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'Where were you when the killing began?" I asked my driver.
"I was here. I managed to hide," he answered.
"And what happened to your family? Were they able to hide, too?"
"No," he replied. "My mother, my father, my brothers and sisters were all massacred. I am the only member of our family who stayed alive."
No, we were not talking about the killing fields of Nazi-dominated Europe. Our conversation took place in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda where, during 100 days in 1994, nearly one million people were butchered.
Two different peoples, nine million inhabitants in a country the size of Israel, have lived side-by-side in uneasy coexistence. Violence was never far below the surface. Tens of thousands of Tutsis and Hutus were killed during the years that led up to the genocide of 1994.
The scars of that genocide are still there, everywhere. On a hill overlooking the capital, the Rwandan "Yad Vashem" serves as a constant reminder of those terrible hundred days. The Memorial recounts the massacres in harrowing pictures. It relives the horror and the bestiality as children, women and men were hacked to death in a frenzy of killing. It gives the story of the Hutu leaders who planned the genocide; of the discussions at the cabinet level and of how one minister declared that all Tutsis should be eliminated; of how the media - radio and television - whipped up their listeners to fever pitch, exhorting them to kill, kill, kill.
The Memorial also reminds visitors of the passivity of the world; how the UN forces in Rwanda were instructed by the secretary-general not to intervene and to limit their activities to evacuating foreign nationals; how the US refused help and only reluctantly admitted that a genocide was occurring after more than half a million people had been cut down.
The French are singled out as having played a sinister, suspect role; after it was all over, the president of Rwanda gave the French ambassador 24 hours to close down the embassy and leave the country with all French members of his staff. "If you are not out in 24 hours we will bus all of you to the frontier and leave you there," he told the ambassador.
When UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked to come to Rwanda to apologize, the president told him: "You can come as far as the airport" - and, indeed, he received the apology at the foot of Annan's plane, and did not allow the secretary-general to come into Kigali.
The massacres came to a halt when Paul Kagame, who today is president of Rwanda, led a force of Tutsi soldiers from neighboring Uganda and succeeded in overthrowing the Hutu government. Nearly two million Hutu refugees fled the country, mainly to Congo. Most of the leading perpetrators of the genocide have since been tried and sentenced; field trials are still taking place.
The amazing thing about Rwanda today, however, is that Tutsis and Hutus are living together in peace, despite the terrible events of 12 years ago. Under President Kagame's dynamic leadership, the economy has grown at an annual rate of 8.7 percent, one of the highest in the world (and double that of Israel).
The president stunned his population by appointing a Hutu as prime minister and by abolishing the identity cards in which inhabitants were classed as "Tutsi" or "Hutu," something that the Belgian colonizers had installed. "From now on we are all Rwandan," he declared.
Reconciliation became the dominant policy of the president: Today Tutsis and Hutus work side by side, at peace with each other, the slaughter of 12 years ago by no means forgotten, but put aside for the common good.
Israelis have played their part in turning the economy around. One of the leading Israeli entrepreneurs operating in Africa, Hezi Bezalel, opened an office in Kigali and brought Israeli experts in agriculture and other fields to Rwanda.
In the wake of the genocide, our Foreign Ministry sent the largest medical mission in our history to Rwanda, including some of our best surgeons.
Together with Hezi, I met with President Kagame at his home late at night some time ago. We talked lengthily about Israel's experience in Africa, and the lessons that we in Israel could learn from the amazing story of Rwanda.
In some ways, Rwanda is the "Israel" of Africa. The conflagration there set the entire region on fire - witness the two Congo wars, which were largely the outcome of the events in Rwanda. The two peoples - Tutsis and Hutus - had been at each other's throats for decades, and foreign powers had not desisted from meddling in their conflict.
The president spelled out the lessons, as he saw them, in precise, cogent, terms: self-reliance, because you cannot rely on help from the world when you are in trouble; and reconciliation, the need to live in peace with the "other."
"If we could do it, after all that happened here, surely you can, too?" he said.
For me there was a third lesson - the need for an outstanding leader. If it had not been for President Kagame - who, in my opinion, is one of the most remarkable and preeminent leaders in Africa, and possibly in the world, today - Rwanda would not be the peaceful and stable country that it is. It would not be called "the Singapore of Africa."
Rwanda is lucky in having its own David Ben-Gurion at a critical time in its history. We were lucky in having the original, back then when our state was established. What we need now is to have our own Paul Kagame!
The writer, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, has twice visited Rwanda in recent months.
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