It has been 20 years since the genocide that took as many as a million lives and left Rwanda in ruins. So it is illuminating that a new report shows that life expectancy in the formerly splintered African nation has doubled in that time.
The development reveals what can happen when murderous, corrupt regimes are replaced with leadership focused on maintaining peace and improving living conditions.
Harvard professor Paul Farmer, along with Rwandan health experts, just published a study of the life expectancy data in The Lancet, the world’s most prestigious medical journal.
“In the aftermath of one of the worst spasms of mass violence in recorded history, few imagined that Rwanda might one day serve as a model for other nations committed to health equity,” their report notes.
The 1994 genocide, carried out chiefly by the country’s Hutus against their rival Tutsis, killed nearly 20 percent of the nation’s population and displaced millions more.
One particularly horrible statistic to emerge from the genocide: Half a million women were raped during the fighting, and up to 20,000 children were born as a result
That was then. The story now goes far beyond the life expectancy data, which obviously were going to improve somewhat once the mass killings ended.
In Rwanda today, the genocide — while it will never be forgotten — has been put aside as the victims and the perpetrators join hands in a remarkable effort to build a better nation.
Among the international leaders helping Rwanda regain its dignity is Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who formed a foundation, the Africa Governance Initiative, to help needy nations meet their many needs.
“Very few expected the country to achieve more than high levels of sympathy,” Blair said recently. “But under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda decided to start afresh, to begin a unique experiment in postconflict nation building, which would steer it away from intractable cycles of killing.”
Blair, who has been widely vilified in Britain for his support of President George W. Bush during the Iraq War, deserves praise for his involvement in Rwanda’s revival.
“There was no grand theory when the new government took power in 1994,” he wrote recently. “The primary concern was to guarantee that the extreme ethnic divisions which caused the genocide would never resurface. Security and stability came first, alongside basic humanitarian relief and, slowly at first, then with greater speed, improvements in health, education and incomes.”
The key, he added, was the belief that by uniting its people behind the common cause of progress, they could create a new national identity; that rather than seeing themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, they would consider themselves Rwandan.
Investment in Rwanda has nearly tripled since 2005, and although it lacks many natural resources, the country has become economically vibrant.
Moreover, most of the population is covered by health insurance, and malaria deaths have fallen more than 85 percent since 2005. The crime rate is low, and Rwandan women can now safely walk the streets at night.
If this kind of reconciliation and revival can happen in a forlorn corner of the world like Rwanda, couldn’t it also happen in other places?
In fact, it has happened elsewhere: Just last week, Michael D. Higgins became the first president of Ireland to ever visit Britain’s Parliament and be received by Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle.
Given the bloody history of Ireland’s conflicts with the United Kingdom, it is encouraging the two sides are on friendly terms.
And although it took 20 years to overcome the horrors of Rwanda’s genocide, we can only hope that the reconciliation, like that between Ireland and Great Britain, offers similar hope to other troubled parts of the world.