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Editorial: Rwanda is more than this grim trial

Perhaps unfairly, Beatrice Munyenyezi has become the public face of the Rwandan genocide in recent months, at least to her neighbors in New Hampshire. Perhaps also unfairly, the Munyenyezi genocide trial has become the main thing – perhaps the only thing – many of us know about Rwanda today.

Munyenyezi is the Manchester woman whose trial for allegedly lying to immigration officials about her role in the 1994 genocide ended in a hung jury last winter. This week, federal prosecutors in Concord will try again to convict her. They believe she worked at a roadblock outside a hotel owned by her husband’s family, participating in the violence that engulfed the nation – personally ordering killings and even shooting a nun in front of a cheering crowd. Her lawyers say that she was pregnant and holed up inside the hotel at the time, not a participant in the mayhem.

The events in dispute happened nearly 20 years ago. If proven, they are horrific in their cruelty. The passage of time and the significant language barrier are only two of many factors that make the task of lawyers for both sides challenging. And for those of us following the trials at arm’s length, the proceedings present a fairly one-dimensional view of the country and its people. Consider, after all, that Rwanda has also been home to:

∎ Immaculee Ilibagiza, a genocide survivor whose autobiography, Left to Tell, recounts her harrowing escape and how her Catholic faith led her to compassion toward the Hutus who killed her family. The book sold 250,000 copies across the globe, and she has since become a notable inspirational speaker on the power of faith and forgiveness.

∎ Paul Ruseasabagina, a hotel manager who hid and protected 1,268 refugees during the genocide. His efforts were captured in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda.

∎ Benjamin Sehene, an author whose work – fiction and nonfiction alike – grapples with the causes of genocide.

∎ Cousins Gerard Urayeneza and Vianney Ruhumuliza who recognized one of Rwanda’s biggest problems today – a desperate need for better medical care – and are working to build Rwanda’s second medical school, with hopes of keeping aspiring doctors within their own country to care for their neighbors.

∎ Newspaper editors Agnès Uwimana and Saidati Mukakibibi, who are serving long prison sentences on charges they defamed Rwandan President Paul Kagame and incited violence. Their crime: The women published a series of brave stories criticizing government policy, examining the murder of a journalist and pushing for justice for those killed in the genocide.

∎ Adrian Niyonshuti, a young athlete who lost six brothers to the genocide. He represented Rwanda in the cross-country mountain bike race during last summer’s Olympics in London.

∎ Lucie Umukundwa, a journalist forced to flee Rwanda after threats on her life that followed her bold questions at a government press conference.

∎ Madeleine Nyiratuza, a Rwandan environmentalist leading one of the most ambitious reforestation projects ever attempted in Africa.

∎ Cecile Kayirebwa, a popular singer known by her first name, who worked to bring Rwandan music to the wider world. Her vocals can be heard in the 2006 film Shooting Dogs.

∎ Sonia Rolland, a lovely actress whom movie enthusiasts might remember from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Rwanda was home to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the world, a brief but ghastly period from which the country has yet to recover. But alongside the perpetrators of unspeakable violence there have also been brave writers and scholars, artists and athletes hoping to show the world another side to their troubled country, to bring to justice those responsible for the crimes of the past and to improve life for fellow Rwandans today. That, too, is worth remembering as American lawyers this week again grapple with the confounding case of Beatrice Munyenyezi.

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