Monday, April 15, 2013

Experiencing Genocide Memorial Week in Rwanda

          In April 1994, when the killing of over one million Rwandans in just 100 days began, I was four years old and growing up in a small town in northeast Nebraska. One of the students in my English class is the exact same age as I am. But he was born in Rwanda, and is a member of the Tutsi ethnic minority group that was targeted during the genocide. While I was running around my backyard in the United States without a care in the world, my student was watching members of his family being killed in front of him by men with machetes.
            Being a Political Science and Peace Studies student in college, I studied about the Rwandan genocide. I wrote papers on it. I even took a class entirely about genocide. But studying facts and figures and dates is one thing. It's theoretical, academic, removed knowledge. There is no book or film or class that can fully portray the reality of the tragic events that happened and no way I could have prepared myself for the experience of listening to my student tell me his story or being present in my community during this week. 
           In my head, I had pictured the ibiganiro, or commemoration ceremonies, to be something like a group grieving session. I imagined there would be outbursts of emotion, crying, and screaming. I thought that there would be a reconciliation ceremony, where perpetrators would apologize for their crimes. But there wasn’t really any of that, at least in my village.

            Sunday was the start of the official commemoration week in Rwanda. It started off as usual, with church. The service was the same as always except for the last twenty minutes, when the priest called for unity, forgiveness, and healing as genocide memorial week started. A woman started crying and whimpering and was rushed out of the church. I asked the nuns why they took the woman outside, and they said it was to prevent mass hysteria and other people crying too. A shiver ran down my spine as I thought of how many people in the church were affected by the genocide: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike.
            That afternoon I went to the opening ceremonies in my sector, held at a nearby school. Leaders lit a bonfire, and several religious leaders gave speeches. One government official (I’ll call him Deo) said some words that really struck me. He talked about how before the genocide, Tutsis were labeled as inyenzi and inzoka, or cockroaches and worms, as something less than human. He went on to say that never again in Rwanda will humans be called something other than what they are; that there are no longer Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, only Rwandans.
            Deo is a friend of mine, and knowing his own personal story made his words even more potent. Almost all of Deo’s family was killed in the genocide. Many members of his wife’s family were killed. But this quiet and gentle man has been able to forgive the genocidaire that killed his family. He visits the murderer of his father and has even given him a cow, which is a huge symbol of wealth in this country. I cannot even begin to fathom the process of forgiveness Deo has gone through.  

A genocide memorial near my house
            Later in the week I went to another memorial ceremony on the soccer field in front of my house. The ceremony was filled with speeches, which I had expected, but also an element that I had certainly not expected: laughter. There, at a commemoration ceremony of a genocide, people were laughing and not crying. It threw me off guard at first. What seemed like a politically incorrect joke---calling all Rwandans “abahutsi”, a mix of the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi”---was apparently hilarious to most people in my village. I didn’t know if this was just a case of laughter being the human race’s only effective weapon, to paraphrase Mark Twain, or if it was simply nervous laughter in an attempt to keep from crying, which is never done in public in Rwanda. But I am certainly in no position to tell people how to mourn or remember such a terrible event in Rwanda's history.  
           Even though the ceremonies were supposed to be mandatory for all Rwandans, I couldn't help but notice how few women attended most of the commemoration events. I wasn't sure if this was because most Rwandan women have to farm, take care of the household, and watch the children, or if some of them chose not to come because of other reasons. One of the nuns I live with didn't attend any of the commemoration events. She didn't go to work at the health center or even come to meals at the convent. When I asked her if she was going to the closing ceremony, she simply said, "No. This is the week that my family disappeared. I'm not ready." 
           At the closing event on Saturday, one of the speakers said that the seeds of peace must be replanted in every generation. He said that it's not enough for only the people who lived through the genocide to commemorate it, but for Rwandans to work together to develop the country and to reject divisions and violence. 
            I am leaving this week having learned more about what happened in my village during the genocide and the process of forgiveness so many people have gone through, but I’m left with so many questions. How could an entire country have seemingly gone crazy overnight? How could neighbors and even family members kill each other? How could Rwanda be where it is today, not even two decades after such an atrocity? How could Rwandans forgive and seek unity on such a mass scale? How can victims go back to living next to people who perpetrated such horrendous crimes? Why didn’t the rest of the world do anything? Is “Never Again” just an empty promise? I don’t know that I’ll ever find out the answers to these questions, and I don’t know if Rwanda will either. 

Twibuka. We remember. 

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