Democracy Lab

Rwandan Shadows

Twenty years after the end of a genocidal regime, Rwandans are still trying to come to terms with the destruction of their world.

KIGALI, Rwanda — During my travels in Rwanda over the past week, my guide Hyppolite has become a friend. He's a sharp-minded 27-year-old with an engaging smile who bombards me with questions about everything from smart cards to China's rise. This fall he's starting work on a master's degree at a British university -- not bad for someone who remembers spending much of his childhood gathering firewood for the family cooking stove.

Rwanda has some remarkable wildlife, and the other day I happened to see a particularly interesting bird, which I pointed out. Hyppolite shook his head. "I don't like animals," he said. Fair enough. But he was emphatic about it. He has his reasons.

In April 1994, they came for Hyppolite and his family. The killers were armed with machetes and spears; some of them were neighbors. Hyppolite, at age 7, was the youngest member of his family, which included five sisters and one brother. On April 6, his parents heard the news of the death of Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana. His plane was shot down by unknown assailants as it approached the airport in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. A network of ultranationalist politicians from the country's majority Hutu ethnic group immediately seized upon the president's assassination to unleash a campaign of slaughter against the minority Tutsis. (Many of those first killed, in the early hours of April 7, included moderate Hutus who were viewed by Hutu radicals as traitors to their own ethnicity.) The Hutu Power movement cast Tutsis as an alien race determined to claim Rwanda for themselves. The only viable response, these extremists declared, was to launch a "final solution" that would "cleanse" Rwanda of their enemies forever.

Hyppolite and his family were Tutsis. Hearing the news of the president's death, Hyppolite's parents immediately knew that their lives were in danger. They fled their house and sought refuge in a nearby church. But the hope of safety proved illusory: The church was attacked. Hyppolite and his father escaped. But when they heard a group of pro-government militiamen approaching, they dove for cover in bushes at the side of the road. Hyppolite managed to keep quiet. "But my father had a cold. He coughed; he couldn't help it. The militia pulled him out and killed him right there." He waited until the murderers left, then emerged from his hiding place. "And when I came out, I saw that the dogs were eating my father's body."

Hyppolite, dazed and starving, managed to hide in the woods until the killing stopped, occasionally emerging to scavenge for food; sometimes he slept in the ruins of his family's house, the one place, he correctly guessed, where no one would be looking for people to kill. Somehow he remained alive.

A few years later his older brother decided to get a dog as a pet. "I couldn't stand it," Hyppolite said. "All I could think of was the dogs who had fed on my father. So I waited until my brother left the house one day. Then I took the dog into the forest and I killed it. I found some sticks and I beat it to death."

These days, so many years later, he says that he can finally look at dogs without feeling that same desire for revenge. Though many members of his extended family fell victim to the genocide, his mother and his siblings managed to survive, so he has that to be thankful for. He has moved on, at least on some level. Now, he says, he can at least live like a normal human being; when you see him flash one of his dazzling smiles, you're hard-pressed to imagine what he's been through. But he admits that the shadow of those experiences still lies across his soul, and will probably never go away entirely.

It's a shadow that still lies over his country as well. It could hardly be otherwise. By the time they were stopped, the génocidaires had succeeded in wiping out something close to 1 million Rwandans, using guns, grenades, machetes, homemade bamboo spears, and bare hands. The killing wasn't an expression of some "ancient ethnic hatred" dating back centuries. Violence between Hutus and Tutsis only really started in the second half of the 20th century, a product of warped racial ideas implanted by Rwanda's Belgian colonizers and aggravated by scheming Rwandan politicians who sought to use ethnic hatred to keep themselves in power. What Rwanda does have is a long-established tradition of clearly defined hierarchies, tightly organized government, and people who are accustomed to obeying their leaders. The killers used their control of the state apparatus and media to make their plans a reality. The rest of the world stood by and watched.

