“It is painful to remember. It is impossible to forget.”

I’ve read a number of books about recent Rwandan history since I found out in mid-June that I was coming to Rwanda. These books have names like Machete Season, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families, and Shake Hands with the DevilMaybe you’re getting the idea that recent Rwanda history has been marked by tragedy.

In brief, during the colonial period pre-existing societal distinctions — Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa — were codified as rigid racial groups and pitted against each other both by the Belgians and then, after independence, by other Rwandans. Before long, large-scale ethnically motivated massacres were occurring periodically throughout the country. Ethnic violence occurred in 1959, 1961, 1963 and so on throughout the decades until civil war broke out in October, 1990. The first and second presidents of Rwanda implemented policies that were openly discriminatory against Tutsis. The violence and discrimination combined to create a growing Tutsi diaspora.

The civil war which began in 1990 was instigated by the invasion of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Forces) led by current-president Paul Kagame. The civil war was concluded by peace accords signed in Tanzania in early April 1994. Flying home from the signing of the peace accords, on April 7th, 1994, the president’s plane was shot down and he died. Within fifteen minutes roadblocks had been set up a key points within the capital, Kigali, and the genocide had begun.

The genocide lasted about one hundred days, ending when the RPF gradually conquered territory and halted the killings. The RPF took over Kigali on July 4, 1994. In the three months of the genocide, around 1 million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed. Many, many women were raped, many, many children were orphaned and the government and infrastructure of the country were deeply damaged.

All this happened only eighteen years ago. No part of the country was free from genocide violence. So, virtually every citizen of the country was impacted in some way and the majority witnessed violence, participated in the killings or had some violent act perpetrated against them. No crisis counseling or PTSD treatment was ever provided on a national or regional scale, neither immediately following the genocide nor in subsequent years when millions of Rwandan refugees returned to the country from neighboring nations.

In just my limited experience in Rwanda so far, I can count some brushes with genocide history:

  • The town I’m living in during training is mentioned in the book We Wish to Inform you… The mayor here supervised roadblocks at which individuals targeted for killing were detained and taken away to be killed. He also personally killed a number of Tutsi residents of the town.
  • The church which my host parents attend was the site of a massacre during the genocide. Local clergy encouraged villagers, including members of the congregation and teachers at nearby schools to take refuge in the church and killed them there.
  • My language teacher was a refugee from Rwanda in the DRC as a child. He was also one of the many refugees to return to Rwanda after the RPF take-over in July. He returned in August, 1994 at which point there was no infrastructure — sewage, electricity, hospitals, police, fire, etc. — and corpses still littered the streets.
  • There is a mass grave containing tens of thousands of bodies at my permanent site where I will move in December. When I visited in early October they were in the process of digging more graves. The volunteer I’m replacing speculates that they will be used for remains which will be re-buried during the annual genocide memorial week observed each April.

So, to summarize, the entirety of Rwandan society was deeply marked by this conflict. And, indeed, Rwanda’s current drive for development and the end of its dependency on foreign aid is a result of the genocide because President Kagame, the driving force behind the country’s current course,  began his career as a Rwandan-in-exile who came to power as leader of the RPF.

But, Rwandans are known as a private and introverted people. I know I’ve only been here a short time but I find it hard to get some idea of the inner life of the average Rwandan and having that to be able to empathize and gain some intimacy with them.

I have questions: How do you deal with the pain and memories each day? What do you think could have been done by Rwandans to prevent the genocide? What do you think of the country right now? What needs to be done for Rwandans to live with each other honestly and peacefully? What are you teaching your children about the genocide and other Rwandan history?

I don’t really expect to get answers to these questions. Nor do I think I deserve to be able to ask them to hurting people simply by dint of living here.

I’m finding it difficult to synthesize and articulate my thoughts on the subject so let me end with the Bible verses that were running through my head when I was at the genocide memorial in Kigali pictured above:

You have heard it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Matthew 5:21-22



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