AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Mathilde Mukantabana had just taken a teaching job at a California university when she learned her parents and much of her extended family had been killed in the genocide. Seventy members of her family died. Mukantabana is now Rwanda's ambassador to the U.S. and she says, for her, the annual commemoration of the genocide is a way to continue healing.
AMBASSADOR MATHILDE MUKANTABANA: There's an element about the genocide that is very isolating because even if they die in a plane crash, you lose all your family, but there are family members who come and they are able to hold you, right? In this case, there was no one to hold anybody. We're left with nothing tangible to show you, aside from the bones that were able to carry. So why do I think that commemorations are important? It's when you really find that you are not by yourself.
CORNISH: Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana now turns her focus to the achievements the country's made since then. In the last few years, a million people have been lifted out of poverty. Child mortality has dropped significantly and the majority of the country's legislatures are women. But the country still faces a question of identity. One way the government's tried to deal with that is outlawing the formal use of ethnic identities.
Ambassador Mukantabana says ethnicity shouldn't matter in Rwanda's future.
MUKANTABANA: When I was growing up, I carried that identity and it determined my chances. That's why I was kicked out of my country was when I was not even a teenager.
CORNISH: As you were a Tutsi.
MUKANTABANA: Yeah, people came and they just kick us out from school just based upon that identity and because we're Tutsi. One of the - really the prerequisites for reconciliation was to look at how divisive that had been in our in society, ridding to killing. A card could make you killed. We didn't want our new generation and future generations to ever to go through what we have been through. We want to be Rwandans.
CORNISH: At the same time, people look at the Rwandan government and they don't see any Hutus at the highest levels and there's been criticism about the ability of opposition groups to have a voice in the current government. Are there concerns you're going to alienate this part of the country and put Rwanda's progress at risk?
MUKANTABANA: You know, this is not really true. You know, our population is such a way that now we don't specify who you are because of the outlaw of that identity card. Justice is served when you look who is who, you know, people are participating. I'm not going to go and say these are how many Hutus are in the government because we don't mention those kind of stuff. But what I can tell you is that in my country, in Rwanda, there's no discrimination based upon ethnicity at all.
CORNISH: I want to raise one more thing with you then. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has said that Rwanda's crackdown on human rights is more destabilizing than stabilizing and here she was talking about handling of opposition leaders and jailing of journalists. What has been your response to that?
MUKANTABANA: As we try to rebuild, there's also a movement that doesn't accept that type of a narrative that's being pushed. We are talking about the people who are in the opposition. And it's not really very surprising. And at the same time, we have found a forum in Western countries because there are many. The positive aspect of it is that especially genociders who are in this countries now are being targeted.
There are some who have been tried here, some who have returned to the country. But you can imagine if that ideology is in Europe, the people are there, some of the countries have started to just recently to try those people, what they decide they are going to do. And it depends on who is listening.
CORNISH: So you're saying that genocider(ph) people connected with the genocide people living abroad, are fueling these criticisms?
MUKANTABANA: They are fueling the criticism. And then, anybody who is going to be in the opposition for any reason, he finds a breeding ground for that kind of criticism. They don't have an constituency in Rwanda.
CORNISH: Do you see, going forward for Rwanda, a time when it's multi-party rule, when it is a broader coalition of people who help govern the nations?
MUKANTABANA: Today, Rwanda is a multi-party rule. Let me tell you one of the things...
CORNISH: But the current government has the majority of the seats and linked parties have the next, have the next seats.
MUKANTABANA: Right. But, you know, let me tell you. So far, if it's open, no one has presented another program that is appealing to the people. If they do, right, people are espousing this ideology because it serves them. It empowers them. Once that party, instead of going and throwing mud on what exists, if they present it with a program, then we can talk. But you can't just come with promises of better things when you are not really offering anything. It's like almost giving you a bucket of water. Show me what you're going to give me as the people of Rwanda.
CORNISH: Going forward, what do you see are the challenges that Rwanda faces?
MUKANTABANA: The biggest challenge is that we have to continue that journey we have embarked upon of heart-to-heart conversation without people.
CORNISH: Heart-to-heart conversations.
MUKANTABANA: Yes, where we really have to assess what makes us Rwandans, what's good for all of us? We have the way that people are doing it. Young people are doing it, our leadership is doing it, our professors are doing it but it's a journey.
CORNISH: Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MUKANTABANA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.