This is the second time I’ve been to the genocide memorial ceremonies in my small village in southwestern Rwanda. Twenty years ago starting last week, a genocide that killed approximately one million people in 100 days started. During genocide memorial week, there are daily ceremonies to remember the terrible events of 1994. Work stops for several hours each day as Rwandans in every village across the country take time to remember their loved ones and to work towards forgiveness, reconciliation, and a peaceful future.
I have never witnessed genocide, but I have witnessed its effects in so many different ways in Rwanda.
I live in a country where one of the first questions people ask me is if I have parents or not. Not what their names are, or how old they are, or where they live. If I have them or not.
I live in a country everyone over the age of 20 in the room fits into one of these categories: perpetrator, victim, bystander, witness, refugee, survivor, genocidaire.
I live in a country where grey and white genocide memorials dot the landscape.
I’ve seen the x-rays of Sr. Agnes’s legs, her bones crushed into smithereens from clubs wielded by the Interahamwe, and kept together by pieces of metal inserted by doctors in Belgium.
I've seen the way that the events of 1994 have affected people's demeanor here, from sometimes being secretive and reserved for seemingly no reason, to laughing at others' pain, both in real life and in movies, because they don't know how to react otherwise.
I've listened to the experiences of my friends and neighbors here. I've walked with my friend Jean to the grove of banana trees where he watched his entire family slaughtered in front of him.
I've seen members of my community with both physical and emotional scars from the events of 1994, struggling to forgive and heal.
This is my experience of the genocide memorial week in my village. I omitted Wednesday and Friday from this list since there were no official ceremonies, only umuganda, a community-wide service activity.
Monday, April 7
Memorial week started with mass at the parish nearby my house. The priest, Fr. Janvier, spoke about the need for reconciliation and forgiveness in Rwanda.
Around nine in the morning, the nuns, a few nurses, and I piled into the health center’s beat-up Land Cruiser, which serves as our ambulance. As we drove down the bumpy dirt road towards the school, Sr. Beata handed me a small triangle of plain grey fabric to fasten around my throat. Grey is the new color of genocide memorial week, symbolizing ashes, and as we arrived at the school where the remembrance ceremony would be held forty minutes later, I found several other people with the small grey scarves around their necks and wrists. The school desks were pushed tightly together in the simple school auditorium, and the room was about halfway full when we arrived.
Even at half capacity, the room was stifling, and beads of sweat started to roll down the back of my neck. After the auditorium filled up a bit more, the program started with introductions. There were a few local government officials, some soldiers, and several clergy members from the different churches and the mosque in my village. The pastors, priest, and imam all led prayers in kinyarwanda and blessed the week's events.
When the introductions and prayers finished, everyone slowly ambled back outside into the piercing sunlight to sing the national anthem and then to light a fire, which symbolized both ashes and rebirth. Our social affairs official grabbed a glass Coke bottle full of gasoline and poured it over the firewood. The fire roared and soon the smell of burning gasoline filled my nostrils.
We headed back into the auditorium, and as I scanned the room, the faces of my friends and coworkers jumped out at me: teachers at the school by my house, nurses at my health center, the priests from our parish, students from my community English classes, civil officials, my neighbors. We were all there, in one hot, nondescript room.
As usual, there was little display of emotion at the ceremony. Perhaps this is because it is a fairly top-down affair, with the memorial ceremonies being planned by the government and led mostly by local officials and soldiers, or that in my experience, Rwandans do not often show very much emotion. Public crying is a social taboo, even for children. I counted two women daintily dabbing their eyes during the ceremony, out of perhaps two or three hundred people. If I didn’t know about the somber occasion for the ceremony and didn’t understand Kinyarwanda, I would have assumed it was simply a routine gathering.
A few leaders made speeches about the week, and then they turned on a tv at the front of the room to watch the official genocide memorial program at the national stadium in Kigali. This was an upgrade from last year, when we simply listened to the president's speech by radio.
The ceremony started off with Rwanda's Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, who gave a speech in English and then introduced foreign dignitaries and delegations from across the world. She was followed by a Rwandan man who told his personal story of surviving the genocide (in kinyarwanda). Though the camera did not move from the podium, you could hear the screams and wails from the crowd in the stadium. They were followed by President Musevenyi of Uganda, Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the UN, and President Kagame himself. There was a dramatic dance performance with thousands of performers who re-enacted Rwanda's history, from the colonial era to the genocide and its aftermath. At one point, the thousands of actors re-enacted the actual killing, lying sprawled across the field in the stadium. The screams in the stadium intensified, even as the actors were "saved" by the army and singers began to sing about healing and reconciliation. Watch the ceremony here.
It was a bizarre situation, to be in a room full of Rwandans, listening to their leaders speak about the events that happened in Rwanda, mostly in my language (most people in my village speak broken English at best). Later that night, the nuns asked me what Ban Ki Moon and Musevenyi said, since they couldn't understand it and there were no subtitles.
