THIS IS WHERE THE REST OF MY LIFE BEGAN.” This is where one life ended and another was launched. We have reached the end of Rwanda and are looking across the Akagera River to Tanzania on the far side.

Rwanda map

(Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic.)

Jean-Claude Munyezamu and I walk out to the middle of the bridge, a single span that shudders and bounces with every transport truck that rumbles past us in the heat. Below the bridge, the river narrows into the rapids of Rusumo Falls, wet with mist.

Rwanda, “Land of a Thousand Hills,” lies in the crosshairs of the continent. This is the true heart of Africa, the last region to be reached by Europeans, located deep along the watersheds of the Congo and Nile rivers. It was at these falls, in 1894, that a German count first crossed into the Kingdom of Rwanda. And it was across these falls, across this bridge, that a 19-year-old Jean-Claude Munyezamu escaped.

He has never seen the bridge before, though he remembers the bouncing of it. When he crossed 20 years ago, it was in the middle of the night and he was hiding under sacks of coffee beans in the back of a truck. “What would have happened,” I ask, “if they had caught you?”

“Oh,” he smiles. “They would have killed me.” He says this without rancour or melodrama, but as a simple statement of fact. If they’d caught me, they would have killed me.

I FIRST MET JEAN-CLAUDE on a summery soccer pitch in Calgary several years earlier. Our children were on the same under-eight community soccer team (“Go Tigers!”) and Jean- Claude was one of the volunteer coaches.

He later set up Soccer Without Boundaries, a local program that integrates immigrant and refugee children into their communities through sports, and which includes boys and girls from Syria, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan, the Philippines and more.

We became friends, our wives became friends, our children did as well. Jean-Claude is a sociable and engaging person, and endlessly optimistic. Which seemed at odds with his background.

“Rwanda is beautiful,” he would tell me. “You have to visit. We’ll go together. We’ll bring soccer equipment to donate to schools.”

I agreed, though with some hesitation — not for concerns of safety, but sadness.

Through Jean-Claude, I’d gotten to know Calgary’s Rwandan community, and through them I gained a glimpse into the darkness of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, when — over the course of 100 horrific days — nearly one million men, women and children were butchered under the ideological banner of Hutu Power.

I remember one young Rwandan Canadian woman, softly spoken, telling me how she had survived the carnage as a little girl by climbing under the “buddies.” But no — not buddies. In her lovely accent, so rounded and rich, she was referring not to buddies, but bodies.

IN MANY WAYS, the genocide began with that first German count pushing across Rusumo Falls, filling in that last part of the map.

In the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Rwanda was handed over to Belgium. Rwanda was — and still is — one of the most culturally homogenous nations in Africa: everyone spoke the same language, shared the same religion and surnames, under the same mwami, or king. Society was divided into two main castes: the minority Tutsis, largely cattle owners from whom Rwanda’s royal lineage was drawn, and the Hutu, who were mainly farmers. (A small number of Batwa pygmies also lived, marginalized, as hunters in the forests.)

In the colonial era, Europe was obsessed with race, and the Belgians decided that the taller, lighterskinned, longer-nosed Tutsis were a separate, superior “race.” (For Rwandans, the categories were actually more fluid than that; if a Hutu farmer owned enough cattle, for example, he became a Tutsi.)

Nonetheless, the Belgians went about measuring noses and craniums as they enshrined a social class as a distinct race, issuing identity cards that were marked either TUTSI or HUTU. These identity cards would later become death warrants for the Tutsis.

The Belgians favoured the Tutsis until the eve of independence in 1960, when the Hutu majority took power — with a vengeance. Tutsis were now relegated to second-class citizens; their travel, employment and education were restricted. Systematically dehumanized, portrayed as subhuman and scapegoated under the ideology of Hutu Power, Rwanda’s treatment of its Tutsi population would eventually reach its logical extreme: complete eradication of the inyenzi, or “cockroaches” as the Tutsis were called.

Meanwhile, across the border in Uganda, a band of exiled Rwandans, predominantly Tutsi, had formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda in 1990 with the stated aim of toppling the government and ending the politics of ethnic identity.

When Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in April 1994 — most likely by extremists within his own Hutu Power base — the killing of Tutsis and any moderate Hutu who might oppose the genocide began instantly. Roadblocks went up and ID cards were demanded (a lack of a card was taken as evidence of guilt) as machetewielding militias roamed the streets hooting for blood. Neighbours killed neighbours, coworkers hunted down former friends. No Tutsi was exempt from the slaughter: infants, the elderly, male, female. Rwanda became an abattoir as UN troops under Canadian General Romeo Dallaire looked on in horror, lacking the mandate to intervene.

