repatriated by force with the agreement of the Congolese government. There seems no doubt that due process in the cases of them as asylum seekers had not been followed, but also very difficult to hear of any evidence that they were doing anything other than evading justice.
The Gacaca process has been criticised internationally, though it is largely accepted as the only solution to a huge prison population, which would take 100,000 years to try in the formal way. My Rwandan friend said that the Gacaca process was being criticised because the West could not accept that Africa could implement a system of their own. The system is also largely free of the vast legal beauracracy that could accompany this process and which would create another reason for international NGOs to be in Rwanda. Cynicism aside, it does seem, from talking to students in Butare, that they have a high level of faith in the process and a very calm, brave view of what they arew going to see this summer. The Gacacas now happen each Wednesday afternoon in Butare, with everyone invited. Alongside the formal investigations, witnesses testify and there is an effort to establish the truth of what happens. The third stage (after investigation and trial) will see the community decide on guilt and punishment.

For a country to be reliving its past in such a vivid way is bound to cause problems but I was told in two separate cases that security has been put into place in villages to prevent reprisals against the tried or the witnesses. Given the general level of security on the streets, this sounds plausible. They do not believe that these groups are in danger because, I was told, 'they know who is a survivor and who isn't. If anything happened they would know who did it'. There is a view is that the ongoing investigations mean that people know that they are going to be found out and that is why they are now fleeing. A journalism student who has been talking to the refugees say that they often refer to 'rumours' of violence, which may have been spread by former leaders of the genocide or they may be an excuse by people evading Gacaca: he wasn't sure about the truth. [there is a follow-up to this section which I will post another time]

The UNHCR undoubtedly has an authoritative perspective on the conditions of refugees and I don't agree with one view, suggested by the government as well as a friend here, that they are deliberately stirring things up to create work for themselves. However, I do think the West is, in its determinaton that its own processes are right, denying the Rwandan people the justice that they would demand for themselves. The risk is that the UNHCR start to be seen as harbouring genocidaire when perhaps it should be working as quickly as possible to ensure that the refugees do not languish for yeas in another jail, that of the overcrowded camp, rather than seeing Gacaca through and moving on with the rest of society.
In the meantime, repatriation is happening and international observers, if too quick to condemn the process, may find themselves shut out.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Into the unknown

Tomorrow I'm off on my African adventure, to Rwanda where the youth of the globe hope to crack the genocide problem once and for all.

Hopefully elements of the trip will be reported in full at and I also hope that I might be able to blog by email. On the other hand, I might spend my time just looking at the lions and tigers, who knows...