In the verdant mountains of Africa’s Great Lakes region, amidst the bustle and good nature of its most densely populated nation, visions of slaughter don’t readily come to mind. In Rwanda, though, where skeletal remains from the 20th century’s last genocide continue to be found, a visitor naturally seeks signs.

The horrors of April-July 1994 – when almost a million ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were massacred in a mere 100 days – were the atrocious fruit of first German then Belgian colonization. The Belgians, who favoured Tutsis in their administration, introduced ethnic identity cards based on dubious notions of history and culture. The distinction became fixed in stone.

Hutus seized power in 1959, declaring independence from Belgium in 1962. In 1973, the father of Hutu nationalism, Gregoire Kayibanda, was ousted by military officer Juvenal Habyarimana, around whom extremist ideologies coalesced. In response to anti-Tutsi pogroms, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) began launching attacks from neighbouring Uganda in 1990. On 6 April 1994, amid wrangling over a stalled peace agreement, a plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down, triggering the genocide. Extremist militia, army troops and presidential guards led the carnage, but countless ordinary Rwandans joined in – armed with machetes, hoes and axes – encouraged by virulent hate radio.

Rwanda’s journey from appalling violence to apparent harmony is due in large part to the leadership of Paul Kagame, the US-trained RPF chief who defeated Hutu forces in early July 1994. Previously Vice-President and Defence Minister, Kagame was elected President in August 2003, promising multi-party democracy and ‘Rwandicity’ – a new notion of Rwandan nationalism cleansed of ethnic distinctions.

Photo: Sven Torfinni / Panos Pictures

Kagame seems to have succeeded. Rwanda has become one of those stable African countries North Americans and Europeans like to praise. In his sober, expressionless way, Kagame promotes good governance and economic liberalization. Computers and the internet proliferate. The airwaves are open to private broadcasters. A stock market is in the works.

But all is not well in this ‘land of a thousand hills’. Kagame stifles political opposition, critics say. Some worry he’s emulating his mentor, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who came as a liberator but now refuses to step aside. Entrepreneurship grows but over half the nation lives in poverty. The country's healthcare system is improving, but 20 per cent of children die young.

Meanwhile, although Rwanda’s borders are safer than those of its neighbours, Rwandan troops have intervened twice in eastern Congo (DRC) since 1994 to deal with remnant Hutu militia and renegade soldiers.

Inside Rwanda – where the horrors of genocide still resonate – the Government has revived the traditional gacaca system of restorative justice. These grassroots village courts (gacaca means grass) were set up to deal with the 100,000 people behind bars on genocide charges and render decisions vital to national reconciliation and healing.

But here again, worrisome signs abound. Ideological critics have sown doubt about government intentions. In response to anti-gacaca rumours, thousands of suspects have refused to testify or fled the country in fear. Genocide survivors and witnesses have reportedly been intimidated or killed by extremist Hutus.

And as the gacaca process unfolds, Rwanda’s deep scars have been revealed. Evidence-gathering sessions are routinely disrupted by the outbursts of trauma victims. Women who witnessed the slaughter of their families before being gang-raped are carried out in hysterics. In the pleasant months between April and early July, their wails of torment testify to the horrors this beautiful land and gracious people have witnessed.