The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Track Seven

As many of you will recall, I returned to America over Christmas
mostly to visit family. I also gave a lecture at the University of
Minnesota Duluth called "Rwandan Recovers: Reflections of a Peace
Corps Volunteer." This title was proposed by the Director of the
Alworth Institute (who sponsored the lecture) and is in all regards a
good title. In retrospect, perhaps a more applicable title for what
the lecture turned out as would have been something like "Rwanda
Recovering: Reflections of an Outsider Who Will Never Really
Understand This Place in Two Years."

That being said, a former Professor of mine was in attendance at the
lecture and made some well-thought comments. I would like to take the
time to respond to a few of them.

"[After watching the film 'Hotel Rwanda'], I found myself struck by
the unequivocal 'evil' in the form of political and military leaders
who used the 1994 conflicts as a way to line their pockets with money
and power -- and it is these who, I assume, were tried for their
crimes. In your talk you mentioned that some leaders did indeed face a
trial process."

Yes, the majority of what happened during the 1994 conflict was
organized by leaders who wanted mostly to advance their won benefits
one way or another. They saw an opportunity to exploit the uneducated
(and, in some cases, even the educated) masses using extreme
indoctrination and group-think. As I mentioned in my lecture, but not
in great detail, the United Nations created the International Criminal
Tribunal for Rwanda in late 1994 to judge those responsible for
'serious violations of international law in Rwanda or by Rwandan
citizens in nearby states from 1 January to 31 December, 1994.' The
ICTR has full jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and
war crimes (as defined by the Geneva Conventions' section on war
crimes committed during internal conflicts). As of January 2012, the
ICTR has conducted 50 trials and convicted 29 of the accused. An
additional 11 trails are still in progress. Another 14 accused are
being held pending the start of their trial and 5 of the accused are
still at large or suspected to be dead. In general, the ICTR was
established to try those who committed level 1 offenses (that is, the
organizers). This includes the Akazu government members like Interim
Prime Minister Jean Kambanda. Kambanda pleaded guilty to genocide and
agreement to commit genocide, public and direct incitation to commit
genocide, aiding and abetting genocide, failing in his duty to prevent
genocide which occurred while he was Prime Minister, and two counts of
crimes against humanity to which he was sentenced to life in prison in
Mali. Kambanda appealed his sentence, claiming that he was a puppet
for the Rwandan Army to legitimize their control of the government and
asked for a reduced sentence of 2 years because he 'acted under duress
with limited responsibility'. The Appeals Chamber reject this as a
defense for the crime of genocide. Kambanda's trial serves as a
hallmark that challenges the legal precedent of State Immunity as he
was one of the first Heads of State to be convicted by an
international court. The ICTR has also tried and convicted leaders
from the Impuzamugambi and Interahamwe Militias and RTLM Radio, which
was the lead platform for the Hutu Power Media.

"In the film, [the character) Gregoire initially uses the conflict as
an opportunity to occupy the 'presidential suite' at the hotel, to
refuse to work, and to exercise unfettered access to alcohol and other
amenities, all the while expressing the pro-Hutu ideology. Within the
movie, Gregoire was responsible for several deaths and posed a threat
to Paul Rusesabagina and his family. I try to imagine Hutu and Tutsi
friends and neighbors (from before the 1994 uprising), even 15 years
later, being compelled to welcome Gregoire back into their community,
in the name of "unity." The film narrates Gregoire's betrayal of the
evacuation plans of Rusesabagina and other Rwandans who had secured
sponsorship in other nations. Beyond that, Gregoire is not mentioned
again. There is no narrative 'come-uppance' for Gregoire."