The genocide ended, as all genocides do, not through peace negotiations or UN finger wagging, but with armed intervention. The RPF captured the capital Kigali, pushing the génocidaires of the old regime westward into the Congo.

To the victors came not the spoils but the wreckage of a failed state. The RPF had taken control of a ruined city. A ruined nation. Bloated corpses clotted the rivers and roads. The infrastructure was gone, the nation’s treasury looted.

Back from the brink

Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, once under serious threat from poaching, are now a symbol of the country’s recovery. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Smoky eyes peer through green leaves. A whiffle and the crunch of foliage. Furry figures appear, curious, calm, throat-catchingly real.

Prior to the genocide, Rwanda was known primarily as the site of Dian Fossey’s groundbreaking research into the endangered mountain gorillas. The rainforest volcanoes of the Virunga range are home to these famous “gorillas in the mist,” and although Fossey herself was murdered at her base camp in 1985, her conservation work has been revived under the current government.

Rwanda today is a boutique tourist destination, one that highlights conservationism and low-impact eco-tours, whether to the chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest or the golden monkeys of Volcanoes National Park. The habituated gorillas of the high-altitude Virungas are accessible only via a long hike, on foot, in small groups, once a day, with the visits limited to one hour.

Who knew an hour could be so short? Or so full? Gorillas lounge about amid nettles, chewing thoughtfully on wild celery, as the babies wrestle and roll. A massive silverback pushes past with a shoulder-rolling swagger, disdainful of our very presence.

After years of violence and poaching, the fragile population of these mountain gorillas has stabilized and begun to grow, and Rwanda today is at the forefront of primate conservation. “This,” Jean-Claude Munyezamu stresses, “is a Rwanda the world needs to know, as well.”

A country where optimism is now an option.

TODAY, KIGALIS IS BOOMING. Glass towers catch the sun, the skyline shimmers, shops are filled with goods, the streets are safe and clean, and the traffic — well, the traffic is chaos, but orderly chaos. Banks and businesses are popping up all over.

Rwanda’s capital is draped across a series of hills with a marshy river running through it, and as Jean-Claude and I walk down to his old neighbourhood, he points out the changes. “This road is paved now. It used to be so dusty! We would be choking in the dry season.”

We cross the Kinamba Overpass, where his cousin Melanie was tossed over the side along with other Tutsis. “She was a long time dying. They could hear her crying for two days is what I’m told.”

Jean-Claude’s mother passed away when he was young, and when his father died in 1992 Jean-Claude knew there was nothing keeping him in Rwanda. “It was oppressive. As a Tutsi, you lived in fear every day.” But Jean-Claude had a brother in Nairobi and that would prove to be his escape hatch. He scraped together enough money to bribe a truck driver into taking him across the border into Tanzania, hidden under a cargo of coffee beans, and he eventually made his way to Kenya.

He got out just in time. The anti-Tutsi pogroms had already started, culminating in full-scale genocide six months later. Two of Jean-Claude’s brothers were killed in the violence. His older sister and her baby were rescued from a church just before the killers swarmed in. She lives with that trauma even today.

In Kenya, Jean-Claude found work with an aid organization that sent him first to Somalia, then Sudan. When Jean-Claude was 24, a family friend in Canada sponsored him through the Catholic diocese in Montreal. He landed in the dead of winter.

“When I arrived it was -32 C. I grew up near the equator and when I got out of the airport it felt like the cold was sucking the air out of my lungs.” He laughs. “I wondered if I shouldn’t have stayed in Africa.”

He soon relocated to Alberta, where he worked as a meatcutter in High River. “The pay was good,” he recalls, “but it was just work and home. I wasn’t meeting anyone.”

So he started volunteering at Calgary’s Mustard Seed mission and attending ESL classes. He later worked on the oil rigs and as a taxi driver, while continuing as a volunteer with a number of community organizations.

“I ask myself, ‘Why did I survive? Why was I so fortunate?’ I’m still searching for an answer to that. But I feel like I owe something, that it’s important to give back.”

Jean-Claude attained his Canadian citizenship in 2002 and today sits on the Alberta Premier’s Council on Culture. He received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his work with multicultural youth. He is married, with three children. A father, a husband, a community organizer, a soccer coach. And a genocide escapee.

WHEN JEAN-CLAUDE LEFT RWANDA, ethnic identity cards were mandatory. Those days are gone, and it is now illegal to publicly label someone as Tutsi or Hutu. “We are all Rwandans,” is the common refrain one hears.

The country has reinvented itself as the “Singapore of Africa,” an Asian-style autocratic democracy dominated by a single party. (In the last parliamentary election, the ruling RPF won 42 of 53 seats.) Transparency International ranks Rwanda as the least corrupt nation in Africa, and the World Bank ranks it among the top 10 nations in the world in which to start a new business.

