One of Rwanda’s leading journalists, Shyaka Kanuma, says it’s a “long time” since he’s witnessed such “exuberance” in his home land as that caused by today’s visit to Kigali by United States President George W. Bush. Kanuma – who’s the editor of Focus newspaper – covered the event. Darren Taylor reports.
Kanuma says “throngs of people” lined Kigali’s roads in the hope of “catching a glimpse” of the American president.
“Quite unfortunately for them, the situation was so tight. Most of the streets where his motorcade was going to pass were off-limits. But people were really excited…. Even as we speak, some of them are still lining the roads not knowing which way he’ll pass. You can get a sense that he’s been well received here,” the editor told VOA.
Kanuma ascribed Bush’s popularity in Rwanda mainly to the U.S.’s initiatives to fight HIV/AIDS in the country through the President’s Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR.
Through the plan, thousands of HIV-positive Rwandans are now receiving life-prolonging anti-retroviral medication.
“(PEPFAR) has been beneficial to very many people who are poor and who have HIV/AIDS. The Rwandan government has been working hand in hand (with the U.S.) in providing these medicines to as many people as possible, and they’ve done quite a good job. As a result, so many people have access to this medicine who wouldn’t have otherwise. You get the feeling that people are grateful for that. I think that accounts for the welcome,” Kanuma said.
He added that the “massive turnout” of people seeking to see Bush could also be put down to “novelty.”
“…. It’s not every day that you have the president of the United States visiting a country in East Africa….”
Kanuma commented that while there were certainly Rwandans who disagreed with some Washington policies and actions – such as the controversial war in Iraq – and as a result of that were “not in love with the American president,” it was remarkable that there weren’t any protests against Mr. Bush’s visit to the East African nation.
“There wasn’t a single incident of anti-Americanism. There wasn’t a single incident that one would describe as hostile to the president,” he stated.
Kanuma maintained that most Rwandans were not concerned with what the U.S. was doing elsewhere in the world, but were only interested in the “good things” Washington could do for them.
During his visit to Kigali, President Bush also visited a memorial for victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Kanuma acknowledged that in the aftermath of the tragedy, that left between 800,000 and one million people dead, some Rwandans criticized the U.S. for not doing enough to prevent the mass slaughter. But he felt that this “bitterness” had since faded.
“I think all that is just so much water under the bridge. There were so many people to blame. Actually people are not happy with (former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan) for not having raised the alarm (soon enough); people are angry with (former U.S. Secretary of State) Warren Christopher. But a lot of (Rwandans) are really simple people who see no point in holding such animosity, especially when you can’t say that America was directly to blame. People here are actually more angry at France than they are at the United States,” Kanuma explained.
In the early 1990’s, France trained Rwandan troops, who subsequently formed the Interahamwe militias that perperated the genocide. The government of Rwanda has said that France should be charged with war crimes for its alleged role in fomenting the violence; France has denied any responsibility for the killings.
The U.S. has also trained about 7,000 Rwandan troops and spent more than 17 million dollars to equip and transport the Rwandan soldiers to Darfur to act as peacekeepers. There, the government of President Omar al-Bashir stands accused of the murders of hundreds of thousands of Darfurians in an alleged campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Kanuma said it was no surprise to him when Rwanda sought to become involved in such a “dangerous mission.”
“After seeing the genocide in this country, you understand why Rwanda would respond so quickly. The horrors have been visited on this country. People know them first hand, and wouldn’t like to see that happen to other African people…. So if our troops can make any difference in Darfur, everyone here will feel something worthwhile has been done,” said Kanuma.