Twenty one years ago, the world stood by and watched while over a million perished across Rwanda. For Rwandans, the genocide against the Tutsi has no equal. For survivors, it is a daily decision to live. Yet, there is a new fight, genocide denial
It’s April 7th and Rwandans remember the darkest part of our history. For survivors, the genocide is like a shadow that momentarily goes away, but when the light is at its brightest, the shadow is most visible.
Close your eyes and picture a family wedding … that uncle who always gets a little drunk and rowdy, the grandmother who is always calling everyone godless, your good looking cousin who makes the best impressions. Hear the sounds of laughter, smell the food and feel the joy of love. Now imagine every single one killed before your eyes; some so brutally tortured, raped and sodomized before their death, you cannot think of them without fainting. You try to ignore the memory of them but they show up in your nightmares.
No one is left, everyone is dead
For many in Rwanda, family weddings bring back painful memories. The world has moved on but survivors cannot. Now picture the killers. The leader of the pack is your neighbour. Your dad probably knew his dad. Your mom probably gave his sister milk to drink. Maybe he’s even your priest. Now he’s served his 18 years and he lives across the street from you. He has served his time but everyone you love is dead. That’s close proximity genocide for you.
How do you wake up one day and kill your neighbour? How does one slice open a pregnant woman to finish off future generations? How does a person or nation recover after that? Yet every day, we ask survivors to forgive so that the nation can live. Rwanda today benefits from good leaders who from the very beginning refused to continue the cycle of ethnic division. The sacrifice of survivors and the vision of our leaders is why Rwanda has risen from the ashes.
In 1998, I ran into a drunk man in an alley in Kigali. He said to me, “We must finish what we started, all Tutsi must die…” I did not live through the genocide and while it had been explained to me, I did not understand that level of hatred. The genocide did not begin in April 1994, it began in the 1930s with the racist ID cards that the Belgians imposed, and then in 1959 when Hutu extremists chose to continue this racist ideology to stay in power. Genocide is never random. It is planned and executed with precision.
The blame game
I used to ask survivors in my family why they didn’t leave, as if they had a choice. Our questions are often insensitive, blaming the victim for crimes committed against them. ‘Why didn’t you understand what was coming? Why didn’t you flee?’ we ask. When the real questions should be: Why didn’t your government protect you as a citizen? Why didn’t your neighbour defend you? How could your priest rape you? Why didn’t the world care?
And today, the blame game goes on. When we’re not minimizing the ordeal of survivors because we just can’t process it, we’re making it about us…and the orphans we help or the ‘illustrious’ books we write or the aid money that ‘saved’ Rwanda as if this somehow means we get it. And then there’s denial… the last phase of any genocide is denial.
A few months ago, the BBC released a documentary. It was meant to be controversial, you know to boost ratings and such… but really it was genocide denial at its finest. They revised the number of dead, inversed killer and victim and ignored decades of research, even first-hand accounts. The genocide is complex but never ambiguous (read a response by 38 academics & scholars here). The documentary and other forms of denial are why we cannot stop talking about the genocide against the Tutsi. Our outrage at denial must make us the guardians of history, of memory. We must write, we must film, and we must archive memory and facts.
Looking to the future
A little over a year ago, we started a national conversation in Rwanda around what it is to be Rwandan. Ndi Umunyarwanda gave people the opportunity to talk about their experiences before, during and after the genocide. The sessions were uncomfortable, sometimes painful, but they allowed people to share what is in their hearts – albeit imperfectly. Has it wiped away all our pain or fixed all our challenges? No, but it is an ongoing conversation we can now have. One that we should keep having for the sake of the generations to come.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a [permanent] attitude.” In Rwanda, we remember, we forgive, we live. Even with scars, Rwanda lives.
In loving memory of the over million who perished in the Genocide against the Tutsi. Ntimuzibagirana.