Rwanda - 10 years later

"I went to Goma , Zaire , in July 1994, just days after over 1 million refugees fled there from Rwanda . I was supposed to go for a brief mission that was to last 10 days. I stayed in the region for four years. The repugnant nature of everything that happened there: murder, torture, a government killing its people, genocide - overwhelmed me and many others. But it became impossible to quit in the midst of such absolute despair. There had to be hope. I found that hope by working in Rwanda and trying to help a shattered nation rebuild itself. And I came to know and respect so many Rwandans who had been through the unspeakable. I am proud that the IRC has made a long-standing commitment to Rwanda - staying far beyond the initial humanitarian crisis."
- John Keys, vice president of international programs, was director of IRC's program in Rwanda for much of the time he spent there.
As the world observes the tenth anniversary of Rwanda 's genocide and reflects on the enormity of this gruesome and horrifying episode in history, the IRC recognizes the enormous advances Rwanda has made in recovering from a tragedy that the world did virtually nothing to stop. Responding at the height of the emergency and staying the course during its rehabilitation, the IRC has partnered with the people of Rwanda to save lives, rebuild what was destroyed and restore social cohesion within and between communities.

The Genocide and the Emergency

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over the Rwandan capital Kigali, triggering 100 days of grisly massacres, a systematic genocide as efficient as the Nazi gas chambers. Approximately 800,000 men, women, and children were brutally murdered, in many cases by their own neighbors, who had been waiting for the green light from organizers.

In spite of conspicuous warning signs, the international community profoundly failed to prevent or stop the mass killing, which was ignorantly attributed to ancient tribal conflict. In fact the genocide in Rwanda was the culmination of a well-planned strategy by an authoritarian state to eliminate minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Western governments quickly evacuated their own nationals and blocked UN Peacekeepers from taking action, leaving the perpetrators free to carry out their plans.

The aftermath of the genocide gave new meaning to the term "complex emergency," as the combination of the genocide, an ongoing civil war, mass population movements and epidemics of disease combined to create a crisis of enormous dimensions.

The IRC was already in Tanzania assisting refugees from Burundi when 250,000 Rwandans poured into remote northwest Tanzania on April 28. Rapidly responding with essential health and sanitation services, IRC medical supplies reached the camps within 24 hours of the exodus.

The influx into Tanzania appeared modest in comparison to the migration that occurred three months later when, within a few days, 800,000 more refugees fled western Rwanda into Goma, Zaire . The mass movement of desperate people coupled with the swiftness of their arrival and the challenges of the isolated region would make for an immensely challenging humanitarian response. A cholera outbreak was soon killing thousands every day.

IRC specialists responded with desperately needed life-saving services. Trucks and tankers were transferred from as far away as Bosnia and Somalia to provide clean water, while mobile medical teams were organized to treat those too weak to seek assistance. Because the entire area was situated atop volcanic rock it was impossible to dig latrines.

"Because of the impenetrable molten rock, our traditional approaches to controlling water-borne diseases - digging latrines, digging wells, digging graves - were impossible," says the IRC's director of emergency response Gerald Martone, who was serving as an IRC nurse at the time. "These factors produced the worst public health crisis we had ever seen, or will likely ever see. In a two-week period that summer, over 50,000 Rwandans died in those camps. Every day, as we headed to the camps to provide assistance, we drove past hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies piled along the streets waiting for trucks to dispose of them."

Hundreds of NGOs, United Nations agencies, and even western military logistics units descended upon Goma with humanitarian assistance, in marked contrast to Rwanda 's utter abandonment during the genocide. But while the IRC and other NGOs were able to effectively halt the spread of disease and reduce mortality rates, they could do little to curb the growing insecurity in the camps.

An alarming ethical dilemma had asserted itself in Goma. Hiding within the refugee population were the same people who had organized and orchestrated the genocide in Rwanda . The former government in exile soon established its authority over the camps, recreating their previous power structure and through intimidation, persuading refugees not to return home. In some cases the genocidaires used the camps as bases to continue the killing.

"There was a failure of the UN to protect the refugees in the camps," recalls Roy Williams, then IRC's vice president of international programs. "But attempts to return to Rwanda were punished by the militias. There were clear ongoing violations of human rights."