I came back to the convent hot and a little dazed. D'Assisi met me in the courtyard, jumping up and down and asking me to blow bubbles with him. It was slightly jarring, coming from a memorial ceremony commemorating the death of hundreds of thousands of people, to scooping up my favorite five-year old Rwandan in my arms. At five years old, he was born into post-genocide Rwanda. He has certainly heard the kinyarwanda words referring to the events of 1994, but he is too young to know what they mean. As a child abandoned as an infant, he has no idea whether he is Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa. He is only umunyarwanda, a Rwandan. I stroked his hair and hugged him tight, hoping that neither of us ever has to know the real meaning of those words.
Tuesday April 8
We worked in the morning at the health center, and then everything in my village stopped in the afternoon. Stores closed, only a couple nurses were left to operate the health center, bicycles and taxis left the road. A slow drizzle started, and I met up with my sitemate Leah to attend the ceremony in our community's multipurpose room.
My mind recalled the specific kinyarwanda jargon used during this time of the year. Kwibuka, to remember. Icyunamo, a remembrance time/ceremony. Kwica, to kill. Jenoside, genocide. Abatutsi, abahutu, abatwa. Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa. Urwibutso, a memorial.
Every year the government sets a theme to genocide memorial month, and this year it's "Kwibuka, Twiyubaka", or "Remember, Unite, Renew." Most of the organized talks during the week centered on this theme. Again, local religious leaders, some government officials, and a couple of soldiers were seated at the front of the room and did all of the talking. I remember going to the ceremonies last year, and mentally compared them. This year, a lot of the talks seemed to be about rebuilding the country and developing economically. Another theme that was brought up multiple times was the impact of colonialism and how much divisiveness it caused in Rwanda society.
One of the strangest things, to me, was that there were no youth at this ceremony. About half of the Rwandan population was born after 1994, and the average age at this program was probably 40. Rwandan schools are on holiday the entire month of April, so I knew it wasn't because the youth were in class. I know that youth receive some education about the genocide and unity at the Itorero national youth programs conducted every December, but it seemed like a missed opportunity for additional education and reflection. But perhaps there was some other reason I wasn't aware of.
Like the commemoration on Monday, if I didn't know the somber theme in advance, I would have had no idea it was a meeting about genocide. One of the leaders in particular had the entire crowd laughing. But perhaps if they didn't laugh, they'd cry.
The agaseke, or peace basket, was passed around, and everyone gave a few francs. Our local officials told us that the money would be going to assist genocide survivors, from building new houses for widows, to helping to pay school fees of orphans.
Thursday April 10
On Thursday afternoon, Leah and I walked across the football field in front of my house to the ikiganiro, or discussion. Chairs and a few benches were set up on the grass underneath the tall pine trees near the church. The benches filled up and women in their bright igitenge fabric started sitting on the grass in the shade.
A local teacher read off a prepared script drafted by the government, as did all of the leaders. "What is genocide?" he asked the crowd. "What is genocide ideology?" I almost felt like as I was in a school, as villagers around me raised their hands to offer answer to his questions.
Another local official went through a "rebuilding plan" for the country, which including fighting against genocide ideology and seeking national unity. As with most of the ceremonies, there was little input from the crowd, but at one point a leader asked the group, "How is your life better now than it was before the genocide or right after the genocide?" Someone responded, "We have unity now." Another person answered, "We are developing. We have roads and schools and health centers." Another person said, "We have peace and security in Rwanda."
The leader talked about economically developing the country. He mentioned the importance of buying health insurance, fighting HIV and malaria, education, Rwanda's plan for economic development, called Vision 2020, and even family planning.
They also discussed the Ndi Umunyarwanda campaign, which means "I am Rwandan." Its goal is to get Rwandans to identify with their country as a whole rather than as a Hutu or Tutsi or Twa. The man leading the discussion told the group, "We all have the same blood. Before the colonial period, we were united. Hutus and Tutsis married each other and had families together. We all want to work towards development of our country."
As we listened to such heavy lessons, kids played soccer on the field right behind us. It was a sign of just how much things have changed. We might have been commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, but the youth of this country are looking to make the future of this country different than its past.
Saturday April 12
It was already dark when I arrived at the bonfire across the football field. I could barely make out the figures huddled by the bonfire. As Leah and I joined the circle, I recognized several familiar faces by the flickering light. I noticed almost immediately that the group of 50 or so was almost exclusively men. A stout man was making a short speech when we arrived, and then we all sat in silence for a long time. Occasionally, someone would get up and adjust the logs on the fire, causing sparks to fly in all directions. A few people started to play scratchy-as-hell music on their cellphones. It could have been some kind of adult summer camp. It was hard to tell how much time had passed. Eventually, a local official concluded the bonfire with a short speech on continuing to reflect and remember, and then he asked if anyone had questions or comments.