This week Rwanda is marking an important anniversary. Twenty years ago, on July 4, 1994, the rebels of the mostly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who had launched a desperate offensive from their bases in the country's north as soon as news of the slaughter broke, finally occupied Kigali, bringing the 100 days of the genocide to an end. (The photo above shows a distraught woman being carried out of a ceremony commemorating the genocide in Kigali in April.)

When the rebels marched into the capital they confronted not only mountains of corpses but also absolute devastation. The Hutu extremists and what was left of their government had fled -- but before they left they cut water lines, destroyed power plants, and robbed whatever they could take along, from cars to light bulbs. The new RPF government convened in ministries where the only furniture consisted of beer crates. As Phillip Gourevitch relates in his remarkable account of the genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the advancing RPF soldiers shot every dog they saw along the way -- for the same reasons that inspired my friend's peculiar act of revenge. (As Gourevitch tells it, one British medical relief worker took the opportunity to scold them for their cruelty to animals.)

Today Rwanda is a radically different place. The man who led the RPF to victory, Paul Kagame, is president, presiding over a government that combines equal measures of competence and ruthlessness. Rwanda in 2014 is a place of smoothly surfaced roads and increasingly modern infrastructure. Fully 98 percent of the country's citizens are covered by a national health care program; huge strides have been made in combating HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Economic growth is strong. The government says that GDP has been expanding at roughly 8 percent annually over the past few years. Though many Rwandans still struggle to get by, Kagame's government gets stellar ratings from the international aid community for its poverty reduction efforts, including the "one cow per family" program, which has buoyed up the poorest of the poor by providing them with livestock. Underlying all of these successes is a strict anti-corruption policy that has borne visible fruit. Even Rwanda's harshest critics concede that the country's policemen rarely take bribes.

And critics there are. They assail the government for its cowing of the media and its lack of tolerance for dissent; opponents of the government have an alarming tendency to disappear or turn up dead. Rwandans know that expressing negative opinions about Kagame, the centerpiece of a strictly organized one-party state dominated by the army and intelligence services, is likely to end badly. "People are afraid to say what they think," one Rwandan told me. "This is a place of many secrets."

In many ways, nonetheless, Rwanda's post-genocide story is largely a positive one. The signs of material progress are ubiquitous; other African leaders speak of emulating Rwanda's model. Despite the weight of its past and its extremely limited resources, the country has made remarkable progress toward domestic stability. Like Hyppolite, many Rwandans are moving forward, eager to embrace what life has to offer.

Yet you don't have to look hard to find the darkness. Hints of it are everywhere. Twenty years is not that long.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Mosul's Christians Say Goodbye

The jihadist takeover of northern Iraq is a disaster for Iraqis. But the destruction of an ancient Christian culture is a disaster for the world.

I've been reading the headlines from northern Iraq over the past two weeks with an intensifying sense of dread. It's a feeling very much like the one I have whenever I read about the disappearance of some huge ice sheet in the Antarctic or the extinction of yet another rare species of animal. It's the feeling that one more valuable ingredient of life on Earth is about to vanish, in all likelihood, forever.

The takeover of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, by the jihadist troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is a catastrophe for the people of Iraq, who now face a revival of full-blown sectarian warfare, and a strategic and psychological nightmare for the United States, which sacrificed vast amounts of blood and treasure to topple Saddam Hussein and build a viable government -- the latter, it would seem, in vain.

But over the past few days I've found myself mourning a more specific disaster: the flight and dispersal of the last remnants of Iraq's once-proud community of Christians. Emil Shimoun Nona, the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholics of Mosul, has told news agencies that the few Christians remaining in the city prior to the ISIS invasion have abandoned the city. Since the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, he estimates, Mosul's Christian population dwindled from 35,000 to some 3,000. "Now there is no one left," he said. Most of them have joined the estimated 500,000 refugees who have fled the ISIS advance; many of the Christians, including the archbishop, have opted for the relative security of Iraqi Kurdistan. (The photo above shows girls praying in the Church of the Virgin Mary in Bartala, a town to the east of Mosul.)

