In Rwanda, they sweep the dirt.

Women and children -- or, just as commonly in Africa's most densely populated country, women with babies strapped to their backs -- apply crude brooms fashioned from branches and leaves to remove debris from hard-packed dirt paths that connect villages of two-room mud brick houses.

Their labors leave the countryside as spotless as the teeming capital, Kigali. Rwanda is the cleanest country I've ever seen.

Just as tirelessly, Rwandans, including President Paul Kagame, are toiling to cleanse their society from the stain of an appalling genocide that murdered as many as 1 million people in 100 days in early 1994.

That process has had some stunning success. But it's come with a cost, as I learned while visiting Rwanda in November as part of a Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project.

All across the developing world -- in the Middle East, in Africa, Asia and beyond -- societies search today for a path to a just and prosperous future, hoping to finally leave behind histories plagued by oppression, poverty and factional strife.

If Rwanda can make it -- more than 69 percent of the population witnessed genocide bloodshed, according to a 1995 UNICEF report -- perhaps any long-suffering nation can.

But Rwanda today is also a reminder that each people's journey will be its own and may not always follow a model familiar and pleasing to Western tastes.

Many international observers worry that Rwanda's triumphant recovery has been accompanied by increasing authoritarianism that could convulse the country in ethnic conflict again.

The tension isn't only between Tutsis and Hutus -- the former, making up roughly 15 percent of the population, were the primary victims in 1994; Hutus did most of the killing.

There is also some simmering resentment between Tutsi "survivors," who somehow escaped the killing fields, and Tutsi "returnees," the diaspora coming back from Uganda, Burundi and other countries whose leaders now effectively govern Rwanda.

The most prominent "returnee" is powerful President Paul Kagame, who led a Ugandan-based rebel army that invaded Rwanda in 1994 and ended the genocide.

During a two-hour interview he granted the dozen journalists on the trip, Kagame downplayed the power of ethnicity in Rwanda.

"Our history is not the history of Hutus and Tutsis," he said. "It has been a history of Rwandese, but Rwandese who have diverged within the society."

The troubles, he said, owe much to "politics that concentrates on making people understand that they are different and they should be at each other because of their differences instead of getting together in spite of their differences."

Differing with this philosophy in today's Rwanda can land one on the wrong side of law. One-time presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire was being tried on six charges, including "denying the nation's genocide," "divisionism," and working with a terrorist group while we were in Rwanda.

In private, critics say ethnicity still rules in Rwanda. "Ethnic Identity -- Used as a Shield?" asks one portion of a 2008 classified U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks.

It continues: "Rwanda remains a deeply divided society, and average Rwandans still identify closely with their ethnic origins. Some Hutus argue that the massive gacaca program [village-based genocide trials], now completing the judgment of over one million (Hutu) genocide cases, like the nationwide campaign against 'genocide ideology,' which by definition only Hutus could manifest, particularly now that the 1994 genocide has been renamed 'the Tutsi genocide,' are secondarily intended to keep Hutus off balance, unwilling to serve in high places (for fear of being brought low) and generally out of office."

Susan Rice, America's ambassador to the United Nations, was more diplomatic in a speech she gave in Kigali in late November.

"Rwanda's economic vitality has moved the country forward," she said. "Social progress has been substantial. Yet the political culture in Rwanda remains comparatively closed. Press restrictions persist. Civil-society activists, journalists, and political opponents of the government often fear organizing peacefully and speaking out. Some have been harassed. Some have been intimidated by late-night callers. Some have simply disappeared."

Rice coupled these concerns with praise for admirable achievements, including per capita GDP's tripling since the genocide made Rwanda the poorest country in the world in 1994. It is now ranked as the least corrupt country in East Africa.

Kagame has cited Singapore as a development model. Economically, it's a good gambit (although he's missing a port). Politically, the tiny Asian nation is known for repression and for rarely changing leaders (Kagame denied he'd seek an unconstitutional third term, but told us he'd "be around as a senior citizen in my country to make a contribution").

