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Rwanda: Ethnic divides still simmer

But government strives to reduce tribal tensions through equitable economic growth.

Rwanda president Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Paul Kagame attends the launch of his re-election campaign at a rally in the capital Kigali, July 20, 2010. (Hereward Holland/Reuters)

RUHENGERI, Rwanda — A natural ampitheater of mist-shrouded volcanoes and fir-covered hills
frames an afternoon football match in northern Rwanda.

Many of the men watching, intent but impassive, wear T-shirts emblazoned with "Vote Paul Kagame" in the local Kinyarwanda language.

It’s election season and President Paul Kagame recently held a rally here handing out campaign T-shirts.

Yet just weeks ago these men were rebel soldiers fighting for a tribal army dedicated to overthrowing Kagame and his regime.

The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (known by its French acronym FDLR) is led by Hutu ex-soldiers who carried out the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 mostly Tutsi people died in a murderous three-month frenzy.

The genocide ended with Kagame’s victory at the head of an invading Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). Renamed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) but still led by a Tutsi military elite, it has ruled the tiny central African nation for the last 16 years.

There are 152 people at Mutobo Demobilization Center when GlobalPost visits. Since the center opened in 2001, manager Frank Musonera has overseen the passage of 9,000 former Hutu fighters through Mutobo’s re-education program.

It is designed to undo years of indoctrination by FDLR officers in Congo’s wild eastern forests who teach that Tutsis and Hutus will always be enemies, that only one tribe can win and that is by wiping out the other. “An ideology of hatred,” Musonera said.

In just three months, he tries to prepare them for a return to civilian life in post-genocide Rwanda, a country desperate to put its long history of ethnic violence behind it.

“They have to learn a lot,” Musonera said. “The majority left the country in 1994, so really Rwanda today is a new country for them.”

Maria Jane Muhawenimana, 26, has her 1-year-old son strapped to her back as she sits in a tin classroom on a rough wooden bench worn smooth over the years by the thousands like her.

“In Congo we lived like animals in the bush but Rwanda is a paradise. I didn’t know it was like this! They told us we would be killed if we came back. But here children go to school, people live in houses, they eat three meals a day,” she said in wonder.

When they leave Mutobo, the former rebels might be lucky like Emmanuel Turatsinze, a 35-year-old with a wrestler’s build.

He has a bar in the small dirty town of Byanbago a few miles up the road. The drinking den has an illicit feel: There’s no name above the blue metal door, inside are a few low wooden tables and benches wobbling on the uneven dirt floor and the sickly sweet smell of yesterday’s spilt beer.