For Rwandans, Fragile Acts of Faith

In a nation contending with the legacy of the genocide, Rwandans struggle to forge a national identity stronger than the ethnic ones that pulled the country apart.

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

KINIGI, Rwanda -- The 958 Express arrived at last.

In the early-afternoon sun, Leonard Hakorimano, with his wife and two sons, squeezed into a crowded bus that was soon winding down the road, delivering them to an uncertain new life.

"Where are you coming from?" a passenger asked.

"Congo," Hakorimano said quietly, referring to the neighboring country where he had become a rebel.

"When did you leave Rwanda?" the passenger asked.

Hakorimano studied the passing countryside, his face -- at once boyish and tough -- betraying little emotion.

"1994," he said, naming the year he turned 16, the year he last saw his family, and the year of the Rwandan genocide, when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists in 100 days of well-planned violence. "It's a long time since I left."

Like thousands of other Hutus who fled into eastern Congo fearing retaliation, Hakorimano joined Rwandan Hutu rebels whose leaders promised they would return to Rwanda someday to overthrow the Tutsi-dominated government. To keep their recruits in the bush, the rebel leaders -- some of whom are accused in the genocide -- spread harrowing stories about life back home, saying that returning Hutus would be jailed or killed and that there was no justice in Rwanda.

But this month, Hakorimano, 30, was among several hundred rebels who decided to return home anyway, not knowing whether their families had survived or whether the stories their commanders had told them were true.

Their decisions amount to fragile acts of faith that they will be able to let go of the divisive creed of the bush and find a place in a nation struggling to overcome the legacy of genocide. The effort also reflects a broader struggle within Rwandan society to forge a national identity stronger than the ethnic ones that pulled it apart.

The Rwandan government is zealously encouraging that effort. Genocide survivors are urged to forgive and to live in villages with former killers -- and, indeed, many people bite their tongues these days rather than describe anyone as a Tutsi or a Hutu. In the case of the returning rebels, the government runs a kind of boot camp aimed at transforming them into model citizens.

Busloads of former rebels are arriving at the camp, Mutobo, a sprawl of iron-sheet buildings set on manicured grass amid the blue-green hills just inside the Rwandan border. Hakorimano spent a couple of days there with his family before he was granted permission to go home.


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