The exodus has been triggered, above all, by the jihadists' reputation for bloodlust -- a reputation that ISIS has consciously furthered through its own propaganda. A few days ago, the jihadists used social media to distribute photos supporting their claim that they had killed 1,700 Shiite prisoners taken during their rapid offensive. No sooner had ISIS entered Mosul than some of their fighters set fire to an Armenian church. This all seems consistent with the group's grim record during the civil war in Syria, where, among other things, it has revived medieval Islamic restrictions on Christian populations. (It's their fear of Islamist rebels that has tended to align the Syrian Christian community with the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad.)

In 2003, it was estimated that some 1.5 million Iraqis were Christians, about 5 percent of the population. Since then, the overwhelming majority has reacted to widening sectarian conflict and a series of terrorist attacks by leaving the country. (Archbishop Nona's predecessor, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and killed outside his Mosul church back in 2008.) Almost all of the various Iraqi Christian communities -- the Chaldeans (who are part of the Roman Catholic Church), the Armenians, the Syriac Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox -- have benefited from large émigré contingents around the world who have welcomed refugees from Iraq.

I'm glad that these believers have saved themselves and their faith, but their emigration comes at a cost -- as they themselves are only too aware. For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it's hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.

It's worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren't the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country's polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world's last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths -- a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.

In the fall of 2003, when I was on assignment in Iraq, I had a chance to travel to Mosul. It was a fateful moment for the U.S.-led occupation, then just a few months old. I interviewed Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the American forces in the city and its surrounding region. The insurgency that had already flared into life in other parts of the country was only just reaching Mosul; while I was there, several American soldiers were attacked by an angry mob and killed -- a harbinger of long years of violence to come.

But I soon discovered that there was a lot more to Mosul than the headlines. The citizens of Mosul I met welcomed me with a spontaneous hospitality that I hadn't really experienced in the Iraqi capital. This may have had something to do with the fact that Baghdad, the heart of Saddam Hussein's brutal Baathist state, retained little palpable sense of its rich historical past. Baghdad had an almost Soviet soullessness -- the vast tracts of ugly prefab housing wouldn't have looked out of place in Warsaw or Beijing. Mosul, by contrast, still retained its character as an Ottoman trade route city, a place both scruffy and intimate. And it was enlivened by a proud sense of its own diversity: You never knew whether the next person you were going to meet was a Sunni or a Shiite, a Kurd or a Christian.

The Christians were especially fascinating -- above all, because it was hard to escape the sense that you were witnessing the practice of traditions you weren't going to find anywhere else. Some of Mosul's Christians answer to Rome; some follow various Orthodox patriarchs; and some, like the members of the Ancient Church of the East, are beholden to no authority but their own. There are Christians in and around Mosul who still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.

I found myself admiring the interior of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Mar Toma (St. Thomas), brilliantly lit by long strings of light bulbs. The parishioners were especially proud of their big display Bible in the ancient tongue of Syriac, whose elaborate calligraphy adorned surfaces in many parts of the building. (The church is also home to a set of rare manuscripts in Syriac and Garshuni, a dialect of Arabic used by medieval Christians.) No one actually knows how old the church is, but it dates back at least to the 8th century. I also paid a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral, the seat of the Chaldean Christians' archbishop, a stolid stone building that looked as though it could withstand any attack. A year later it was bombed by jihadi insurgents, badly damaging the structure.

For what it's worth, the city's long history of peaceful coexistence doesn't seem to be completely dead. Archbishop Nona has told of Muslims in Mosul banding together to guard the city's churches from looting, and other reports from Mosul suggest that the Islamists are trying to assuage the fears of religious minorities in the city.

But the Christians of northern Iraq can hardly be blamed if they're unwilling to bank on these faint glimmers of hope -- the jihadists' record speaks too eloquently against them. Back in 2003, there was little inkling of the disaster that was about to befall Iraq's Christians. Today, there seems to be little that can be done to reverse it.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images