[Trigger warning: there are some horrible things discussed in graphic detail below. If you are inclined to avoid that type of stuff, I suggest you stop reading here.]
April 6th, 2014 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day campaign that saw the slaughter of 800,000+ people and was only halted when an invading militia successfully stopped the carnage. As anyone who has studied modern African history knows, or even anyone that has just watched Hotel Rwanda knows, the Rwandan genocide was fast, calculated, and unbelievably violent, the culmination of years of hateful vitriol spewed by the Hutu majority at the Tutsi minority. I’m not going to discuss the genocide in great detail in this post; it’s well-documented, and many people have discussed the events with more eloquence that I can. Ive included several links throughout this post for further reading by those with more expertise on the subject at hand. But I do feel compelled to share some thoughts and relate a few personal stories from my visit to the country.
Katie and I, along with Katie’s dad Garry and stepmother Holly, visited Rwanda in July 2013. Let me say first and foremost: Rwanda is a beautiful, welcoming country. The people are not monsters; they are just people, albeit people with a terrible history. I loved Rwanda, but it is a country of great paradox: astounding beauty intermixed with this tragic legacy. I posted pictures of the gorillas and the landscapes, but I kept mum on anything that dealt with the genocide. I needed to process it more. I just didn’t know what to say. It was a lot to process.
I have personally done a lot of research on the Rwandan genocide. But reading about the genocide pales in comparison to seeing the bones of the victims in front of you. Or to seeing picture after picture of the victims displayed in exhibits, the photos brought to be part of these memorials by the survivors so that their family members would not be forgotten. Or to hear the wails of a woman pierce the walls of the Genocide memorial in Kigali, full of a grief that two decades had yet to heal. It is hard to imagine, as we walked down the city streets of Kigali, greeted by friendly passersby, that less than two decades before the same streets were filled with the bodies of innocents slaughtered simply because of an ethnic rivalry that wasn’t even a salient difference a few decades before that, created and exacerbated by colonial meddling.
To Rwanda’s credit, they do not whitewash their painful history. There are genocide memorials in pretty much every town we visited, and these memorials drive home how wide-spread and far-reaching the genocide was. Katie and I were fortunate enough to visit four memorial sites during the week we were there. We visited the the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital city, the most formalized museum to address the event. It is one of the most potent and powerful museums I’ve ever seen. As I said earlier, I'm familiar with the events and the atrocities, but holy hell there were some images in that museum I hadn’t seen before, images and stories that I will never forget it.
In the days leading up to our being joined by Katie’s dad and step-mother, we had some time to sight-see, so we hopped on a bus and headed out to some memorial sites. We cruised about a half hour out of Kigali, then hopped on motorcycles to visit the two church sites where massacres occurred. These two churches are still filled with the items and belongings of those that were massacred. At the Nyamata site, a church where people sought refuge from the killings, it was 10,000 people killed as they huddled inside; at the Ntarama site, another church, 5000 people were killed. At these sites there are rooms displaying skulls and piles of bones, as well as glasses, old clothing, pots, pans, anything that people brought with them assuming they would return home in a few days time. The walls are full of bullet holes, one wall at one site had holes from grenades, and one site had a big black stain on the wall that we were told was made by brains and blood of children. All these things serve as physical reminders what happened. One day these items will wither up and be gone, but for now, they just sit there, unmoved. Photographs were not allowed in the buildings, but you could photograph the outsides.
A few days later, Katie and I and her parents visited a site called Murambi, a site where approximately 40,000 people were murdered as they sought refuge on the compound of a technical school. This site is one the country’s most shocking and powerful memorials: 24 rooms full of mummified bodies, preserved and bleached white by lime. There’s no glass case or velvet rope separating you from the dead; the rooms are just full of tables with the bodies spread out on top of them. You can tell what some of them looked like. Some still have hair. Some are babies. I went in 6 rooms and decided that was enough. At this site, our guide was a man who survived the genocide, though his father, mother, and several younger siblings did not. He calmly recounted his memories- I will not repeat them here- and we just listened in stunned silence. Katie’s stepmom, Holly, finally asked if he ever got angry about hat happened to him. He simply replied that his surviving younger brother now had a master’s degree, that he himself was married with children and was living on the land where his parents were murdered. “The best revenge is success,” he told us. “I’m alive and my life is good. There’s no reason to be angry.” Astounding.