A man sitting on the bench to my left started mumbling a few questions, and the crowd laughed. The official asked him his name, and he said it quietly. He continued talking, getting louder and louder. A murmur ran through the crowd. It quickly became clear that the man was either drunk, crazy, or both. I silently willed him to be quiet. The local official pulled him out of his seat, and walked with him outside the circle of benches, out of view. This was definitely not part of the scripted dialogue they had been given. The crowd hushed, and then the wails started. Loud, blood curdling screams rang out in the dark. People got up from their seats to help subdue the man, and the cries only became louder. He was screaming and crying for them to take him to our convent. At one point the man tried to run, and soldiers led him away in the dark towards the health center, still screaming.
Sunday April 13
After church on Sunday, everyone--young children, mamas wearing their brand-new babies on their backs, old men walking with canes--walked over an hour to get to a genocide memorial I had never visited, off a gravel road, surrounded by pine trees. It was Palm Sunday, and many people were still carrying their green palms. It was a foggy, cold day, the kind of damp chill that gets in your bones no matter how many layers of clothing you're wearing.
A small tented area had been set up, with tattered UNHCR tarps supported by branches and rows of wooden benches lined up beneath it. A couple of my friends were setting up a sound system. Soldiers in full camouflage, carrying their massive guns, and a number of policemen in their navy uniforms were already surrounding the area. Soon the loud sound of the generator starting up and the smell of burning gasoline filled the air. Next to the tented area was the genocide memorial itself, a small brick structure painted grey.
A huge crowd gathered; perhaps four hundred people or more. There was only space on the benches for less than a hundred; the rest of the crowd stood shoulder-to-shoulder. The ceremony started with a procession to the memorial. Someone started to sing a hymn about mercy and forgiveness, and gradually everyone chimed in as we slowly circled the building. The nuns brought flowers from our garden wrapped up in chiffon fabric and ribbon, and we laid them on the mass grave inside the memorial. All around me people paid their respects and placed flowers and candles on small metal slab that separated the living from the dead. There were widows, with grey hairs peeking out from underneath their headscarves, and orphans my same age. There were no tears, just eyes welling up privately, solemn faces, and squeezes of hands as a gesture of support.
As one of the officials spoke, a man started screaming and charged into the crowd, scattering bystanders around him. Soldiers ran over to calm him down and carry him away from the ceremony. It gave me goosebumps to think about what he must have been imagining.
A young, well-dressed woman who looked about my age took the microphone. She was only a few words into her speech when her voice broke and tears started the roll down her cheeks. A murmur went through the crowd. It was the first time that I really, truly saw anyone cry the entire week. The woman fumbled in her purse for a pair of sunglasses and quickly put them on. She continued with her speech, about how her parents were murdered in the genocide, while tears still made their way down her cheeks.
It started to drizzle, but no one left the ceremony. Soon the outside of the tent was filled with bright, multicolor umbrellas. Several choirs made up of orphans, now in their 20s, sang songs about reconciliation, remembering, and forgiveness.
After four hours of speeches and songs, we headed back to the convent in the health center's beat-up old ambulance, stuffed to the gills with all the people we could carry. As we would drop a passenger off, the nuns would comfort them with the words, "Mukomere, mwihanganye." Be strong, be patient.
Genocide memorial week may be over, but for the next 100 days, this country will will still be commemorating the one million lives lost in 1994. Be strong, be patient, Rwanda.
I live in a country that has a dark past.
But I also live in a country that has a bright future.
I live in a country that has transformed itself through constant economic growth.
I live in a country that has the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the entire world.
I live in a country where 98% of children attend primary school, the highest rate in Africa.
I live in a country that is ranked one of the best countries in Africa to do business.
I live in a country that is slowly healing, person by person, community by community.
I live in a country where the youth are incredibly hopeful for their future.
It's important to read about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the racist ideology promoted by colonialists, and the aftermath that continues to influence events and politics in the Great Lakes region.
We should all remember the failure of the international community to prevent or to stop the genocide twenty years ago.
We should never forget the victims of the genocide, or fail to help the survivors still living with the terrible memories and physical scars of the violence.
We should all finally learn from history, and stop saying "Never Again" when we keep allowing it to happen again: the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda. There are no longer any excuses for inaction.
But also, we should also realize that there is so, so much more to this small country in the heart of Africa than just the genocide.
There are skyscrapers, a 3D movie theater, pools, clubs, shopping malls, nice restaurants.
There are stunning national parks, and a magnificent coastline along Lake Kivu.
Twenty years ago, there was Hotel Rwanda. Now there are five star hotels.
There are gorillas and chimpanzees.
Rollings hills, lazy rivers, and towering volcanoes.
Coffee and tea.
Art and music.
There is beauty, and there is joy.
If you're interested in learning more about the Rwandan genocide and media coverage of the 20th anniversary, here are a diverse selection of articles to start you off:
To see what Rwanda looks like today, check out this gorgeous short film (you won't regret it!)