Page last updated at 14:38 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 15:38 UK

Rwanda's bid to forget the genocide

Rwanda is hoping to build a future as a hi-tech economy. But it faces another struggle - to move on from the ethnic divisions which led to civil war and genocide in the 1990s - as Madeleine Morris found on a recent trip to the country to make a programme for the BBC's World Service.

Women working in field in Rwanda
The government hopes high-speed internet connections will help turn this nation of subsistence farmers into a high-tech, service-based economy

It could not have been a more incongruous sight.

On top of one of Rwanda's famous thousand hills, about an hour's drive out of Kigali, a dozen women dressed in an array of mismatched African prints tilled the red-soiled fields with their hoes.

The men, in second-hand tracksuit pants and European football shirts from seasons played long ago, did the same work in a separate field.

It might have been a scene from the early part of last century, were it not for the shiny, grey, top-of-the-range bus parked just above the fields on the red-dirt track.

"Bridging the digital divide" it boasted down its side in bright green lettering. Inside school students used 20 top-of-the-range laptops to study, and catch up on email and Facebook.

It was the past and future of Rwanda within a stone's throw of each other.

And despite the heavy weight of its past, Rwanda is a country that is impatient to reach its future. The government hopes high-speed internet connections will help turn this nation of subsistence farmers into a hi-tech, service-based economy.

The buses are just one of many projects trying to make the whole country computer-literate.

Refusal to talk

But for a nation that so badly wants to prove itself to the world, Rwandans are very reluctant to speak. In fact, never have I had such a hard time getting people to talk to the BBC.

Inside one of Rwanda's IT buses
The government wants Rwanda to become an IT hub for the region

"So sorry, I can talk to you for background but I can't go on the air," they would say, or: "I would love to help you, but I can't get involved in anything political."

Call after call looking for contributors was met with very polite but firm refusal.

"Even if they agree to come on, they won't tell you the truth. They'll tell you what they think they're supposed to tell you," was the refrain I heard over and over, as I made calls and contacts before we went.

Even Rwandans would say it, "We don't even tell the truth to each other. Maybe in the family, yes, but to outsiders, no."

All of which made producing a programme where ordinary people talk to one another very difficult.

A clue to the reasons behind the reticence came just before our second broadcast.

The bar-owner who had agreed to let us use his central-Kigali location for our live programme tried to back out two hours before air-time.

After tortuous discussions, our fixer eventually admitted he was worried we might say something the government might not like.

Only producing our media accreditation plus a further $60 (£37) for venue hire convinced him he would not get into trouble. But just in case we forgot where we were and who was in charge, we drank our Primus and Amstel beers under the stern gaze of a small portrait of President Paul Kagame.

'Forget the past'

It has long been noted by observers that Rwandans generally do what they are told.

During the genocide, the Hutu Power government of Juvenal Habyirimana told Hutus to kill Tutsis, so they did, with fearsome efficacy.

Genocide memorial
The genocide memorial has 14 mass graves covered by concrete slabs

Eight hundred thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed within the space of 100 days, though some estimates put this figure much higher.

Now the Tutsi-dominated government of Paul Kagame tells Rwandans to be entrepreneurs, to learn about IT and so they are.

It also tells Rwandans to move on from the past, to forget about being Hutu or Tutsi and to be simply Rwandan. Even referring to a person's ethnic origin is taboo in Rwanda these days.

And on the surface it seems it has been a success. There has been relative peace for 15 years and the country is prospering.

But like all things in Rwanda, dig a little deeper and the picture changes.

Genocide memories

One bright morning our fixer and translator - a genocide survivor himself - took us on a tour of Kigali. After a visit to the market, we asked to see the home he shares with his brother.

At the end of a dirt road and up a windy concrete passage, he opened the high, metal gate into the beautiful lush garden he shares with his neighbours.

Map of Rwanda and surrounding countries

"Just behind here is where I hid for three weeks during the genocide," he begins, his tone more tour guide than victim. He has, after all, told this story so many times. "For one whole week, I didn't sleep, eat or drink."

We walk down the path to the metal front door. It has a hole in it. A bullet hole, our fixer explains.

"This is from when the militia came to kill my brother. I was proud of him because he fought. He was a black belt in karate, so they didn't kill him with machetes. They put a bullet in his head."

He then tells us how his mother's hand was smashed so badly by machetes that even now she cannot use it. And how his sister, eight months pregnant with twins, was dragged to the slaughtering place, as it was known.

And then his face changes. "Every night I see her in my dreams," he says quietly.

His brother passes his nights differently. He gets drunk and sometimes he goes into the garden and screams, "Hutus are hyenas." Our fixer says his neighbours - mostly Hutus - do not mind. They are used to it.

But do they really not mind or are they just trying to look to the future, like the government wants them to do, as a way of suppressing the past?

On a muggy day - rain never far away - we boarded the plane, a brand new Boeing, along with all the business people and tourists, in no doubt that, if any country will achieve its dreams of a digital future, Rwanda will.

But the uneasy feeling and questions remain. Rwanda may be ready to connect to the world, but are its people really ready to connect with each other?

To me, it seems not, and it will take a lot more than high-speed, fibre-optic cable to do so.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Rwanda
04 May 11 |  Country profiles

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