MEDFORD, Mass. – Rwanda President Paul Kagame told a U.S. audience Tuesday that the horrific slaughter of more than 800,000 people in his country two decades ago has taught people in the small East African nation that they "must ultimately be responsible for their own fate."
"If you wait for help to come, you will just perish," Kagame told students, faculty and others at Tufts University who came to hear him speak as Rwanda marks 20 years since the atrocity.
Kagame's rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front ended the genocide by overthrowing the extremist government of the majority Hutus that orchestrated the slaughter of the ethnic Tutsis and Hutu moderates.
"Twenty is not a magic number. But the milestone has helped to refocus Rwanda and the world's attention on the causes and consequences of the genocide," he said.
The slaughter was committed "with shocking efficiency" by an extremist government that hid "behind the excuse of a spontaneous outpouring of violent anger," he said. "To mask their responsibility and make justice impossible, they made millions of Rwandan civilians complicit in their crime, by inciting them to kill their neighbors and countrymen."
Kagame said the actions and inaction of the international community made the situation worse.
Out of that twisted reality, Rwandans learned a painful lesson on justice that gave rise to ad hoc courts like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and later the International Criminal Court.
But Kagame said punitive justice is only half the solution and must be balanced with reconciliation.
"The ultimate goal is to repair a devastated social fabric in order for a nation to heal and begin to rebuild," he said. "This is true for Rwanda after 1994, as it is for other nations recovering from major conflict."
Kagame expressed hope that his country's young demographic may help Rwanda move past its recent history. About half of Rwanda's population of 12 million is under 20 years old, and those age 30 or younger account for about 71 percent of the population. These young Rwandans are unencumbered by the bloody past, their president noted.
Kagame seemed thrown off balance when a student asked him if he plans to run for a third term in office, beyond the current constitutional two-term limit.
"I think at some point we need to leave countries and people to decide their own affairs," Kagame said. "Why I'm saying that is because I'm asked when and whether I plan to leave office — right from the start of my first political term in office.
"I don't know what answer to give you to that," he said. "But let's wait to see what will happen."