In November 2004, the IRC and 14 other agencies issued a statement demanding an end to the human rights abuses and insecurity prevailing in the camps, and for action to be taken to ensure that the refugees be allowed to peacefully return to their homes. With no signs of improvement, the IRC decided in December that it was better to cease activities than continue to support the status quo, withdrawing from the camps in February 1995.

Relief & Rehabilitation

Although unwilling to continue supporting the camps in Goma, the IRC was simultaneously tackling the enormous relief, rehabilitation and psychosocial challenges inside Rwanda . The civil war between the fleeing genocidaires and the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front that followed the genocide had devastated the country's infrastructure, but the unique impact of the genocide made the situation even more precarious. With 800,000 people killed and another 2 million having fled the country, there was a desperate shortage of doctors, nurses and teachers. Addressing the needs of more than 100,000 children separated from their families or orphaned by the conflict was urgent. And untold numbers of women were brutally raped, causing extreme psychosocial trauma, as well as dire consequences for a country already facing an HIV/AIDS crisis.

The IRC entered Rwanda in August 1994, providing a range of emergency assistance and restoring health services and rehabilitating water systems to encourage the return of refugees and to assist the internally displaced. The IRC opened health clinics in Cyangugu and Kibungo to restore access to primary health care. Where water systems had been destroyed or neglected, the IRC repaired the storage tanks and pipelines essential to providing potable water.

Recognizing the critical role that reestablishing justice would play in aiding Rwanda recover, the IRC soon partnered with the new Ministry of Justice to rehabilitate courthouses and other government buildings.

To restart commerce and enable communities to become progressively more productive, the IRC started a self-reliance program in 1995. Through micro-credit and cooperative projects, with a special focus on women's empowerment and participation, the IRC helped communities to invest in themselves and increase their earning power.

The IRC also assumed management and support of the Fred Rwigema Unaccompanied Minors Center , located in Rwamagama. Coordinating with ICRC and Save the Children-UK, the IRC assisted in tracing the families of separated children, successfully reuniting over 1,400 children at the center through 1997.

Post-Conflict Recovery

By 1998, much of the massive effort to physically restore Rwanda's infrastructure was complete, and the vast majority of refugees had returned home. Many emergency aid organizations and UN agencies had withdrawn or were preparing to leave Rwanda . But the IRC recognized that recovering from genocide and war called for far more than just physical repair, and that there was still very much a role for us to play.

"It was important for the IRC to move beyond meeting basic needs and to help rebuild a peaceful, stable society," says Liz McBride, director of the IRC's Post-Conflict Initiative and coordinating programs in Rwanda from 1998 to 2002.

When the postwar Rwandan government conceived a plan to simultaneously strengthen local government and eliminate the centralized administrative power structure that had enabled the genocide, the IRC was an integral supporter of their efforts.

With the goal of fostering dialogue between Rwanda 's fractured groups at the local level, we launched a community development program that helped community associations and committees identify their own needs and implement concrete social and economic projects.

Then the IRC replicated the community committees in new districts across the country. After the first local elections the IRC moved forward to help democratize more community structures and train local leaders and organizations to design and manage small business, civil society, education, and infrastructure projects.

"Everything is different today," says Jean Pierre Semuto, who works with the IRC's "good governance" program. "Decisions are no longer made behind closed doors. Now we debate issues openly and make decisions locally. People have a voice."

The IRC has also continued working to strengthen protection of vulnerable children. Although we had succeeded in reunifying all but the most difficult cases of unaccompanied minors at the Fred Rwigema Center , it was clear that long-term institutionalization was not in the best interests of the children. We decided to design a new community-based youth and child reintegration program that succeeded in moving these children out of institutional care and reintegrating them with communities. The program also provided assistance for street children. Partnering with the Ministry of Local Government and Social Affairs (MINALOC), many of the IRC's child protection strategies were adopted as national policy and applied to other centers across the country.

In 1999 the Rwandan government appointed a National Unity and Reconciliation Committee, recognizing that long-term peace and development cannot be sustained until the conditions for reconciliation are created. This presidential-mandated body was designed to improve the conditions and prospects for Rwandan unity, tolerance, and reconciliation. The IRC began providing assistance to build the capacity of the Commission. This included public opinion surveys on participation in gacaca , the traditional justice system adopted to redress acts of genocide on the community level.

In a country that was torn apart by ethnic violence and mistrust of government, the IRC is partnering with the Rwandan people to build lasting peace and long-term development.

April 2004 =A9 International Rescue Committee