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4 July - Freedom Not Just for America But for Rwanda as Well

03/07/2014 10:53 BST | Updated 31/08/2014 10:59 BST

By David Belton, author of When the Hills Ask for Your Blood.

July 4th - America's day of independence and freedom. It was also the day twenty years ago that the genocide was brought to an end in Rwanda - not by foreign hand but by the remarkable military campaign of the rebel army led by Rwanda's current President, Paul Kagame. The West will congratulate His Excellency for transforming the country from a physical and psychological wreck to the thriving country it appears to be now.

If you walk the streets of Kigali it seems hard to believe that a million people had been killed in less than a hundred days. The city center is clogged with new steel and glass tower blocks; traffic signals that would look modern in any US city tick off the seconds for pedestrians to cross brightly painted, tarmac roads; people drink cappuccinos in coffee bars.

I remember Kigali twenty years ago. I had reported from Rwanda during much of the genocide. We had watched the government forces leave - baying like dogs that they would return (they didn't) - and had driven around the streets like anarchists looking for survivors to interview. We found them taking shelter under corrugated iron roofs from the furious midday heat. "We are alive," they would say. Their stares were empty, thinking back to what they had lost and how they had survived.

How does a country move beyond its traumatic past and, indeed, what should it hold onto from that time? For two decades I have watched Rwanda patiently transform itself from a blood-soaked land to where it is now championed by the West as an example of the new Africa. To some extent that is right - its economic recovery has been remarkable. Kids go to school, mothers have their children inoculated, economic growth is through the roof.

But the past is being erased too by President Kagame's determination for people to leave their ethnic identities behind and unite behind a single idea - that they are all Rwandans. And when I walk the hills far from the gaze of an imperious leadership and talk to the farmers who beat out a small living from their tiny plots, they are careful now not to mention their ethnicity - such talk brings a potential jail sentence (and in Kigali one Rwandan friend of mine talks of Hondas and Toyotas) - but in the pauses and stuttered gaps I hear their need to hold to a past that dates far further back than the terrible events of 1994 - to an ancient kingdom where Tutsi and Hutu lived together, often intermarried and were buried in the same banana groves.

Philip Roth once wrote, 'Even if one is not, strictly speaking, "haunted," the past is perpetually with one in the present, and the longer it grows and the further it recedes the stronger its presence seems to become.'

On July 4th Americans celebrate their national day of liberation. But behind the flag and national anthem are stories - told by Catholics in Cincinnati, African-Americans in Atlanta, South Shore Bostonians, Italians from the Bronx and Latinos in Alberquerque. Holding onto our past gives meaning to the act of uniting behind a single flag. Thomas Jefferson believed it would produce a stronger, more self-confident nation. President Kagame - so often a visitor to the US - could take heed. His traumatized people need space for feelings and identities to be explored.

David Belton is the author of When the Hills Ask for Your Blood, published by Endeavour Press.