Where Does Rwanda Go From Here?

Steve Inskeep talks to journalist Philip Gourevitch about Rwanda 20 years after the genocide. Gouorevitch is the author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right. You heard the praise and criticism for Rwanda's government since the genocide. Credit as well as blame go to Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, a onetime rebel leader who helped to bring the genocide to an end.

We reached out to the writer Philip Gourevitch, author of a history of the Rwandan genocide, titled "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families." Gourevitch has closely followed Paul Kagame's career.

Has Paul Kagame, the man who led that rebel army that swept back in and took control of Rwanda - and who is still the leader of that country - has he needed to be as authoritarian as he has been, for as long as he has been, in order to keep this country stable?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: The argument, obviously, that the government of Rwanda has made is that Rwanda was woefully unready at the moment in the aftermath of the genocide for contested political conflict. Multipartyism, and a kind of twisted and perverse implementation in the early '90s, had been one of the forces that drove the extremism that led to the genocide.

And many Rwandans - whether or not they wanted Paul Kagame to be their leader - would've agreed with him that they were very fearful of and weary of that kind of politics, even if they thought that they really wanted it. So there was an acknowledgment that this is a difficult and gray area that is also made difficult by the fact that politics in Rwanda had been defined on ethnic lines entirely - Hutu verses Tutsi. And the Hutu are an 85 percent majority, and that's such an extreme radical polarization that democracy and majority rule become a very perverse idea.

INSKEEP: What's Paul Kagame's place in history, given not only his actions during the genocide but the 20 years since?

GOUREVITCH: I think Paul Kagame's place in history is, is one of the most forceful, complex and commanding figures, certainly in the latter half of the 20th century in Africa; as somebody who came out of bush struggle - rebel movements - took over a country that had been destroyed in a genocide and in very complex and controversial ways, at times highly personally, at times with real programs, brought that country to a place that nobody at the time imagined possible; and now faces this enormous question of where does it go from here? And if a succession can be accomplished by choosing a successor and that there would be a strong next president who would be around still, that could be a very, very important transition for Rwanda. And if it's not done, the sort of solidity of what's been accomplished remains very, very hard to measure.

INSKEEP: When you have spoken with President Kagame in recent years, do you sense that he is, himself, aware of and struggling with this question you just posed?

GOUREVITCH: He's definitely aware of and struggling with a question of succession, but his answers vary over time. And he's very irritated by outsiders asking the question because he thinks, what business is it of yours? And why don't you come here and ask the Rwandan people what they want? And it's true that in Rwanda, you get very mixed answers. Even people who say, well, his time in the current construction of the constitution will be up in 2017 and he should leave, will also say, but we're terrified of a transition. And that could be very, very explosive.

INSKEEP: You know, we were looking up the median age in Rwanda - it's 18.8, which means that more than half the country was born after the genocide. When you talk with younger people, how do they perceive that time?

GOUREVITCH: I think for many people - especially of the younger generation, who don't have any kind of immediate memory of the genocide but have it as the shadow into which they were born and from which their lives have been understood to be emerging - many people see the genocide as a kind of humiliating moment, a moment where they represented the worst of humanity. And they have seen that as a spur to show themselves that they can do better; not just better than that but better than others, to excel. And then, of course, some of them also will have feelings that are going to be interesting and political, about cultural policy and economic policy and things like that, that will be start to be discussed and debated in a way that won't track easily onto any kind of conventional, 1994 genocide-era Hutu-Tutsi division. And that is a very interesting - and possibly, very promising - future that we haven't really yet been able to see emerge because that voice hasn't been heard yet.

INSKEEP: Maybe this is a good moment to mention that you're working on another book about Rwanda, which has a particularly interesting saying as its title.

GOUREVITCH: The title is "You Hide that You Hate Me and I Hide that I Know." And it's a phrase that I first heard not long after the genocide in Rwanda. Well, when I started to go back and see that things were working better, I thought about this phrase. And I started asking people if they had heard it. Many of them recognized it right away, and some people use some parts of that phrase even almost unconsciously as they described their situation. And I started to realize, wait, it's more like a description of a civic code, a gentlemanly code. It's what happens if you don't hide that you hate people? So this is a kind of baseline, rudimentary idea of what it means to put things back together. And it may sound like it has a kind of gallows humor cynicism to it but in fact, it's a vast improvement.

INSKEEP: Philip Gourevitch, correspondent for the New Yorker and author of "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families."

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