Clinton revisits Rwanda

This month marks 10 years since the advent of the Rwandan genocide, a cruel, violent and well-organized rampage that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children and the total disruption of Rwandan society. Over the past decade, scholars and advocates have rightly reflected on the reasons that the international community and nations in Africa must share the responsibility for this tragedy. As I said during my trip to Rwanda in 1998, “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”

The death and destruction that began in April 1994 still haunts Rwandans and all of us who failed to respond. It is important to remember the horrors of that period with clarity and honesty, both to benefit from the lessons learned and to honor the memory of those who perished. But it is also important for the world to focus on the progress that has been and can be made in what is still viewed by too many as a small and remote country in central Africa.

I returned to Rwanda in 2002, at the invitation of the Rwandan government. What I saw underscored the pain of the past but also, and significantly, pointed to the possibilities of the future.

Given Rwanda’s recent history, I was most moved by the conviction with which people spoke about reconciliation — as a moral imperative and, indeed, as an imperative for survival. And while most of the people with whom I met made clear that the threat of renewed genocide requires vigilance, they made equally clear their determination to forge a nation in which all citizens are Rwandans, without ethnic or other distinction, and where the goals of shared equity, justice and economic development can trump the evils of hatred, impunity and destruction.

Without a doubt, Rwanda is not out of the woods. Some who would opt for a return to the past are still spewing the epithets of hatred; survivors remain frustrated that their needs have yet to be adequately addressed. But 10 years into what can only be described as a grand experiment of import to Rwanda and to us all, this tiny country has made gains that are remarkable by any standard.

It is impossible to go back and amend our collective failures in Rwanda. But it is not too late to unleash the political will, resources and global commitment required to tackle Rwanda’s latest challenge — the scourge of an HIV-AIDS epidemic that threatens the lives of virtually all Rwandans.

On this new front, the Rwandan people and government are demonstrating the conviction, determination and compassion needed to tackle a formidable challenge. Government decision makers, local officials and civic organizations have made the fight against HIV-AIDS a priority, allocating scarce resources and countering the stigma attached to the disease by speaking frankly, and frequently, about the challenge facing the country.

My foundation has been privileged to assist them in this effort since 2002, when our HIV/AIDS Initiative sent a team of volunteers to assist Rwandan government officials in devising a comprehensive strategy for scaling up access to treatment for the approximately 500,000 Rwandans living with HIV-AIDS. The World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the U.S. government have all contributed to this effort.

I hope that the international community will continue to learn from our mistakes in Rwanda in 1994. We need to improve our intelligence-gathering capabilities, increase the speed with which international intervention can be undertaken and muster the global political will required to respond to the threat of genocide wherever it may occur. But the lessons from Rwanda in 1994 pertain not only to future crises; they also apply to Rwanda today. In helping Rwanda confront the specter of HIV-AIDS, we all have an opportunity to move decisively and to stop a second national tragedy.

In the village of Ndera in 2002, young Hutus and Tutsis came together to perform a ceremonial dance for those of us visiting that day. It would have been a beautiful sight in any event, but knowing what had happened not so long before, it was a dance of phenomenal grace and incomparable hope. We owe it these young dancers and all of Rwanda’s people to join them in their struggle to attain lasting peace, social stability and economic prosperity. We must never forget the past, but we must also never fail to meet our own responsibility to help create a brighter Rwandan future.