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Striding Toward the Future in Rwanda by Shirley Randell

Readers have asked for an explanation of the huge number of demonstrations taking place throughout Africa, Europe, Canada and the United States over the arrest of Rose Kabuye, Rwanda’s director of state for protocol. Rose was arrested in Germany on a warrant issued by a French judge who has since been voted out of office.

The French government was, for decades, the primary patron of the Rwandan dictatorship that, in 1994, called for the elimination of the Tutsi population.

In 1993, tiny Rwanda was the continent’s third largest importer of arms of every kind, trailing only Egypt and apartheid South Africa. When it became clear that the rebel movement led by Paul Kagame, who had been a refugee in Uganda since childhood, would oust the genocidal government and end the killing, France helped provide cover for the government and perpetrators of the genocide as they fled westward to Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

From there they have tried to continue their project with the support of arms dealers from all over the rich world.

President Kagame finally suspended diplomatic relations with France last year after nine of his close associates, including Rose, were issued with arrest warrants, linking them to the killing of Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s former president, whose plane was shot down in 1994. The former French judge did not consider alternative theories and did not visit Rwanda to conduct investigations of his own. But Rose’s arrest served the French goal of painting Kagame’s government as a gang of criminals. The idea of a small group of even the most highly disciplined guerrillas, encumbered by huge challenges (Rose was then the mother of an infant), travelling into the heart of military-controlled Kigali to shoot down a plane in full view of government troops seems more like an action movie fantasy than a report from the field.

It is far more probable that the plane was taken out by the soldiers who controlled the area, as many hardliners wanted the too-pliant dictator, who had recently signed an accord with the rebel force, out of the picture.

Rose is now in Paris, where it seems her trial will uncover the French involvement in the lead-up to the massive violence that took up to a million lives in just a few months. Hopefully, this will be a moment of truth for France, and international law this time will give some justice to Rwanda. We keep in constant touch with Rose, and a group of faithful women keep watch in a tent outside the German Embassy in Rwanda.

Insecurity in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has raised fears of a new wave of sexual violence in a region termed “the worst place in the world to be a woman” by aid workers.

During the first six months of 2008, there were more than 5,000 reported rape cases in the flashpoint province of North Kivu, according to data collected by doctors at health centres. The true figure is likely to be far higher, as the majority of women are too traumatised or afraid of stigma to seek help.

One hospital specialising in sexual violence in Goma, capital of North Kivu, admits, on average, four women a day—making the total more than 18,000 women since it opened in 2003. In neighbouring South Kivu, the United Nations reported 27,000 sexual assaults in 2006. It is impossible to say how many cases there have been across the country, but based on anecdotal evidence, doctors say numbers are rising. With the recent surge in fighting between the government army and rebels, which has displaced about 250,000 people, many more women—and some men—will likely have fallen victim to Congo's use of rape as a weapon of war.

The fighting in DCR is fed by a lethal war economy based on the extraction of minerals such as coltan, cobalt, diamonds and gold, to which we are all connected through the worldwide market.

Rural villages are held hostage by armed bandits, but it is the women who pay the price. When husbands reject wives who have been raped, when families reject the babies resulting from rape, and when communities assume the rape victim has HIV-AIDS, culture becomes an added burden. But little by little, communities are overcoming a cultural tolerance of rape and the tendency to treat rape victims as adulterers.

In eastern DRC, a group of 40 women journalists in the South Kivu, Women's Media Association, which is managing to change the cultural acceptance of rape. Despite safety risks and chronic equipment problems, members are persuading rural rape survivors to tell their stories and learn their rights. Billboards on the dirt roads are trying to change attitudes. "Life is sacred. Rape is a crime," the signs trumpet.

The group has had enormous success in its outreach efforts, educating women that if a woman knows her rights, the situation can change. If she doesn't, women's rights are at men's mercy.

This year, SKWMA has produced tape cassettes and CDs telling the stories of about 100 women. This harrowing audio compendium on sexual violence reaches rural women through local radio listening clubs. The group also produces educational features for rural communities to help de-stigmatise sexual violence survivors. It publicizes health resources and information about women's legal rights under a penal code that imposes prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years of prison for indecent assaults and rape.

The government of Rwanda will not be discouraged from normalizing diplomatic relations with DRC, despite the recent controversial report by a United Nations group of experts. The report appears to be a move to shift blame away from the government of DRC and the international community—both of which have failed to resolve the conflict in the eastern DRC, despite numerous bilateral, regional and international initiatives in the last 14 years. The report also alleges that Rwanda was assisting the DRC rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), allegations that Rwanda has denounced in the strongest terms. Rwanda’s minister of foreign affairs, Rosemary Museminali, has been leading discussions with DRC on resuming diplomatic relations between the two neighbours after 10 years of a diplomatic standoff. Museminali and her DRC counterpart recently agreed to work together to disarm rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) operating in eastern DRC. The FDLR comprises remnants of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, a combination of the Interahamwe and Ex-FAR militias, which have camps in Eastern Congo and are reported to be fighting alongside DRC government troops (FARDC) against the CNDP. Other diplomatic initiatives between Rwanda, DRC, Burundi and Uganda in the Great Lakes region look promising.

Rwanda continues to win laurels, ranking sixth on data collection of 53 nations in Africa, a 17-place jump in statistics capacity and data collection on the continent, making it the best in the East African region, according to Africa’s Stats League 2007. The minister in the office of the president in charge of information communications technology won an Africa ICT achiever’s award in recognition of his dedication to the proliferation of ICT in Africa.

Through its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, Rwanda won an international peaceaward from the United Religions’ Initiative, recognising NURC’s outstanding work in promoting peace, unity, harmony, healing and reconciliation and for opening a new chapter of peaceful coexistence in Rwanda since 1994. The Pneumococcal Awareness Council of Experts has presented the PACE Global LeadershipAward to the Rwandan Ministry of Health for its groundbreaking efforts in introducing the pneumococcal vaccine in Africa and for its plan to introduce routine injections for children from January 2009.

Gahaya Links, a basket weaving training facility that has transformed many women’s lives through baskets commonly known as peace baskets, won a coveted Legatum Pioneer of Prosperity Africa Award. Gahaya’s peace basket, the Agaseke, has brought back hope to many underprivileged Rwandan women. The baskets have become popular in the United States through Macy’s department stores. Gahaya Links has more than 700 members weaving baskets as their source of income. In 2008, robust activity in the construction, services and agricultural sectors are expected to place Rwanda among the fastest growing and best-governed economies in Africa. A recent International Monetary Fund mission projected GDP growth of 8.5 per cent for 2008, attributing this to a prudent fiscal policy backed by a strong revenue collection system and rising commodity prices in the international market.

As I rushed out of my home at 5.30am to join others at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda watching the final results of the presidential elections on TV, my night guard was sitting with his radio glued to his ear, saying “Obama, Obama, Obama.”The excitement in Africa over this elections and the elation over the results has been stunning. This surely has been an election for the world! Kenya actually declared an official holiday the following day, but other countries might just as well have done the same. Most public servants, private sector and civil society workers had been up all night and were not fit for much work on Wednesday, as they celebrated the result as if Obama was their own president. Tears rolled down my face too as I watched and listened to President Elect Barack Obama make his amazing acceptance speech. To finally have a person of colour as U.S. president has a global impact; it has unleashed a new sense of optimism and breathed spirit into humanity everywhere. It has given hope to millions of disadvantaged children and their families that anything is possible: “Yes, we can!”

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