I found myself walking the streets in Kigali and the villages around some of the parks we visited and looking at each person I passed and thinking “They’re old enough to remember. I wonder how many loved ones they lost?” These thoughts continued for several days, until suddenly a switch was flipped in my mind and I realized with a chill that these people smiling at me as I passed might not be survivors, but perpetrators. Maybe they didn’t kill someone themselves (but maybe they did?) but perhaps they aided and abetted the “genocidaires” in the rampage. How do they rationalize what they did? How can they live with themselves? And how can survivors again become neighbors with those that treated them as enemies?
Well, that’s the big question, and one that is providing remarkable stories of forgiveness. As this is the 20th anniversary, there are a number for stories about how both victims and perpetrators come to terms with their shared histories. Here are a few articles that address the process of reconciliation and the enduring trauma from which many survivors still struggle. Obviously, the aftermath of an event a traumatic as this is difficult and takes time and energy to recover, to heal from wounds both physical and mental, to turn neighbors that became enemies back into neighbors. To even attempt this type of social recovery from trauma is impressive. Time will tell if the process can truly heal old wounds. Twenty years or not, these wounds are still fresh and deep. Below are several articles addressing this issue:
Portraits of Reconciliation, by Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine, April 2014
How Rwandans Cope With The Horror of 1994, by Lauren Wolfe, The Atlantic, April 2014
Unreconciled Rwanda, by Katie Magiro, for Slate.com, April 2014
Regardless of what the future holds, the turnaround of Rwanda is an amazing story. When the genocide ended twenty years ago, around one million were dead, and several millions had fled to neighboring countries such as Zaire and Tanzania, meaning almost half the country’s population was either dead or in exile as refugees. The government was non-existent and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Today, Rwanda has had steady growth in its GDP, Kigali is a safe city with excellent infrastructure, and many people will tell you that the past is behind them and that the future is promising. It’s an amazing reversal of fortune. And a lot of that has to do with the leadership of Paul Kagame, the current president. But that leadership is a complicated story.
Kagame has been described as a “benevolent dictator.” Make no mistake: Kagame has a tight grip on his country. And while his accomplishments are impressive, making him one of the West’s most favored African leaders, he is not without his critics who make some pretty serious charges against him ("benevolent" is not a word they would use). Below are two articles that critique his time as President as well as delve into his involvement in other regional conflicts. He’s a complex figure, and these articles are worth a read.
The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman, by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times Magazine, September 2013
The Case Against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, by Howard W. French, Newsweek, January 2013
A few final thoughts: One of the major criticisms that is (rightfully) lobbed at the major players on the world’s stage is that the United Nations (and especially the West) did not intervene when there was clear evidence of what was to come. Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN Peacekeepers on the ground in Rwanda in the momths prior to and during the genocide, repeatedly attempted to spur the UN and other nations into action because he had reliable information about a planned extermination; the United Nations took no real action based on the information Dallaire provided. (Again, the genocide was a long, calculated undertaking, starting years before the actual killing began with the training of the interahamwe, which were essentially murder militias).
Hindsight is 20/20 and numerous world leaders (from President Clinton to Kofi Annan at the UN) have stated their remorse at their lack of action. (And let’s not talk about France’s complicated role in the events; Rwanda has a very bad relationship with France, as France armed and trained the Hutu military prior to the start of the killings). But I’m not really sure that major international intervention would have stopped the killings. It definitely could have saved hundreds or thousands of lives- of that I am sure- but I cannot imagine that simply putting peacekeepers on the ground would have erased the level of hatred that had been bred in the country. An intervention years before could have made a difference, but by the time outsiders realized what was happening, the damage was done. When I was visiting the genocide museum in Kigali, I was struck by just how deeply the “rot” had penetrated the entire culture of Rwanda by the early 90’s. It makes me wonder if there was any way to truly reverse the course that the country set for itself without the explosion of violence that happened, or if the only way the country could purge itself of its illness was to tear itself apart and then take a hard look at itself in the mirror and recognize the horror it sees in its reflection.
Luckily, with these genocide memorials in
every town across the country, for better or not, there’s quite a lot
of mirrors into which people- both victims and perpetrators, as well as
the rest of us- can gaze.