Peacebuilding in Rwanda through Planned Settlements – Part 2

My first visit to one the planned settlements from the IDP Program in Rwanda was a follow up visit from a previous research trip for my Master’s of Science in Urban Planning thesis – read part 1 for further context.  In January 2018, I visited these same 28 families, all of which were Genocide Survivors (i.e., Tutsi).  They had just moved in to the IDP the previous month.  Through my Tutsi translator (which was an important consideration although never discussed between us), I learned that this IDP lacked water, food (the market was a few kilometers away), furniture and land to grow crops.  Prior to their move to an IDP, many had been renting homes with dirt floors and leaky roofs in scattered settlements and lived in ubudehe category zero or one.  My visit this June (six months later with the same translator) showed minor improvements to their situation.  The government (sector leadership) had finally run water to each home, but many lacked the resources and economic opportunities to sustain themselves or even pay their water bill.  Many were elderly or severely disabled, and the location of the IDP was 3-4 km from the nearest village and they were currently living off of a 20kg bag of rice, flour and beans donated from a nearby church.  When asked where they would get food once the donations ran out, many were unsure where it would come from.  One elderly couple whom I interviewed summarized it best, “for the first time in our lives we have electricity and a house, but no food.”

This visit brought to the forefront, recognition of the long and difficult history behind the classification of genocide survivorship in Rwanda. The amenities given to these families, for many, a reported 23 years after applying for survivor benefits, may do little to address the years of being promised better lives as a result of their suffering.  The subtle comments about lack of food and access to livelihoods are perhaps a glimpse of the inner struggle that many face – despite their generous accommodations.

Photo: IDP Model Village made up of solely genocide survivors.

The second IDP I visited was in the northwest of the country in Musanze District.  This IDP was located in a Hutu dominated area of the country and was the most contested and fought over area for years following the genocide.  For this visit, I had a local Hutu translator. This IDP, similar to the last one, had also been established in December 2017 and consisted of no genocide survivors, but rather, those who had been scattered throughout the sector (an area made of up roughly 10-15 villages) and who lived in abject poverty.  The village had been built by the Rwandan Military and consisted of 20 families, and 40 homes were still being built nearby.  Having visited five IDPs prior to this one, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of life in this IDP Model Village.  This observation ran contrary to a common assumption that resources given by a Tutsi government would be less adequate or more poorly managed than resources given to Tutsi survivors of the genocide.  This IDP was surrounded by agricultural land (where many worked day-labor jobs as they did not own their own land), plots of colorful and fruitful gardens were outside each home from seeds allocated upon their arrival by the government.  Each home had a water tank, a cow coral and methane stoves using methane collected from the pit latrines. I could smell food cooking in the kitchens and a large group of children were coming home from school in their clean uniforms while another group was leaving for their afternoon courses.  There was a church at the top of the hill and a post office, new market building and a welding shop opening up nearby – all built by the government.

Photos: IDP Model Village with significant amenities in Musanze District.

I also visited two more IDPs in Eastern Province and these were some of the original model villages built in 2013 and 2014. These two IDPs were both a mix of genocide survivors and Hutu families.  We visited on a Tuesday morning and found that many residents were not home.  Children were in school and one of the women we saw walking to the community center told us everyone was in the nearby fields harvesting sorghum and bananas.   We found an elderly couple and a man who had returned home for lunch.  In conversations with them we learned that many residents owned the land within 1-2 km from the village.  People in both villages (approximately a km apart) had manicured lawns, took impeccable care of their neighborhood and were friendly and welcoming.  Many had large fields that they owned on the periphery and were selected to move into these villages because their homes had been either in the path of the new highway that had been built or living in areas that were considered “high risk” which means vulnerable to floods and/or mudslides.  The village reminded me of a small U.S. suburb community and the mood was jovial, friendly and lively.  Each family had a cow (through the government’s one-cow-per-family program) and there was a nearby school, clinic, water pumps on the outside of each village and even newer, bigger homes were being built by private builders within and outside of the village providing mixed economic levels within.

Photo: Two of the original IDPs four years after residents moved in.

But where do observations and reality intersect?  Given it is illegal to question government programs, it is likely that any critiques by residents would be withheld.  Also, as recipients of government programs, why would anyone risk losing everything in a conversation with someone they just met and whose alliances could not be verified?  However, important to note, every single family that I had the privilege to speak with had a sturdy, quality home with a roof over their head, food in their kitchen, and water at the ready.  Each child was within a 10-minute walk of their school and clinics and churches were on site.  Neighbors were welcoming, hopeful and friendly with each other as we moved through the homes and children were playing with sticks and balls and laughing as they ran across the community.  Perhaps these “Stepford Wives” communities truly are a façade and I am guilty of falling victim to the national narrative. Perhaps the residents hold deep resentment for their new lives and are leery of being watched by the people who put them there.

Or maybe, just maybe, with electricity, running water, and a sturdy roof with schools, and clinics nearby, residents of these IDP model villages may truly be better off than they once were.  It is possible that their smiles are genuine and their outward health and dirty hands from nearby jobs were signs of a country moving, working, and building.  And perhaps, for both the critics and supporters of the current government, where sometimes things are seemingly so black and white, this small effort in creating a lasting peace falls somewhere along the spectrum as just another shade of grey.


Author: Tara Heidger is a 2018 AC4 Graduate Student Fellow pursuing a dual degree with a M.S. in Urban Planning (at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation), and a M.I.A. in International Affairs (at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs). Tara’s research focuses on the Rwandan government’s efforts to resettle its rural farming population into grouped settlements following the 1994 genocide. By way of historical research as well as interviews and observations from field research, her project aims to determine the level of ownership and participation resettled persons feel as they move(d) into new communities. 

Photos: All taken and provided by author.

To read Part 1 of Tara’s reflections from Rwanda, click here.

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