After the genocide, Rwanda imposes order with a price
Last Modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 at 7:10 p.m.
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IWAWA ISLAND, Rwanda -- A few months ago, Gasigwa Gakunzi was hanging around a ramshackle house where poor children pay to watch television when the Rwandan police arrested him for loitering. The next thing he knew, he said, he was taken away from his family and carted off to this remote island in the middle of Lake Kivu.
Gasigwa, 14, now spends his days learning how to sing patriotic songs and march like a soldier. He sleeps in a huge sheet-metal shed with hundreds of men.
"Please call my father," he whispered. "He has no idea where I am."
Nearly 900 beggars, homeless people and suspected petty thieves, including dozens of children, have been rounded up from the nation's neatly-swept streets and sent -- without trial or even appearing in court -- to this little-known outpost for up to three years to be "rehabilitated," learning skills like bricklaying, hairdressing and motorcycle maintenance.
It is one of the country's newest self-improvement projects, and it seems to be a fitting symbol for what many political analysts say Rwanda has become: orderly but repressive.
Under President Paul Kagame, this tiny African country, which exploded in ethnic bloodshed 16 years ago, is now one of the safest, cleanest and least corrupt nations on the continent. Roads are smoothly paved; there is national health insurance; neighborhoods hold monthly clean-ups; the computer network is among the best in the region; and the public fountains are full of water, not weeds. All of this in one of the poorest countries in the world, where the average income is less than $3 a day.
But with less than four months to go before national elections, few of the major opposition parties have been allowed to register. Some opposition supporters have been attacked inside government offices, others jailed. The BBC local language radio service was shut down for a time because the Rwandan government did not like the way it was talking about the genocide in 1994.
"Kagame's strategy for stability is a dangerous long-term gamble," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. "By stymieing a political opposition, an independent press, or a critical civil society -- in short, by not allowing democratic institutions to form -- Kagame is leaving people little to identify with but their ethnic group."
Instigators of violence have been prosecuted under the country's ideology law, but so have people trying to have conversations about the country's past or its current direction. Critics contend that the government is wielding Orwellian-sounding laws that are intentionally vague to stifle any inkling of opposition.
Even programs like Iwawa Island, which the government says will give street people a second chance, are not exactly what they seem.
"We call it the island of no return," said Esperance Uwizeyimana, a homeless mother of four.