Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Rwandan Genocide Memorial and Education Centre

A Range of Emotions . . .

You make your way up the steep hill on a road that looks like any other in Kigali – a dirt wall on one side and a beautiful scenic overlook of the city on the other. However this road is different because half way up you see a large modern white house with spacious terraces that is set a part from anything else in sight. It is Kigali’s Gisozi Genocide Memorial and Education Centre – the final resting place for over 250,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus.

In an attempt to supplement this entry I would ask that you read this article to gain some of the historical perspective of what happened in 1994 and why. It is not thorough and is somewhat slanted but it at least covers a good deal of events. I will concentrate on the range of emotions that come out of the path set out by the exhibits.

Anxiety -
I knew the time to write about the Rwandan genocide would come, but I find it hard to explain in only a few paragraphs. The story is too complex to breeze over, too important to not do it justice, too recent a memory to be forgotten. Everything in Rwanda comes back to the genocide. How can it not? 1.2 million men, women, and children murdered with bullets, machetes, and clubs in less than 100 days.

Neighbor kills neighbor, friend kills friend, and family kills family. How can such acts take place? 300,000 children left orphaned. A UNICEF study estimating 99.9% of children witnessed violence (rape, torture, or murder). A youth militia death squad brainwashed, trained, and armed by the government to wipe out a piece of the population.

Sorrow -
Videos of mass graves, actual chains used to bury couples alive, skulls and bones of those murdered, thousands of photos of men, women, and children who lost their lives for simply being “Tutsi” or a “Hutu that was a traitor”. A traitor may be spared death, and was any Hutu who married a Tutsi (a very common thing) or helped/befriended Tutsis.

Mass killings took place at churches, even catholic churches. The church went as the priest did. Some accounts told of priests who died trying to make peace or hide Tutsis. Others depicted priests that rounded up their congregations in their church for shelter and then worked with the militias to slaughter their own people.

Anger over the amount of carnage and the sheer evil and vile nature of the organized killings of people based on their “ethnicity”. Anger at how easy it was to pre-register the Tutsi, block off the main roads, and then proceed house to house with death squads. Anger over the idea that one group should wipe out another. Women and children were excessively targeted as the most important aim was to make sure no new generation would emerge.

“The Tutsi and Hutu are one people, one history, and one language”. The first documented violence (occurring in 1959) between the two came as a direct result of European colonizers creating – I repeat creating – a racial division between them in form of identity cards. Historians and military call it indirect rule through divide and conquer. Despair over the fact that the French armed the extremist government after peace accords were signed in 1993. Despair over the countless eye witness stories of French soldiers getting those hiding to come out and then quickly leaving before the militia arrived. Despair over the international community disregarding eight ethnic massacres from 1990-1994. There were plenty of warning signs. It does not stop there. The United Nations refusal to acknowledge the term “genocide”, which would have legally obliged them to enter and punish the perpetrators, the withdrawal of peace-keeping troops, and the “never again” acknowledgment of their “sin of omission” all strike a resounding and familiar chord with the past year in Darfur, Sudan.

A funeral was taking place as the remains of two recently found and exhumed bodies were laid to rest at the memorial. Before the funeral the memorial became filled with Rwandans. Screams, heavy sobbing, and cries filled the rooms creating an intimate and pain filled atmosphere in which I felt like nothing more than an intruder. These were survivors. People who lost their loved ones in heinous acts and crazed ideology.

The use of the gacaca courts, a traditional tribal way to deal with transgressions. 250,000 local judges were given training on law and judicial ethics and the perpetrators of the genocide were given town hall style trials with at least 15 judges and 100 witnesses to make quorum. The most important stress is on identifying the victims (which many knew personally by name) and then establish the extent of the crime. A truly remarkable approach that has its critics but has led to starting the healing process. Click here to learn more about it.

No one in Rwanda is allowed to say the genocide did not take place. Since the genocide Rwanda has not backed down from its stance that the international community completely and utterly failed its country. It has focused on the fact that all Rwandans lived peacefully and together before the colonizers came and created the divisions. It is now known as one of the safest countries in all of sub-Saharan Africa and unity wins out over division. Moreover because it knows the chaos and pain of genocide, it has sent a piece of its army as part of the peace-keeping initiative in Darfur.


Kaija said...

What a delight it is to see that your Jesuit education "ruined" you! What wonderful and important things you're out there doing in the world. Makes us all so proud.

Well done young person.

Kaija DeWitt

WorldTeach Programs3 said...


You have been "ruined" indeed! It is so strange and amazing to read about your visit to Gisozi. I was there not quite 3 years ago--there was a funeral going on for several children who had been lately identified, crying mothers, fathers trying to be strong for their wives--and what you describe is so much how I felt when I was there. Seeing the graves and the machetes and is so much more intense than I was prepared for. But that assumes one is ever prepared to face such inhumanity, which I don't think we can or should be prepared to face.

That you continue to hope and walk and seek new and good stories beyond this huge dark presence is a wonderful thing. Keep on...

~Katie Sellers