TOPICS: Rwanda’s advice: Talk isn’t cheap

As the world considers how to help Iraq and other war-torn nations rebuild themselves, we’d do well to observe efforts under way in Rwanda. Like other countries shattered by extreme violence, Rwanda faced tremendous obstacles to stability after the 1994 genocide killed almost 1 million Rwandans. And there were no traditions of democracy to build on.

Yet this July, we saw the democracy-building work of “dialogue clubs.” In the five districts where dialogue clubs have been active since 2003, they have promoted reconciliation, made possible new means of economic cooperation and development, and fostered new engagement by parliamentarians. They’re part of Rwandans’ efforts to strengthen civil society, which they recognise as crucial for national unity, democratic values, and enduring political institutions.

Dialogue clubs have been organised by the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace (IRDP), a Rwandan NGO, with the help of the international NGO Interpeace. The clubs meet several times a month to discuss on creating a future for comm-unities torn apart by the genocide, which was orchestrated by the extremist Hutu power against the minority Tutsi population. Peace was restored, but survivors and perpetr-ators of mass killings, rape, and thi-every continued to live side by side.

Each dialogue group is made up of ordinary men and women who lost family in the genocide as well as those with family members accused of genocide crimes. Most participants are subsistence farmers, but each group also includes teachers, merchants, and local administrators. A facilitator, selected and trained by IRDP after canvassing of the local constituencies, moderates discussion in each group.

The iterative debate by and between local groups and national leaders creates a culture of public discourse that improves communication between the central government and provincial groups. Lawmakers are seeing the necessity and benefits of being responsive to the concerns of their constituencies - national leaders have developed an agenda based on club discussions.

These steps may seem small. We in more mature democracies take public debate for ranted;

talk has become cheap. But for a country ravaged by ethnic violence, it has been crucial to the rebuilding process. Democracies are predicated on mutual trust. The sustained interactions of the dialogue clubs are helping Rwandans to rebuild that trust.

In a Club meeting that we attended, an elderly woman interrupted the discussion. “I can no longer be a part of this club,” she announced. Another member had accused her family of stealing a cow during the genocide. As others in the group tried to calm her anger, a neighboring farmer took the floor. “For some time we have been working together, we have been feeling as one,” he said. “If we can do that, we can surely discuss charges that your family ate someone else’s meat. You should remain a member of the club, and we’ll discuss and resolve this problem.” — The Christian Science Monitor