Rwanda’s sadness – and its success

Rwanda has marked the anniversary of the genocide that took more than 800,000 lives in 1994. It was a somber moment for the African nation, a chance to remember many lives lost and the failure of international community to act to protect lives. Yet as Michael Gerson noted, it is also an opportunity to remember America’s responsibilities, then and now.

Gerson is a senior adviser to ONE, as well as a columnist with the Washington Post and formerly an aide to President George W Bush. He traveled to Rwanda with US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power as part of the the Presidential delegation. On his return, Gerson wrote a powerful and moving op-ed on the subject, Remembering and learning from Rwanda’s victims. It records both the unbearable sadness that marked the event, but also the hope that has emerged in this country of 12 million in Central Africa.

“One of the interesting, unexpected things that emerged from the horror of genocide is that the government of Rwanda is now so involved in peacekeeping,” Gerson told ONE in an interview. Rwandan peackeepers have been involved across Africa, including in Darfur and more recently in Central African Republic, he notes. “When Rwanda sees problems, it is not going to stand by,” he says. “It has been very much influenced both by the ideas of ‘Never Again’ and the responsibility to protect.”

Gerson also praises the country’s achievements in human and economic development. “It is testimony to the achievements of the Rwandan people,” he says. “A record of great success, especially in health.” Rwanda is one of the most effective countries in terms of the President’s Malaria Initiative and PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Fund for Aids Relief, he says, with the support of the Gates Foundation and The Global Fund. “It is as though, the only way that Rwanda could avoid divisive reflection on its past was to move forward and focusing on its common goals: health, development, inclusion.”

Twenty years after the genocide, life expectancy has doubled, according to an article in The Lancet. Death rates from AIDS and tuberculosis have dropped steeply. The country is widely regarded as an example of health success.

Gerson says that for all the progress the country has made, it is still clear that it suffers from “poorly healed wounds.” He has visited Rwanda several times, in government and as a journalist as well as with Sara Bloomfield, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where Gerson is a member of the Conscience Committee.

But Gerson points out this time, visiting in an official capacity was a reminder that others bear their share of blame for the terrible events of 1994. The US response to the Rwandan holocaust was inadequate and lives that might have been saved were lost, as President Bill Clinton subsequently acknowledged in an apology to the Rwandan people.

“We did not act quickly enough after the killing began,” Clinton said in 1998. “We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past, but we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear.”

“It’s easy to talk about other countries when you visit like that,” said Gerson. “But we represent a country that had its own flaws. There is a burden of historical memory about America’s role.”