Jean-Claude finds the transformation all very . . . surreal. “After the genocide, I thought, ‘My country is finished. It’s over. Rwanda is finished.’ But this? This is a kind of miracle.”

Is he tempted to pull up stakes, return?

“Canada is my home now. All my children were born there. I have been in Canada almost as long as I was in Rwanda. So, I wouldn’t move back, but I am proud — proud of what Rwanda has accomplished. It’s good to see.”

Rwanda’s relationship with the Democratic Republic of the Congo next door is contentious and riven with brinkmanship, but the country itself is stable, economically sound. And haunted.

FOR SUCH A SMALL, COMPACT COUNTRY, Rwanda has a great deal of variety. Having visited the mountain gorillas of the Virunga rainforests (see “Back from the brink” sidebar), Jean-Claude and I drive eastward into the scrubland savannahs of Akagera National Park.

“We came here when I was a child. When there were still lions. They sometimes came into nearby villages.”

The lions are gone, but giraffes have been reintroduced. Zebras drift across thorny plains, hippos spout breaths of mist and crocodiles lurk like armoured logs in the marshy lakes. But even here, there are reminders of darker days. As we thump along the rutted roads, we pass a crumbling manor house: the summer home of president Habyarimana, whose death was the signal to start the killings. There is no escaping the shadow that the genocide has laid across Rwanda.

As our three-week journey draws to a close, Jean-Claude and I make the trek to his family village. Although raised in Kigali, he spent several years and many summers in the countryside of the Kabarondo district, next door to Akagera National Park.

We pass a church on the drive in, and Jean-Claude says, “That is where my brother Jean-Baptiste took refuge, along with others. He escaped but was caught nearby. We know who killed him.”

Jean-Claude’s brother was a prominent Tutsi in the village, and when the genocide began his family’s house was destroyed, brick by brick, torn apart and looted right to its foundation. Tutsi boys were then thrown into the family latrine and buried alive. When these bodies were later exhumed, the excavation left an open pit, overgrown now but still visible.

We stand aside this for a long moment and I realize, “Your family home is a genocide site.”

Jean-Claude looks at me. “All of Rwanda is a genocide site.”

We walk out, into the fields so he can show me his family’s land, banana plantations mainly, some of it leased, some of it being surreptitiously encroached upon, much of it lying fallow.

Among the people from the village who come out to watch us, some are undoubtedly killers. And yet, there is no anger on Jean-Claude’s part. No simmering rage, no eye-for-an-eye thirst for vengeance. Instead, he lugs a duffle bag filled with new soccer uniforms and equipment, courtesy of the Calgary Foothills Soccer Club, to the local elementary school. The village’s girls soccer team is particularly strong, and the teachers are thrilled with the uniforms and equipment Jean-Claude has provided. Many of these students would be the children of killers.

It’s a fine line, between forgiving and forgetting, between remembering the past and striving for a better future. It would be easy either to fall backward into bitterness or rush forward into selective amnesia, to pretend that none of it ever happened, to wish the past away.

“These children’s parents may have been killers, it’s true,” Jean-Claude says. “But the children are not.”

We started at the bridge that took him away from Rwanda; we ended on a schoolyard soccer field, with a visit and a gift.

Jean-Claude Munyezamu at the Akagera River. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Photographs of some of the victims at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Genocide survivor and guide at Bisesero, Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

“We are all Rwandan now.” Mixed class of Tutsi and Hutu students in Nyange, Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Brisk cross-border trade with Congo, near Lake Kivu in western Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Bicycle banana seller in the Kabarondo region of eastern Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Jean-Claude Munyezamu standing outside the ruins of his family’s home in the Kabarondo district of eastern Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Murambi Technical School, site of one of the worst massacres of the genocide. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Marketplace in Kimironko, Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Nyungwe forest, lying along the watersheds of the Congo and Nile rivers in Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Mangabey monkey, Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Olive baboon, Akagera National Park. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Zebras abound in the lion-free reaches of Akagera National Park. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Giraffes have been re-introduced from Kenya to Akagera National Park. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Battle-scarred hippo in the crocodile-infested waters of Akagera National Park. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Rusumo Falls, between Rwanda and Tanzania. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Trail guide – and guard – at the Nyungwe Forest National Park in western Rwanda, near the border of Congo. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Bullet-pocked walls of Camp Kigali, where ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed at the start of the genocide. (Photos: Will Ferguson)

Massacre site at Nyamata church, Rwanda. The clothes of the victims have been left on the pews where their bodies were found. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Skulls of victims of the genocide against Tutsis. Nyamata, Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Crypt containing the bones of genocide victims at Nyamata, Rwanda. (Photo: Will Ferguson)

Massacre site at Nyamata church. Clothes of the victims hang from the rafters. (Photo: Will Ferguson)