The character of Gregoire is an important one in understanding some of
the dynamics behind what happened in 1994 (and leading up to 1994) and
how Rwanda is recovering. To my knowledge (although I must confess I
have not watched the film in some time), Gregoire did not directly
murder anybody or commit any direct serious crimes. It can obviously
be argued, however, that people like him played a significant role in
perpetuating genocide before and during the conflict. The reference in
this section to unity and Rwandans welcoming people like Gregoire back
into their community is to various programs in Rwanda designed to make
all Rwandans one group of people; Rwandan. Occasionally, when a person
convicted during the Conflict is released from prison, they are
re-integrated into a Rwandan community, granted, this does not always
happen, but what it leads to is a community of survivors and
perpetrators living side by side, BOTH helping Rwanda to recover. This
is, of course, not a perfect system and there has been occasional
back-lash towards the convicted and the government, but in general
(when done correctly), it leads to deeper bonds, better understanding,
and a more meaningful peace on all sides

"You mentioned that there are movements to increase internet access in
regional capitals. And with an average annual income of $400.00 (or
whatever it is), it is not currently likely that everyone will go out
and get a laptop/pc. That said, I wonder what will happen to the
tendency you described for Rwandan citizens to accept authority
unquestioned if more people at lower socio-economic strata DO get
access to the World Wide Web. It seems to me that internet access
might be destabilizing and frustrate the interests of unity, although
in so doing, might pave the way for a more authentic 'democracy.'"

The basis of this comment gets back to a macro-scale point I was
making during my presentation about 'African democracy' and how it is
not the same as American democracy (or Western democracy). This
difference is extremely evident in the fact that not only did Rwanda
record an extremely high voter turnout in the last election (somewhere
upwards of 70%), but over 95% of them voted for the now-President.
This isn't inherently negative, but just imagine an American
politician winning with 95%. If I remember right, the election was
authenticated by several international groups. The question I was
raising was 'what is best for Rwanda today and in the future?' Does
Rwanda need a 'pure' form of democracy or is the blend of governmental
forms they have now what is best for the country? Is Democracy really
what Rwanda needs? Is the governmental system in place now the best
way to protect Rwanda and prevent atrocities from happening again? I
don't have an answer to this for multiple reasons, not the least of
which is that Peace Corps forbids me from taking political sides.

But whatever happens, the Internet will play a major role in the
evolving Rwandan culture. The World Wide Web is a tool designed
specifically to spread information, make it easy to access, make it
free, open, readable, sharable. This is the core fundamental behind
the Internet. Connect everybody. Everywhere. In general, Rwandans
respect and accept authority with little counter thought process. To
be fair, they have had very little contradictory media outlets in
their history. Will access to the virtual treasure trove of
information available online change their culture? Here the answer is
obvious, and I am even allowed to say it. YES. As access to the
Internet increases, so should Rwandans understanding of the world at
large. The Syrian revolution, Iran's nuclear attitudes, American
politics, banks failing world-wide, truths about the rule of dictators
in African states, the military coup d'etat in Mali. Rwandan culture
has developed this severe respect for and adherence to authority
without the Internet. Before now, they never had an option, were never
given an opposing viewpoint. Now they will. Once a Rwandan is exposed
and integrated into the digital world, good luck taking that away from
them. Once Rwandans get used to having the world's wealth of knowledge
at the fingertips like most of the world has had for a decade or more,
good luck convincing them they don't need it. Try to take that away,
try to rationalize to them that access to this information is bad, and
see what happens to their blind adherence to their leaders. Luckily,
Rwanda is in no way trying to do this. The largest sponsor (and
participant, in fact) to my Information and Communication Technology
projects has always been the government. Heck, the President has a
Twitter handle which he personally writes, going as far as having it
out with journalists who thinks he's not paying attention or tech
savvy enough because he's the head of an African state. The truth is
Rwanda is coming on to the world stage in several realms, not the
least of which are digitally and virtually. True, not every Rwanda
will be able to buy a computer or a laptop. But that's quickly
becoming unnecessary to access the Internet. There are phones here
that cost about $15 that have mobile Internet. The cell company
charges about 5 cents per megabyte of data transferred. Business
Development Centers are springing up all over Rwanda with brand new
Dells, projectors, wireless Internet, printing, and all the other
amenities. And they're cheap too, at about 30 cents per hour of
internet. Whether the Rwandan Government, the International Community,
or Rwandans themselves like it, this is happening. It is coming.

It is already here.

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