As with Singapore, Kagame is banking on clean government and the adoption of English as an official language to turn Rwanda into the region's financial and information technology hub.

Right now, many things are working in Rwanda, including eco-tourism, which brings in revenue and helps change perceptions of a country most still associate with genocide.

Before 1994, if the country was associated with anything, it was primarily primate researcher Dian Fossey and the 1988 film "Gorillas in the Mist." Indicative of today's Rwanda, dynamic young leaders like the 32-year-old Clare Akamanzi, chief operating officer of the Rwanda Development Board, are turning this story around, too.

Only 595 tourists visited the country in 1995, Akamanzi said. Last year 660,000 came. Akamanzi credited a savvy strategy of using celebrities like Natalie Portman to amplify Rwanda's remake of its image.

Rwanda's government has made sure that some of the benefit gets to poor villagers.

Francois Ndungutse, 40, explained why he's switched from hunting gorillas to protecting them as head of the Ex-Poachers Association. He sees "direct benefits from eco-tourism, including schools, water tanks, roads, hotels and electricity."

But spreading the wealth is only one strategy for keeping tensions at bay. To remind Rwandans what can happen when differences dominate, multiple memorials graphically depict the genocide.

The most haunting we saw was at a Catholic Church in Nyamata, where 10,000 Tutsis and "moderate Hutus" sought shelter. All but five died.

Today, bloodied clothes are piled high on the pews. A machete and crude clubs sit beside rosaries on the blood-soaked altar. Thousands of smashed and slashed skulls fill the basement.

Overall, 41,000 victims from around the area are buried there. While we were there a farmer dropped off a fresh bag of bones he had plowed up.

Nearly everyone of sufficient age has a graphic first-hand account of the genocide. We visited the Sevota Center, which tries to heal just a few of the quarter million genocide survivors who were victims of rape. Six victims spoke with us about what one called the "culture" of genocide rape.

One woman described rapists using sticks and stones. Another remembered initially escaping by hiding under dead bodies in her church. Later, a priest turned her over to rapists. She is now the mother of a child conceived by rape, which the women said was a goal of genocide rapists.

A third woman was also impregnated and infected with HIV. She struggled to accept her child until Sevota counseling helped her.

The stories continued, each more shocking than the next, unleashing more emotion than I had ever witnessed. Each victim said she needed to share her story with a Western journalist so the world would not forget.

Later we learned that five survivors had to be hospitalized after emotional breakdowns following the session.

Such psychic wounds -- as well as physical ones, like the machete gash our bus driver received as a boy -- have scarred Rwanda, according to Dr. Joel Mubiligi, director of a clinic on the northern border with Uganda. At least 20 percent of Rwandans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

It's this context that Kagame uses to defend what many consider a repressive regime. Pressed on his human rights record, Kagame pushed back:

"Should there really be people, other people, making choices for Rwandans? ... Are we being judged in some textbook theory or something? ... How we fit into the international mass of values is something we can debate. But we are who we are, we are not going to be changed by prejudice. Not going to have choices made for us."

And therein lays the country's contradiction. Recovery and repression, hope and fear. By international standards, the smothering of ethnicity, dissent and the press raise worries that Kagame is becoming yet another African autocrat. Others, including supporters like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, praise Kagame for bringing back to life a country left for dead.

But Rwanda's future won't be shaped by international monitors or the national government in Kigali. Everyday Rwandans, like waiter, student and budding journalist Assoumani Ntakirutimana, will decide its direction.

In the back of a loud Land Rover bouncing along a rutted Rwandan road, he told his story in a near whisper.

At six he hid with his mother in a darkened room in his grandparent's home as local Hutus came by looking for the "snakes" they knew were in the house. His dad fled with his older brother and sister, never to be seen again.

Ntakirutimana admitted to anger, as well as episodes of deep depression.

"I'm just trying to be a man, to do what my father didn't," he said.

"My generation is trying to forget and look forward to the future -- the future's for us," he said. "Rwanda is trying to forget.

"When you forget, you forgive."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.