Overlooking this city’s red, dusty hills where thousands were killed, Laura Bush on Thursday urged Rwandans not to lose hope as they try to heal the pain — “still so fresh” — of their country’s genocide.
She drew a parallel to U.S. history, saying, “We haven’t totally moved on” from slavery 130 years after the Civil War.
“Of course there’s no slavery any more,” she told a group of Rwandan schoolgirls, one of whom had asked her how America dealt with the aftermath of its internal conflict. “But I don’t know that we’ve totally reconciled what it means to our history,” the U.S. first lady said.
Still, Bush sounded an optimistic tone for Rwanda, still reeling from the 100 days in 1994 when Hutu militias shot and hacked to death some 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Many men were killed or fled the country. Many women contracted the virus that causes AIDS when they were raped. Many children were left orphaned.
“Rwandans have done extraordinary work recovering from that devastation,” Bush said at the FAWE School, where girls receive U.S. scholarships for their studies. “Now this is a country with growing opportunity, with confidence in the future.”
No public mention of Darfur
Bush did not speak publicly about the violence in another part of Africa, the Darfur region of Sudan. More than two years of conflict in Darfur have left tens of thousands dead and more than 2 million displaced. Arab, pro-government militias have mounted a counterinsurgency against black African rebels; many have compared the situation to Rwanda’s genocide.
During a brief meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Bush did discuss Darfur. Before the session, the first lady had said she wanted Kagame’s advice about how the U.S. should respond in Darfur.
Her spokeswoman, Susan Whitson, said afterward that Bush wanted to keep private the substance of her conversation with Kagame.
Paul Rusesabagina, the lifesaving hotel manager portrayed in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” set at a hotel not far from where Bush’s entourage stayed, recently accused the world of failing Darfur just as it did Rwanda.
Instead of bolstering its peacekeeping force, the United Nations pulled troops. The massacre ended when Tutsi rebels led by Kagame ousted the ruling government.
‘Too few people ... spoke out’
“Some would call the tragedy in Rwanda unspeakable, but that’s precisely the problem,” Bush said. “Too few people around the world spoke out about what was happening here. Too few people recognized the scale of suffering.”
Her first stop in Rwanda was at a genocide memorial where it is said that the remains of 250,000 victims are buried.
Joined at the museum by Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush laid a wreath at one of the memorial’s mass tombs set amid tranquil gardens and fountains.
Graveside, members of the entourage bowed their heads in silence to coincide with observations in Britain marking one week since deadly bus and subway bombings in London.
Blair said it was especially poignant to be honoring the British dead at a site that remembers those lost in Rwanda.
“I am very moved by what I have seen, also distressed that the world looked on while it happened,” Blair said.
The group took in the museum’s haunting account of the genocide. Then Bush, daughter Jenna, Rwandan first lady Jeanette Kagame and Blair — their faces strained from holding back emotion — signed the visitor’s book.
Bush also spent time in Kigali promoting ways the U.S. is helping Rwanda, such as assisting with the treatment of AIDS patients and helping girls get an education.
Bush began her day in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where she reached out to East Africa’s large Muslim community by promoting U.S. efforts to help that often-disenfranchised population educate its children.
After traveling this week through South Africa and Tanzania, Bush was heading back to Washington on Friday.