Twenty years after the Rwandan atrocities, the country is rebuilding with donor money from a world that stood by as genocide was committed. Mike Pflanz reports

When the mob failed to force open the heavy wooden doors to the church where Jean de Dieu Burakari was hiding, they began instead firing guns through the windows and throwing in grenades.

"We were very crowded inside, many were killed or lost body parts then died slowly because there was no medication," said Burakari, 33, his eyes shifting to the church windows as if he still saw the militia outside.

"I hid beneath a bench at the back and I survived only by God's grace. "We were safer in the church. Those who hid in the priests' offices outside were locked in and petrol poured on them and they burned to death. We could hear them screaming.

"I was there for nine days. Bodies were rotting and bursting around me but we could not move them because the men were still there. They came every day in the afternoon, and they killed people every day."


The 8000 people who died in and around that Catholic mission church in Rukara, eastern Rwanda, were among at least 800,000 killed in the country's genocide, which began 20 years ago today.

The spark was the shooting down of a jet carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents as it came in to land at Kigali airport late on April 6, 1994. All on board were killed. By sunrise the next morning, the massacres had begun.

In the 100 days that followed, extremists among the majority Hutus attempted to carry out a long-planned mission to exterminate the traditionally wealthier minority Tutsis.

Commemorative events were due to begin officially in the capital, Kigali, overnight at a sports stadium that sheltered thousands fleeing killers.

France said it would no longer attend after Paul Kagame, Rwanda's President, repeated at the weekend his long-held view that Paris was complicit with the genocidal regime months before the massacres began.

The irony of world leaders attending the memorial events will not be lost on Kagame, or on Rwandans.

The world did little to help in 1994. The genocide was stopped only when Kagame's rebel army invaded and fought off the mobs, including those besieging the church in Rukara.

The mass killings in Rwanda claimed 800,000 lives in just 100 days in 1994. Photo / AP

Since then, the nation has undergone a swift, and apparently miraculous, rebirth where killers now live seemingly peacefully alongside the relations of those they murdered.

"What happened in 1994 was terrible," Burakari told the Daily Telegraph during a visit to Rukara, where the church still stands. "But the people who killed, today they can be friends, they are people we do business with. Today, there is a reconciliation between us all."

The ethnic divide between Hutus and Tutsis, largely invented by colonising Germans and Belgians and then manipulated by post-independence politicians, is outlawed now. No one may ask to which side a person belongs.

Instead, Kagame has spent billions of pounds of the aid money that flowed from guilt-ridden donors following the genocide to enact his vision of a united Rwanda where ethnicity is irrelevant.

Education is free and the farming that employs 80 per cent of Rwanda's 11 million people is being modernised.

Well-managed investments in infrastructure mean some of Africa's best roads, reliable electricity even in the remotest villages, and broadband internet nationwide, all of which attracts increasing numbers of international investors.

Gross domestic product, which fell from 1.6 billion ($3.08 billion) in 1990 to 450 million in 1994, reached 4.4 billion in 2012, propelled by annual growth rates of 8 per cent. More than 60 per cent of the population today is aged 24 or under, a post-genocide generation with no direct memory of the killings who are trying to mint a new reputation for their nation.

Jonathan Iyandemye was born two months before the genocide started and grew up in a two-room hut with a leaky roof, yet has just been accepted to Harvard to study civil engineering. "All people seem to know is that Hotel Rwanda movie, all the atrocities and hatred, but it's not like that at all," he said.

Watch: Trauma paralyses Rwanda genocide survivors

"Here we have no oil, we have no natural resources. But we have a people who, thanks to God and good leadership that encourages us to preserve our dignity, has put us all in the mindset to succeed."

Near uniform praise for this transformation goes to Kagame, who was elected to a second and constitutionally final presidential term with 93 per cent of the vote in polls held in 2010. Such margins of electoral popularity usually point to authoritarian regimes and Kagame has increasingly faced similar allegations. His secret service is accused of assassinations of allies-turned-enemies, most of whom died abroad after trying to escape apparent threats on their lives. Human rights organisations and the United Nations say Rwandan troops have been heavily involved in conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an allegation that led to countries cutting aid.

Domestically Kagame's influence, direct or imagined, is felt everywhere. His grip, it is said, is becoming firmer as he nears the end of his mandate, in 2017. There is talk he will change the constitution to run again.

"No one can speak his mind, and if your mind is not what the Government wants it to be, you remain silent," says one former Kagame staffer increasingly ambivalent towards his former boss's methods. "Eventually, that silence must burst."

Whether enough has been done to avoid anything like a repeat of the genocide, in a country with a history of mass ethnic killings even before 1994, may be due to the tribe-less, educated, entrepreneurial new generation. "That hatred will never take root again," said Sam Kambali, a 23-year-old artist in a Kigali gallery. "It only works if you see yourselves as in different groups. Today, we are one."

Terrible toll
100 days, the length of time it took soldiers and Hutu militia to commit genocide
800,000 people were killed, largely Tutsis