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A story, old and new, of Rwanda

Messages written on streamers by visitors at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

This is a story I don't really want to write. I don't want to perpetuate that nasty coupling of two words that comes too easily to mind. For, mention "Rwanda" and the next is likely to be "genocide". But my experience of the Rwanda of today is certainly not one of danger or violence. This has long been considered perhaps the safest country in Africa.

I am here with WA touring company Travel Directors, joining a group on part of its African Dawn tour, which starts in Uganda, visits Rwanda and its mountain gorillas, and then continues through Ethiopia.

Tonight we are staying in the swish Kigali Serena Hotel, in the capital of Rwanda, and I wake in the cool night (Rwanda has a mild year-round climate) and look out of the window, to see a young woman, walking alone. Rwanda prides itself on this - that a woman can walk home in safety at 3am. Any crime against women is considered particularly abhorrent, and, reputedly, particularly to President Paul Kagame.

I don't have to dig far back for reasons behind this, to the 100 days in 1994 in which up to a million Tutsi people died at the hands of militant Hutus in a planned genocide. From a population of more than 7 million people (84 per cent Hutu, 15 per cent Tutsi and one per cent Twa) 10,000 people were murdered every day.

It is a story I didn't want to write because the Rwanda I am experiencing is safe and a welcoming and interesting place to travel. But this part of its history can't be ignored.

Tony Evans, leading the tour, clearly agrees, and he tackles the issue in an interesting, calm and respectful way, inviting the group to a meeting in the Serena's presidential suite. Tony and his Rwandan colleague, Osborn Shedruch Kinene, a Kigali resident and travel professional accompanying the Travel Directors group on the Rwandan leg of its trip, tell the history.

There had been a build-up and Tutsi women had been particularly targeted in propaganda and then in horrible ways during the genocide. Hence, any crime against a woman here has a savage echo, and particularly for President Kagame, the strict father of the nation, who led the Rwandan Patriotic Front made up from among 700,000 Tutsis who had been displaced to Congo between 1959 and 1973 by ethnic cleansing. They had already invaded the country, and then ended the genocide as the United Nations failed to respond.

President Kagame may be judged differently by some in the Western world but in 2010 he was re-elected, with a majority of 93 per cent, a role he can only hold until 2017.

"Many of us do not even want to imagine 2017 and Mr Kagame standing down," says Osborn, who was nine years old in 1994 as roadblocks were instantly erected every few hundred metres and the killing began.

It is a story told first at the Presidential Palace Museum. For here is the wreck of the plane in which President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was travelling on April 6, 1994, and which was shot down, killing him. The genocide began within hours, primarily by Hutu extremists in the Interahamwe militia. It is thought that 200,000 people participated, and much of the planning was done in a room in this palace (so much like a Perth suburban 70s home), in armchairs now ragged and overlooking the lush gardens.

The story is completed at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, where 250,000 people are buried in mass graves, and where the story unfolds through pictures and personal stories. Yes, the facts are harrowing, but they are presented calmly.

One room is full of photographs of victims which are hung on wires. One has flipped so that I can just see its white back, and when I turn it over, a young man in a tracksuit looks at me, smiling.

Outside, there is a wall of names and I notice how many were called "Innocence", a common first name here.

And why would visitors want to experience all this? Perhaps because wounds heal best in the open air. Or perhaps because of what we see in this statement by UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, speaking at UN headquarters in New York in January, marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide: "We must never forget the collective failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide. Repeating the phrase 'never again' is in itself a sign of continued failure."

He was speaking at an event called "Understanding early warning of mass atrocities 20 years after the genocide in Rwanda", which was attended by retired Canadian Lt-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time, who appealed in vain for the world to take action.

"If we are to prevent future tragedies, progress requires leadership and courage to speak out at every level - the kind of leadership and the kind of courage, that Romeo Dallaire showed 20 years ago," Mr Eliasson said.

He said that the UN and the international system were now better prepared to anticipate, prevent and respond to crises. "We need look no further than South Sudan today for an example of dedication and innovation in protecting people.

"When people are killed or violated in the name of religion, race or ethnicity, everybody's humanity is diminished. We are all brutalised - victims and perpetrators as well as bystanders."

And, perhaps, I feel somewhat brutalised at the Roman Catholic church at Nyamata, 50 minutes outside Kigali, where 10,000 Tutsis were killed. There are shelves full of skulls in the musty mass graves.

And where does that leave Rwanda now? Having learnt from the lesson?

In November, the Rwandan government released a security status report which showed a continuing reduction of crime, which was seen to further the report by research company Gallup the previous November that declared Rwanda the safest country in Africa.

That report, The Global States of Mind - New Metrics for World Leaders, revealed that 92 per cent of Rwandans felt safe.

Though the Australian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade still advises travellers to exercise a high degree of caution, Rwanda wears its "safest country in Africa" moniker with pride.

And pride is a word that comes easily to mind in this East Africa country, where there is a real sense of direction and future.

Corruption is not tolerated. Indeed, there was recently an Anti Corruption Week under the slogan: "Corruption Undermines Rwandan Values".

Foreign aid famously gets to the projects for which it is given, which is certainly not the case across Africa. Ministers are given strict performance targets and it is demanded that they meet them.

Plastic bags are banned and Rwandans, including the president, come out one weekend every month to clean their country.

Its future continues to develop and in January, nearly 900 students graduated from the Rwanda Tourism University College. The Rwandan government, through the Rwanda Development Board's Tourism and Conservation, continues to work hard to lift standards of service, which are already very good. Tourism is very much part of Rwanda's future.

We dined this evening at the Hotel des Mille Collines, where both threads of this story come together. For it was on the events at this hotel in 1994 that the movie Hotel Rwanda was based. It was where hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, protected 1200 people throughout the 100 days of killing.

But tonight, we dine in a fine restaurant, with balconies overlooking the glittering city. The food is sophisticated, the service excellent.

I didn't want to write this story out of some sort of blindness but because I want you to understand that Rwanda today is safe and the people welcoming, educated and happy.

"There are so many projects President Kagame has put in place to see that such things will never happen again in this country," says Osborn, a man of the future, like others I have met here (Innocence and Enoch, Augustin and Leonidas) - and who surely deserves the last word.

"We really admire our leader and his vision for the country. Many other African countries say they'd like to borrow him."

But, of course, it isn't completely a one-man show and Rwanda has by far the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world, at 64 per cent, according to the latest World Bank figures.

Their work includes Vision 2020, which has an emphasis on education, and in giving every child access to a laptop.

It includes introducing English to every school, recognising that the future has to be based on this world language, not French.

It includes instituting a fund, to which Rwandans quickly contributed millions of dollars when outside aid was cut and they were asked to take responsibility for their country's problems.

It includes the "a cow per family" scheme aimed at giving children more protein, from milk; combating their malnutrition. "This was very big," Osborn says. Once again, the president appealed to the people... "if you want our children to survive, I think this is what we should do...".

People have responded, committed to a healthy future for their country.

"For we are all Rwandans," Osborn says. And, these days, it's not allowed to ask from which tribe.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Travel Directors and Qatar Airways.