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Romeo & Juliet In Kigali: How A Soap Opera Sought To Change Behavior In Rwanda

How do you convince a generation of people who once slaughtered each other to reconcile? In Rwanda, a team of psychologists, writers and policymakers came up with an unusual idea: a radio soap opera.

The idea behind "Musekeweya", or the New Dawn, is to do the opposite of what the government's notorious "hate radio" did 20 years ago as it stoked ethnic hatred during the genocide carried out by Hutu extremists. // AFP/Getty Images, Stephanie Aglietti

It's one of the darkest chapters in recent history – in 1994, the Hutu-led government of Rwanda led a systematic campaign to wipe out members of the Tutsi minority. At first, the people participating were tied to the government—military leaders, local mayors and police. But soon, thousands of ordinary people were encouraged or bullied into taking part in the killing. Shopkeepers and farmers, fathers and husbands slaughtered their own friends and neighbors, using basic farm tools like hoes and machetes. Often they killed in broad daylight, in the most public of settings, like churches, hospitals, and even schools.

By the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the Hutu government, just 100 days after the mass executions began, the country was in ruins. As many as one million people were dead, including about three quarters of the Tutsi population. Many of the Hutu killers were roaming free, still living alongside the Tutsis, going to the same stores, churches and stadiums as they had before.

For Ervin Staub, a Jewish psychologist who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust in Hungary some 50 years earlier, it all seemed eerily familiar. A genocide had unfolded, and yet again, the world had sat on its hands and done nothing. And now, after a lifetime of studying genocide and how to work toward reconciliation, Ervin felt he had to act. He wanted to know, how do you convince people who once slaughtered each other to join hands and make peace? Is it possible to change a person's deepest beliefs?

His answer would take him to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. There, with a team of Rwandan policy makers and writers, they would try an unusual social experiment on a national scale: a radio soap opera.

Musekeweya is produced by Radio La Benevolencija, an NGO which works in Rwanda to help with post-genocide reconciliation, and to build a more tolerant country.

This week's episode was produced by Matthew Schwartz and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Special thanks to Jackson M'vunganyi for doing our voiceovers, and to Anuradha Chakravarty for research assistance.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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