A stinging mist blows east on the rolling hills of Northern Rwanda, overlooking beautiful green tea plantations. Florence Iribagiza, 39, a Rwandan businesswoman in the rural Rwanda, endures the biting cold on her way to open her shop for early customers.
Iribagiza is a typical breed of a new Rwanda; zealous, focused, hardworking and determined. She is a brand of a renewed country that was once close to extinction. On July 4, 1994, a handful of hunger stricken, but well organized group of rebels, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), matched into Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, toppled the genocidal government and captured power. For Rwandans, history had been written.
More than a million Tutsis would be slaughtered in just 100 days, the worst genocide in human history. Rwanda’s current President Paul Kagame, who was the rebel commander, persevered and fought hard with his soldiers and stopped the killings. “RPA did not have the luxury to be afraid,” Kagame told journalists in a press conference on July 1, 2014, ahead of the liberation day that was due on July 4. “We were strengthened by the validity of our cause,” he said.
Twenty one years down the road, Rwandans then matched at the country’s largest Stadium, Amahoro in the capital Kigali, to celebrate the victory. There were elaborate displays at nationwide events. The mood was that of an excited nation. This triumph saved the country back in the 90s from a shuttered socioeconomic fabric and a dysfunctional state. Millions of hopeless people with wounded hearts have now healed and managed to build an African success story, a model of prosperity and progress.
“Rwandans stand together today as a people united, liberated and focused as never before…,” Kagame said to tens of thousands in the stadium and millions watching or listening on the state broadcaster from Rwanda and across the world as the event was streamed online.
“On the 4th of July in 1994, the darkest part of history was brought to a close and life could begin anew,” added Kagame.
“To those who left to fight, many never came home”, Kagame said. “To those who dedicated themselves to grassroots education on the struggle and those who supported the cause with whatever resources they had…today we remember all of them in a spirit of gratitude.”
The broke country, Rwanda
Iribagiza, a genocide survivor, lived close to President Kagame’s bunker at Mulindi, in Gicumbi District, about an hour’s drive north of Kigali. At Mulindi was RPA’s military operations design house. It was the most targeted spot by enemies.
“We were terrified,” Iribagiza says. “We knew we were going to die.” Afraid of relentless bombing on the hill, Iribagiza and a dozen of other residents ran for their dear life and abandoned the hideout. But all that is history.
She survived and now a determined business woman in her village, earning about ten US dollars a day, where more than five million Rwandan, half of the population, live on a dollar per day. For her, that is the actual ‘liberation’. Iribagiza’s story is synonymous with that of millions of other Rwandans.
Faced with acute demands, ranging from healthcare, food, shelter, clean water, schools, roads, and a terrifying number of unprosecuted genocide perpetrators that were languishing in rudimentary prisons, the government at the time was under immense pressure. The central bank had been emptied by the fleeing government officials. RPA was forced to withdraw the few savings of contributions they had collected from supporters around the world.
“There was no budget at all,” says Ambassador Clever Gatete, Rwanda’s Finance Minister, who appeared on a public Television show on Sunday, a day before President Kagame’s press conference. In 1996, for example, the Minister said, Rwanda’s budget was a just Rfw12 billion, which could not finance the pressing needs.
Rwanda can eradicate poverty in 2033
In 1998, the budget grew to Rfw38billion. But the circumstances were worse. Rwanda could only raise 30 percent of the budget. The remaining 70 percent would come from humanitarian assistance and foreign aid assistance.
Today, Rwanda’s budget has exponentially grown to several hundred percentage points; Rfw1.8 trillion ($1.7bn). Now the country is able to domestically raise 62 percent of the budget with an average 8 percent economic growth over the last ten years. Primary school enrollment is more than 90 percent.
Between 2007-2012, World Bank and UN figures show that poverty dropped by up to 15% – removing up to 1.2million Rwandans from extreme poverty. The percentage of poor is currently down to 45%, from more than 60 just a few years before.
A major study released by Oxford University in March 2013 concluded that if Rwanda keeps the current pace in tackling poverty, it will be a thing of the past by 2033.
The study covering 22 countries said Rwanda showed the biggest improvement in sanitation and water. Rwanda also achieved significant reductions in both the scale and intensity of “multidimensional poverty” in every one of its five provinces.
A government computer project, the one laptop per child project, has distributed about 370.000 subsidized internet-connected laptops to primary school pupils around the country. The Presidential prestigious scholarship program has given hundreds of scholarships to young Rwandans to study engineering, science and technology in elite universities in the USA as part of the program to invest in skills.
More than 98 percent of Rwandans have health insurance. The military has launched a project to construct about 500 medical centers around the country, boosting access to health coverage. Dozens are already finished. “We no longer walk long distances to get to the hospital,” says Iribagiza. “We have a hospital in our community,” she says with a glowing face and adds that “a secondary school has been constructed close to us and we have access to electricity.”
As the country cheered up for the Liberation Day celebration, the Chief of the Defense Staff, Lt. General Patrick Nyamvumba, who commanded the UN Peacekeepers in Sudan, flew a helicopter during that week with journalists touring over the country. He told journalists that twenty years down the road, “RPA’s mission had been achieved,” but “the struggle continues.”
A few days before the beginning of this 21st Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi, the army spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, told KTPress that the army, with its medical specialists in various fields, is now “treating genocide survivors with illnesses as part of the continuous struggle.”
Indeed, the military enjoys rooftop ratings. Sebastian Teregana, a neighbor to Irabigaza, “We ran whenever we saw a soldier during Habyarimana’s regime,” he says. “It is a different story now, we meet and chat.” In President Kagame’s definition, liberation “means a system that allows people to do that”.
World stands with Rwanda
Many global personalities, such as Tony Blair, Warren Buffet, the Gates family, former US president Bill Clinton, and many others, all have been enormously supporting different projects, in the health sector, agriculture and a regular visitor to Rwanda. They all are supporters and friends to President Kagame. Clinton was in the White House when the genocide was happening in Rwanda in 1994. He would later make a public apology for not acting to stop the bloodshed.
President Kagame continously says that despite the gains the country has tirelessly made, a lot more remains to be done. “We still have a long way to go, but Rwanda has been able to come this far because we owned up,” he said in April last year. “We can get the future we want if we all hold each other accountable for it.”
This year, he said, “Our past has given us the unprecedented strength to face our challenges…this country has changed. It has changed for good and forever.”
During last year’s colourful liberation, East African Heads of States; President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya; President Salva Kiir of South Sudan and Burundi first Vice President Prosper Bazombanza were all present.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyata was the chairperson of the East African Community said that the regional block and Kenyans stand with Rwandans in commemorating Liberation, but also stand with them in resisting anything that can sabotage their development.
“20 years ago today, our sorrow, our respect for your recovery are immeasurable,” he said then. President Kenyatta regretted that the region could have done more to help save Rwanda from evil. Kenyatta also praised Rwanda for recovering tremendously.
“Rwanda has advanced mightily,” he said. “You have restored order, rule of justice, peace and reconciliation. Your example of reconciliation inspires us all.”
Additional Reporting by Magnus Mazimpaka
This article was first published on Jul 6, 2014.