Rwanda is preparing to mark the 12th anniversary of the 1994 genocide on Friday, planning a week of annual ceremonies and remembrances of the dead. VOA's Catherine Maddux reports on how far the traumatized nation has come since the frenzied massacres.
This year like every year, Rwandans will attend solemn ceremonies to honor the estimated 800,000 minority ethnic Tutsis and politically-moderate Hutus who were massacred by Hutu extremists.
This year the focus will be slightly different, according to Richard Sezibera, Rwanda's special envoy for the Great Lakes region. "This year we will also be having, what we will call, the hundred days of hope. Looking back at the genocide and remembering the dead. But also looking at how those who survived, survivors of genocide and others can be given more hope for their own lives," he said.
But 12 years down the road from those horrific 100 days of bloodletting, how well has Rwanda healed itself?
Senior Advisor to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges says the answer to that question is mixed. "It is certainly remarkable that the [Rwandan] government has re-established an administration, in fact, changed the administration drastically, has attracted considerable amount of foreign funding. All of this is remarkable and, I think, a tribute to the persuasiveness and the vision of Rwandan leadership. On the negative side, we have to say there has been very little progress on justice for the genocide, that genocide survivors feel that their suffering has not been addressed. And, in addition to that, the comments from by the African peer review mechanism and by human-rights organizations and others all indicate that the political space in Rwanda is small and possibly growing smaller," said Des Forges.
But Sezibera rejects that notion, saying it was impossible after the destruction of the country in 1994 to put in place a completely open and democratic government. And he says, on the political front, Rwanda has made great strides since the genocide. "Rwanda has put in place measures to promote political pluralism, we have a very vibrant press, it is much more vibrant than it was at any point before the genocide. We have eight political parties that are in parliament, that took part in an election in 2003. The people across the country are free to express their opinions and to challenge their leaders and to change their leaders. So, Rwanda is a much more democratic society than it has ever been in its history," he said.
Perhaps the most important issue for recovery and ethnic reconciliation in Rwanda is justice.
Those who orchestrated the massacres - the "masterminds of the genocide" - are being tried at the United Nation's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.
Since the court was created in late 1994, 26 individuals have gone to trial. Of those, 23 have been convicted and sentenced and three others acquitted.
Twenty-eight trials are under way and 15 other suspects are awaiting the start of their trials.
The U.N. tribunal has been blamed for the slow pace of trials and a lack of coordination with the Rwanda government.
Tribunal spokesman Tim Gallimore says some of the criticism is warranted. "This is a very slow process. But there are reasons for it, not excuses, but reasons, including the complex nature of doing these joint trials where you have four to six defendants altogether in a case. And each witness is subject to cross-examination by four or five different attorneys. We have issues of interpretation of the witness testimony into two or three different languages. So, some of that criticism is indeed justified. As far as cooperation with the Rwandan government, we enjoy good cooperation and everyday the tribunal and its officials are working to improve that cooperation," he said.
The Rwandan government has also been trying genocide suspects - in its conventional court system and in a traditional village system known as "gacaca," in which survivors take part in small community gatherings to hear charges against those accused of taking part in the killings.
But expert Alison Des Forges says an unexpected move by the government has essentially stopped nearly all trials in Rwanda. "Just for an example, within Rwanda there has been a drastic administrative reform that changed all of the local administrative divisions. And, as a result, the courts, all of which were tied to the old administrative jurisdictions, no longer have no legal basis to operate," she said.
Des Forges says since January there have not been any legitimate court trials - either conventional or gacaca. She says only courts with national jurisdiction, such as Rwanda's Supreme Court, are working as normal.
The other measure of Rwanda's recovery is more elusive, and that is; how are ordinary Rwandans, many of whom live and work near people who participated in the killings, dealing with the trauma of genocide? "Of course, the question of trauma is still there. Not for Hutu, Tutsi, but mainly among the victims and perpetrators because what happened affected almost everybody," said Fatuma Ndangiza, Rwanda's executive secretary for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.
But she says Rwanda has put in place many programs designed to promote reconciliation and re-introduce released prisoners and confessed killers back into society. And Ndangiza points out people are mostly concerned with earning a living and feeding their families, not whether their fellow Rwandans are Hutus or Tutsis.