London, 18 October 2017
True achievement is not individual. Alone, none of us can accomplish much. But when we apply our talents toward the common good, in concert with those around us, we can transform our world for the better.
I want to share two short stories with you: The first about ending a war; the second about winning the peace.
The Genocide against the Tutsi killed a million Rwandans, more than 10% of the population. Afterward, the forces responsible re-grouped across the border, taking several million civilians as hostages. From there, they launched raids to terrorise survivors and witnesses, and make the country ungovernable. Thousands more lost their lives during this period.
Rwanda’s survival was again at stake, yet the national treasury was empty. Eventually the new government managed to find a little extra money in the budget for the army. This immediately presented a dilemma.
Our soldiers had never been paid. They had nevertheless maintained exemplary discipline and effectiveness throughout. This can be explained by a shared passion for the ideal of a free and unified Rwanda to which we had all along committed ourselves within our movement, from top to bottom. But you can’t build a professional army on devotion alone. Our forces fully deserved a regular salary.
At the same time, we were protecting civilians from highly-mobile attackers in mountainous terrain. We needed additional capabilities — helicopters, among other things, for example. But we didn’t have any, and obviously no pilots either.
Hiring them would allow us to end the insurgency more quickly and save many lives in the process, both military and civilian. But we couldn’t afford both helicopters and salaries. Actually, we couldn’t really afford even one of those things at the time.
I first discussed the choice with our commanders and then went out to explain the situation to the rank-and-file and find out what they thought we should do. To the man and the woman, they chose to persevere a bit longer and forego their salaries so that we could procure the helicopters.
And it worked. The insurgency was defeated and for the first time in two generations, all Rwandans were at home and our country could focus on peace-building.
That brings me to the second decision point.
The masterminds had incited more than a million civilians to take part in the killings, to dilute their own depravity and guilt. Our prisons were stuffed with hundreds of thousands of Genocide suspects. All the courtrooms on Earth could not have accommodated so many simultaneous murder trials. Moreover, those suspects had families who depended on them for livelihood, and were living in dire straits.
But blanket amnesty was not an option either. We had no legal or moral authority to offer it and victims might end up taking justice into their own hands. More importantly, without an honest reckoning with the root causes of the tragedy, our country would never be truly secure.
We had no choice but to try to balance the seemingly irreconcilable imperatives of justice and co-existence.
The solution that was arrived at — known as Gacaca — was inspired by traditional methods of dispute resolution in our culture. The entire community is involved in hearing testimony, ascertaining facts, and passing judgment. The hearings took place once a week, for eight years, in every village and neighbourhood.
The records of the proceedings total 50 million handwritten pages of agony. But millions of cases were handled in a way that allowed victims and perpetrators to live together again afterwards.
However, before the Gacaca process could move forward, I first had to ask Rwandans for one of the greatest collective acts of courage that has probably ever been asked of any people.
On January 1st, 2003, after months of meticulous preparation, I signed an order of provisional release for most categories of Genocide suspects. They left prison and went back home. But no amount of planning could have made the circumstances any less overwhelming.
For the first time in eight-and-a-half years, survivors met face-to-face with their family’s killers, who in most cases were also neighbours. This meant re-living the trauma all over again. Perpetrators, for their part, had been fed propaganda for decades that our objective was to enslave or kill them.
The experiment once again worked, because the government conducted itself with integrity and fairness, and so did the vast majority of Rwandans.
Today we have a country that has come together, united as never before, and which makes everyone proud. This happened because we firmly believed it was possible, despite enormous odds. And so we just kept going until the vision became a reality.
That is why, whenever I am asked for the role model that inspires me, the only honest answer I can give is “the people of Rwanda”, who have suffered so much yet refused to be helpless and defeated.
Thank you very much for listening. If anyone has any question, I am more than happy to try to answer it.