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Los Angeles Times Interview

Theogene Rudasingwa

Refugee Turned Diplomat Returns With Hope to a Homeland Sick With Hate

April 25, 1999|Kitty Felde | Kitty Felde, a public radio journalist, recently returned from Rwanda. She hosts the Friday "Talk of the City" on KPCC. She interviewed Theogene Rudasingwa on the eve of his departure for Rwanda

Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa is going home. Five years after a genocide that killed more than 800,000 people, Rwanda is calling its best and brightest home to help in the rebuilding. That includes this tall, soft-spoken medical man who has practiced more diplomacy than medicine in his lifetime.

Like many Rwandans, Rudasingwa lived most of his life in refugee camps outside the country of his birth. He was less than a year old when his father, a local chief, was killed in a smaller genocide in 1961 and his newly widowed mother fled Rwanda with her four children. The family lived in refugee camps in Burundi and Tanzania before settling in Uganda. Rudasingwa's mother worked on banana plantations to pay for her children's school fees. Her hard work paid off: Rudasingwa became a physician; his brother, Gerald Gahima, just stepped down as Rwanda's secretary general of the ministry of justice.

In 1990, Rudasingwa volunteered to serve as a field doctor with the rebel Tutsi forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. But his facility with English became more valuable than his medical expertise. The RPF made him their liaison officer to the outside world, where he tried to detail the Hutu-led government's human-rights abuses. But Rudasingwa grew increasingly frustrated as his message went unheard: Rwanda wouldn't register on the world's radar until 1994.

By then, Rudasingwa had been promoted to secretary general of the RPF. He participated in the historic Arusha Peace Accord, which proposed power sharing with the Tutsi minority. But after a plane carrying the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi was shot down in April 1994, three months of orchestrated mass killings began. Hutus, urged on by the Interahamwe militia and radio messages of hate, turned against their Tutsi and Twa neighbors, using machetes, bullets and grenades to "cleanse" every town and village of "the others."

Two years after the slaughter, the new government of Rwanda--the "government of national unity"--again called on Rudasingwa to set aside medicine for diplomacy. For the past three years, he has served as Rwanda's ambassador to the United States, organizing loans and other financial aid and trying to explain what turned neighbor against neighbor in the bloodiest genocide since World War II.

Rudasingwa arrived in Washington in 1996 with his new bride, Dorothy, a professional with a background in psychology and international development. Today, the Rudasingwa family has grown to include Lisa, 2, and a new baby, Aaron.

This week, Rudasingwa returns home to a country facing enormous challenges. He'll be bringing his family to a land where there are only 100 doctors for 8 million inhabitants. HIV/AIDS is a particular problem, as is malaria, tuberculosis and measles. There are critical teacher and housing shortages and desperate need for capital investment in an economy built on humanitarian aid. Yet, Rudasingwa, like so many other returning Rwandan refugees, is optimistic about the future.

Question: When I was in Rwanda, I didn't see the kind of tangible ethnic tensions prevalent in Bosnia, where refugees return to a community to face hostile neighbors and burnt-out homes. Are there tensions under the surface?

Answer: I definitely believe there is some silent tension there which is not obvious to the naked eye. But I should also say the fact that you cannot really see it is a clear indication that, in Rwanda, talking about reconciliation, talking about unity, talking about peace and stability are not farfetched notions. We believe they are achievable goals. Because despite the division that has taken place within our society, still there are certain common grounds that we could emphasize and hopefully, with time, gain some ground on issues of unity, reconciliation, justice and the overall political and economic transformation that we intend to keep on trying to achieve.

Q: But in Rwanda, survivors of the genocide are often living right next door to the alleged perpetrators. How can these people live together?

A: That's a very, very difficult question in Rwanda today because people who lost their families have been forced by the realities of the time to live with their very tormentors, their very executioners. And this, of course, in a very natural way, creates a sentiment to exact retribution, to exact revenge on those who have committed such crimes against one's own family. That is the natural inclination that anybody would have. You and me and anybody else would have that kind of inclination. But because the government has been very, very serious about eradicating the culture of impunity, you probably agree with me that we have kept revenge to the very minimum in our own society, even when as I say the natural inclination of anybody would be to exact revenge on whoever committed a crime of that magnitude to one's family. And it becomes very difficult, therefore, under such circumstances even to talk about reconciliation. . . .

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