The Rwandan genocide began 20 years ago this month. More than 1 million people were killed in the course of 100 days. We asked four of our Rwandan colleagues to reflect on the genocide and discuss how their country has evolved in the past two decades. Below, PIH/IMB Deputy Executive Director Antoinette Habinshuti shares her experience. We ask you to stand in solidarity with Rwandans everywhere this month as they commemorate the past and continue to heal. Learn more about PIH/IMB’s work in Rwanda.

In 1994 my immediate family was living outside of Rwanda, in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, while my extended family—grandparents, aunts, cousins—lived in Rwanda. Like many Rwandans, this family was taken from us during the genocide against Tutsi.

More than 1 million Rwandans were killed, and despair rained over the whole country. Suspicions were rampant. Neighbors no longer shared salt or fire for cooking. People were angry at each other, and the community values we shared were lost.

I had mixed feelings when my family moved back to Rwanda just about a year after the atrocities of the 1994 genocide. I was a teenager. I was happy to know that there was a country we could all call home. But on the other hand, I was very displeased at my parents’ decision to return because this home was bitter, broken, and fragile.

In the years following the genocide, Rwanda implemented massive unity and reconciliation programs. These programs were initially unpopular, but we came to accept them and we started healing. President Kagame implemented a presidential forgiveness program and released from jails detainees presumed to be genocide perpetrators. These individuals were sent back to their communities for reintegration.

During this effort, which was controversial, the president shared some words that are deeply engraved in my memory:  “We have an ambitious plan for Rwanda’s development; we don’t have gold or other natural resources—all we have are the hands of Rwandans to accomplish all our goals. I am in no delusion that what the government is asking—unity and reconciliation—is not easy, and it is bitter to live next to anyone who might have been involved in genocide, but we have no other choice. We must commit to working with each other. I am not asking you to love each other, but to live with each other. It’s a bitter medication, but it heals. Justice will be served, but in our own ways—and in our communities, like it was in the old good days.”

His vision for the country’s unity and reconciliation was later supported by Rwanda’s Gacaca Court System, a communal justice system where neighbors shared grievances in an open process that focused on healing.

By 2000, Rwandans were starting to see real progress. There were new academic institutions, including universities offering night classes so people with jobs could still pursue higher education. Old hospitals and health centers were renovated and many new ones were built.  We started to hear about development initiatives, including Rwanda’s Vision 2020 (the road map to Rwanda’s development) and Mutuelle de santé (the national health insurance program). Others focused on diversifying crops, creating household incomes for the poorest community members, and organizing community service, to name a few. 

No less important, Rwanda is a champion of gender equity.

More than a decade later, Rwanda is known across the globe, not only for its recovery, but for its significant gains in almost every sector. The rate of poverty has dropped, and real GDP growth averaged 8.1% between 2001 and 2012.  There have been major improvements in the health sector: average life expectancy has nearly doubled from the year of the genocide, under-5 mortality and maternal mortality rates have plummeted, and the number of people receiving lifesaving antiretroviral therapy has soared.

No less important, Rwanda is a champion of gender equity. Women comprise more than 60 percent of parliament and countless new education opportunities for women and girls have emerged.

Given this transformation, Rwandans who lived for years abroad are returning to their homeland to contribute to their country’s future. 

Irrespective of our differences, we have seen the light—the difference in our daily lives between now and then is keenly felt by all.

So what has been the recipe for success and hope in Rwanda? There are many important elements, including leadership that has prioritized equity, health care, and human development for the most vulnerable.  In addition, Rwandans have learned that our identity is inextricably linked to what we make of ourselves: We will rise together and we will fall together. If a family’s child is malnourished, it becomes the village’s focus to see that this family can get a kitchen garden and improve the nutrition of the children. Development is driven by true collaboration. In Rwanda, the government, development partners, supporters, and the citizens have embraced this.

When we look at how far we have come in 20 years, we know that we do not want to go back to where we were. Irrespective of our differences, we have seen the light—the difference in our daily lives between now and then is keenly felt by all.

Where we are now requires reflection of who we are as a nation: strong, dedicated, and resilient. Let us always remember this and use our energy and ability to move forward. Our history shares many life lessons and we should always look back at what almost destroyed us and ask why. Let our remembrance of those dark days motivate us to continue rebuilding our country so that we can reach new heights together.