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.
Turatsinze returned to Rwanda in late 2008 after 12 years fighting with the FDLR.
“I’m living a real life now, you can’t compare now with then,” he said of his years as a rebel soldier. “I was told that everything in Rwanda was destroyed. But I got here and learned they had lied to me,” he said.
Poor Hutus and Tutsis alike come to Turatsinze’s bar where he sells local banana-based moonshine and big brown bottles of Primus lager.
Leading by example, Kagame calls himself "Rwandan" and encourages others to do the same. If they refuse they risk charges of “genocide ideology,” “divisionism” and “revisionism” which carry long jail terms. The laws are designed to keep a lid on any simmering hatreds. But critics say Kagame uses them to stifle all dissent.
Kagame’s call is also pragmatic as 85 percent of Rwandans are Hutu and there is a long history of people voting in ethnic blocs.
The designations "Hutu" and "Tutsi" have been removed from national identity cards and all but removed from open conversation. In the capital, Kigali, people lean in close and whisper when talking about tribe. One Western diplomat calls ethnicity, “the elephant in the room.”
“Long-term stability depends on reconciliation but at the moment there are no Hutus in positions of power,” the diplomat continued.
“Rwandans have split very, very deeply and it is crucial that we reconcile,” said Irenee Bugingo, a researcher at the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace in Kigali.
“There is a decision by our leaders not to base politics on ethnicity, but that ethnicity itself is a fact. Everyone knows what he is, or what she suffered, everyone lost, everyone bears a burden,” said
Much hope is invested in the next generation of Rwandans who do not have memories of the genocide and are growing up in mixed schools, playing football in mixed teams, hanging out with mixed friends.
That generation of ethnically-neutered Rwandans is still young and largely limited to the capital with its electricity, internet and upwardly mobile professionals — a place where Kagame’s argument that economic growth will render ethnicity irrelevant rings true.
In rural areas, though, most still live in abject poverty, farming small inherited family plots for subsistence amounts of maize or rice. A tiny proportion of the rural poor have access to electricity and they know the fiber-optic cables being laid in three-foot-deep trenches that run past their mud-walled huts are not for them.
But in one such village Claire Uwamariya, a 28-year-old mother of three said she supported Kagame because he ensured the one thing that mattered above all others.
“Peace and security is the most important thing to me," she said. "With that you can sleep at night without fear even if you have little to eat.”