College of LAS « Illinois

Global Studies

Turning Weapons into Weed-Cutters

Illinois instructor tracks Rwanda’s transformation.


Timothy Wedig was in Rwanda this past June, walking through the capital city of Kigali, when he spotted a man by the side of the road, swinging a machete.

“I instinctively thought, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing?’” says Wedig, an LAS lecturer in global studies. He immediately associated the machete to the genocidal violence that tore Rwanda apart in 1994. The machete had become a terrifying symbol, for it was the weapon that the Hutus often used to murder their Tutsi neighbors during ’94.

“But then I realized that the man was simply cutting grass beside the road,” Wedig says. “I walked past him and said hello, and that’s the difference today. Today, Rwanda is much more than the genocide. Clearly, the genocide should not be forgotten. It’s part of the country. But Rwanda is so much more.”

Wedig’s interest in Rwanda goes back to the massacre in 1994, when he was about to begin graduate work at the University of Maryland in international political economy. At Maryland, he was a graduate assistant with the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, which maintained a relationship with Rwanda, and he worked on early warning systems to monitor impending conflicts.

Wedig continued his relationship with Rwanda throughout his career, and today he integrates it into the classes he teaches at Illinois on international humanitarian intervention as well as negotiation and diplomacy. Two years ago, his Illinois students were even given the unique opportunity to pose questions to a worldwide panel of United Nations staff, Rwandan officials, and a genocide survivor during a videoconference.

This year, Wedig went to Rwanda as one of about 50 international attendees at the International Conference on Governance and Democracy, and he saw the changes there firsthand. It’s been a dramatic transformation, he says, especially considering the condition of the country after the 1994 genocide. According to Wedig, at least 800,000 people were massacred over the span of 100 days, and that amounted to roughly 8,000 people murdered each day.


“With 9/11, 3,000 people died,” he says. “So Rwanda essentially experienced two and a half 9/11s every day for 100 days, and the world did nothing. That’s a failure of governance, a failure of the international community, and it was unthinkable.

“So how do you repair a country that’s undergone such an experience?” Wedig goes on to ask.

One of the first steps that Rwanda took was to dispense with “ethnic IDs.” Since the late ’90s, the national ID cards no longer specify a person’s ethnicity, he says.

As violence receded, genocide trials began in 1996, and a reconciliation process that continues today had its genesis. The reconciliation process worked on three levels, Wedig says. The ringleaders behind the Rwandan genocide were tried by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal, while secondary leaders were tried in the country’s national court system. Low-level participants in the massacres went through Gacaca, a traditional system of justice in which the accused face their victims before elders in their communities.

Through Gacaca, which began in 2001, some people were sentenced to prison, but others had to do community service, depending on the situation. After all, Wedig says, some Hutus had been compelled to participate in the violence because of threats to their families.

Gacaca was necessary because of the sheer numbers, he points out. “You’re talking about at least 120,000 people awaiting trial for the genocide and many more that had participated at some level. So to go through a formal court process for all of them would have taken more than a hundred years.”

The Gacaca process came to a close this year, and the country also released its Rwanda Governance Board report during this summer’s conference. Wedig’s role at the conference was to participate in a panel brainstorming ideas on how to maintain communication among academics, policy makers, and nongovernmental organizations in Rwanda and throughout Africa.

Rwanda is moving in the right direction, he says. Transparency International ranks it fourth in controlling corruption among sub-Saharan countries, the government is comprised of both Hutus and Tutsis working together, the streets and countryside are safe, it has the highest proportion of women elected to Parliament in the world, and the economy is growing steadily.

But memories linger. Wedig was especially moved by the story of two sisters who fled their village as young girls during the ’94 massacre, knowing that Hutu militia members were hunting them down. The girls ultimately became separated and did not know what happened to each other until they reunited in the United States.

“They just kept on running, knowing that no amount of running would make them safe,” Wedig says. In the Rwanda of 1994, he adds, “You couldn’t run far enough.”

By Doug Peterson
September 2012