In my first couple of weeks here, I would think of the tragedy that happened here 18 years ago only occasionally. When I see a man using a machete to chop wood, I wonder if that instrument or those hands had once been used for something else. When I see an old woman, I wonder about what her eyes have seen. But more often that not, I think about our Kinyarwanda language lesson that day, or whether I’d have rice or potatoes for dinner, or how much work it is doing laundry by hand.
Being a political science and peace studies student at Notre Dame, I had studied the Rwandan genocide. I’d written papers on it, read books about it, watched films about it. I thought I knew what the word “genocide” meant.
After visiting the Rwandan genocide memorial on Sunday, I found out I didn’t have a clue. I have no idea what it is like to be discriminated against and disenfranchised because of an arbitrary ethnic designation made by a colonial power. I have no idea what it is like to see your loved ones violently tortured, raped, and murdered. I have no idea what it is like to live in a state of utter and complete chaos. I have never, ever suffered for a minute in comparison to what the Rwandan people have suffered.
We laid flowers on the mass grave outside of the museum. 250,000 people are buried there: only a fraction of the total number of people killed in just a few weeks in 1994. The inside of the museum was overwhelming. There is no way of sugarcoating genocide. Nor should there be. There were videos of heaps of corpses. There was a room containing only human skulls and bones of unknown victims. There was a children’s room with pictures of little kids and short bios about what they liked and didn’t like, who their siblings were and how they were killed.
I returned home and had dinner with my family, but I felt like a different person than when I left in the morning. I wondered what my Maman and Papa had gone through. They knew I had gone to the memorial, and Maman asked me how it went. The only words I knew in Kinyarwanda that could describe it was ‘sad’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ I felt tears welling up in my eyes but it isn’t acceptable for people to cry except in private here, so I managed to hold it back. Papa spoke quietly in Kinyarwanda, and I wished so badly I could understand him. He mentioned his children’s names, but that’s all I could comprehend. I took their hands in mine, and we just sat there in silence in the light of our little lantern.
The thing that gives me the most anguish is that despite the world knowing about the many genocides that have occurred in the 20th century (the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and the Rwandan genocide, to name a few) and pledging “Never Again”, there are still crimes against humanity and acts of genocide occurring today, and in many ways I feel powerless to stop it. Who am I, a 22-year-old American girl, to stop the evil and violence of the world? But how can I worry about things like whether I’m having a good hair day, or what I’m going to eat for dinner, when my brothers and sisters are suffering?
It is truly a daunting task, but it’s even worse to sit around doing nothing. I guess in many ways we can start small. These acts of violence do not happen only because of compliance, but also because of indifference. We can denounce the hatred, inequality, and discrimination going on in our country, in many different shapes and forms. We can educate ourselves on genocides and crimes against humanity going on now (like the situation in Darfur). We can sign petitions urging action against genocide with a number of organizations, like STAND and the Genocide Intervention Network.
One of the things that struck me at the museum was that the genocide immediately followed a crash in worldwide coffee prices, which destroyed livelihoods in Rwanda and created even more socioeconomic divisions in the society. Organizations like Oxfam work not only in responding to humanitarian disasters (like the famine going on in the Sahel right now), but also in preventing them by working with communities on issues like livelihoods, food security, and sustainable development. Consider donating, if you can.
And most importantly, we can love one another.
“Whoever saves a single life, saves the entire world.” –A quote on display at the genocide memorial, from the Talmud