KIGALI — Twenty years after Rwanda's 1994 genocide, a government campaign encourages reconciliation by taking on the taboo subject of ethnicity. Supporters of the program say it promotes national healing, while opponents say it is forcing some people to apologize for crimes they did not commit.
In high schools and universities, corporate offices and government ministries, Rwandans are engaging in a dialogue about ethnicity in a campaign called Ndi Umanyarwanda, or I Am Rwandan.
One of the campaign's main proponents, member of parliament Edouard Bamporiki, says the idea is to start a conversation about the ethnic roles created by the genocide, while reaffirming a national unity.
"We are not sure 100 percent that we are different because we are Hutu and Tutsis, but we are sure 100 percent that we are all Rwandans,” he said.
Twenty years ago, 800,000 people were killed in a country-wide campaign of violence orchestrated by extremist Hutu militias targeting ethnic Tutsis and some moderate Hutus.
Freddy Mutanguha is the country director of the Aegis Trust, which runs the Kigali Genocide Memorial. He is also a survivor.
He says the I Am Rwandan program has helped him to confront this dark history.
“The most important thing that I get from this program is learning about how to dialogue with the perpetrator, how to really feel much more comfortable to talk about your past,” he said.
Ethnicity has been a sensitive topic since the genocide. Now in villages and public institutions, people are addressing the issue openly in moderated discussions.
Mutanguha says this gives people a chance to talk truthfully about what happened and to share different experiences.
“A few things which have been taboos can be opened up so that Rwandans can really decide together how they will drive this country and also drive their lives in the future,” he said.
The ruling RPF party came up with the ideology for the program, which was developed in youth groups across the country. Participation is officially voluntary.
But opponents say the program unfairly expects Hutus to apologize on behalf of the perpetrators of the genocide, even if they themselves were not involved.
Frank Habineza is the president of the United Green Party, the country's only registered opposition party.
“Those who have wronged, they should apologize to those who they have wronged," he said. "They say they were criminals or whatever, but not on behalf of my father, behalf of my mother and my grandfather. We do not support that.”
Habineza also expresses concern that the effort is too one-sided, as public requests for pardons from Hutus are going unanswered from the victims.
The initiative is one of many Rwanda has employed to try to unite communities divided by one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
While the country has developed rapidly since the genocide, becoming a major political power in the region, reconciliation remains a long process.
Speaking about the I Am Rwandan program ahead of a cabinet retreat in November, President Paul Kagame said “we can't just solve easy problems and ignore their root causes.