Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to neighboring Tanzania across the Rusumo bridge in 1994 (UNHCR / R. Chalasani / 1996)
It became a tragic international symbol of Rwanda’s genocide and the subsequent flight of hundreds of thousands of people.
Photographs beamed around the world in 1994 showed an unending stream of several hundred thousand refugees fleeing across the bridge at Rusumo linking Rwanda and the comparative safety of neighboring Tanzania.
The swirling waters of the Rusumo Falls and Akagera River below the one-lane bridge were clogged with the bloated bodies of other victims.
Today, the ‘new’ bridge at Rusumo is again symbolic – but this time testament to a far more hopeful and prosperous future for this entire region of central and eastern Africa.
In late 2014 Japanese and local experts put the final touches on a US$30 million grant aid project by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to build a new bridge at Rusumo, access roads, truck parks and immigration and customs areas.
Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and the new bridge is already carrying an average of 150 heavy trucks and tankers each day from Tanzania – the equivalent of 50 percent of Rwanda’s import needs.
In fact there are now two bridges at Rusumo – the old one-span bridge with all its memories of a catastrophic era, and the new two-lane bridge, side by side.
Japanese and Rwandan engineers at the old and new bridges at Rusumo, side by side
Each component of the new bridge was carefully manufactured in Japan, shipped to the Tanzanian port of Dar Es Salaam and then hauled halfway across the continent by a fleet of 64 trailers, according to resident Japanese engineer Hitoshi Kameda.
As many as 900 persons per day worked on the project, welding together the new bridge just yards away from the old one, and a new era was born. The narrow gauge bridge, for instance, could sustain a total load of 56 tons. The new two-lane structure can absorb 400 tons at any one time.
The bridge itself is the center of a far more ambitious project, the creation of a so-called One Stop Border Post (OSBP) complex here.
For decades Africa’s economic progress has been seriously hindered by chaotic transport, immigration and customs facilities at many border crossing.
Because of delays that could stretch into days or even weeks, African officials estimated that transportation costs alone were 2½ times higher in Africa than in Asia and Latin America and the continent was losing billions of dollars in economic growth each year.
Since 2009, JICA has helped to develop the OSBP concept and build complexes in several African countries, including most recently at the Rusumo bridge. Two complexes have been built on either side of the bridge, but vehicular and pedestrian traffic will only have to pass via one of them.
New technologies have been introduced, building complexes constructed, customs and immigration officials trained, necessary legal documents introduced and access roads and parking facilities built.
The new system could reduce waiting time from days or weeks to a matter of hours. “This could help solve Africa’s border nightmare,” said Kameda.
He had another pleasing moment from the project. “The Minister of Infrastructure told us that of 120 recent projects, this was the first one to be completed on time,” Kameda said with a chuckle.
Building a new bridge at Rusumo to carry the bulk of Rwanda’s imports(JICA / Takeshi Kuno / 2013)
The new bridge at Rusumo and new customs and immigration facilities between Rwanda and Tanzania