Today is 7 April, Genocide Remembrance Day. It’s a public holiday in Rwanda and Kigali is bereft of sound.
I could say that it’s an eerie thing, waking up to birds as usual, but nothing else. No cars, no motos, no lawn mowing, no chopping, no chatting on the streets, no human life. It was expected — everyone told me today would be this way, but I didn’t believe it until I didn’t hear it.
It wasn’t until 1pm that voices other than ours were even a thing and that was because the people moving into the house downstairs just arrived for a tour. Bad timing to be moving in this weekend? Perhaps. Awkward, anyway.
Today, every year since 1995, the entire country of Rwanda shuts down between the hours of 7 am and 5 pm. No one is allowed to work, no one is allowed to drive. It is a long day for quiet consideration of the past, the present and the future.
I was obviously not in Rwanda during the Genocide. I was 12, watching the sparsely covered killings on late night news in the US, sandwiched between the Kerrigan/Harding, Whitewater and OJ scandals and reruns of Cheers. I was watching White House reporters talk about non-involvement in Rwanda; watching UN leaders focus discussions on the aftermath of Kosovo, the aftermath of Somalia, but not the civil war in Rwanda. At that point, for months even, we couldn’t have understood how radical the events were on the ground.
Of course, that is nothing a trip to Rwanda during the lead up to the 100 days of mourning won’t help to sort you out. 100 days of mourning for 100 days of slaughter. Can you imagine 100 days of slaughter?
Two days ago I finally visited the Genocide Memorial and Museum. I’ve seen the documentaries and the films. I knew what I was in for. It is not an easy or comfortable visit. And there, right at the end, is a chilling exhibit remembering the children that were killed. A picture of Chanelle, age 8, favorite activity (running), loved TV and music, favorite food (chocolate), hacked to death by machete. A picture of Filette, age 2, favorite toy (doll), best friend (dad), loved rice and chips, thrown and smashed against a wall.
No one can ever fully understand human behavior in the moment. People, humans, are easily swayed, easily corrupted, they easily and often blindly follow. During the 100 days of slaughter, those doing the majority of the killing and maiming now talk about that time as if they had been hypnotised — they understood radio and printed information from the party and from the extremists to be true. There was so much (mis-)information pouring in from so many angles that to not act, to resist maiming, raping, torturing or killing the enemy meant the same fate could befall you. So you followed the rules, you followed the leaders, you acted. And when the streets were so full of blood and the nights were so quiet all around the country, only then, could you see what had truly happened — what you had instigated, carried out, gone along with or didn’t try to stop.
It was 24 years ago today that the execution orders were given.
Since 1994, many people have been tried and convicted for war crimes and murder and other violent crimes during the genocide. Both at the national and at the village-level (see gacaca.rw for information about an interesting, valuable community justice system with its own pros and cons), the Genocidiers have been sentenced to jail or service time to repay the victims for the crimes they committed. But convictions and sentencing, as many can attest to, never fully heals the hurt on either side of a crime. Genocide never benefits anyone, not the killers, and certainly not the victims.
So, each year, a country which has seen incredible social, cultural, technological, health and educational development over 20+ years, stops everything for one day, and allows a nation to remember the hurt. It also allows the people to acknowledge that the younger and new generations deserve a united and peaceful country in which they can grow and thrive; to reflect and commit again to work together as a nation which refuses to be held back by a blighted past; to recognize the distance between then and now and to see all of the good and positive that has occurred since — and is still gaining momentum as I type.
Even though life stops around the country for a few hours on 7 April, life in Rwanda did not stop with the Genocide, it shifted. It moved forward and struggled and overcame. It bred a new generation of thinkers and creators and people with more ambition and more entrepreneurial spirit in their eyelashes than most people have in their entire bodies.
In every village (Umudugudu) across the country, there will be events today to commemorate the Genocide.
This afternoon, Rwandans and friends of Rwanda begin a week of participatory, communal activities to remember and reflect on the atrocities that claimed more than a million lives over 100 days in 1994. They begin this with a Walk to Remember, which I will join, which moves from Parliament to the stadium over a couple of hours and which, as one woman reported to The New Times (Kigali news), is necessary because, “During the Genocide people walked a lot looking for safety; [and] we have to walk in remembrance of that horrible experience.”
This year’s theme is “remember, unite, and renew” will celebrate how Rwandans — not Tutsis, Hutus or Twas, but Rwandans — have rebuilt their lives so far, and how they have moved and continue to move forward.
I didn’t know how I would feel being in Rwanda during such a precious and delicate time of year; but I can say now that I’m glad to be here and to be a part of it.
* * *
I just returned home from the memorial vigil at Amahoro Stadium following the walk to remember. My heart, brain and legs are heavy. Nevermind that the original Amohoro Stadium was the location where thousands upon thousands of refugees had gathered inside to take refuge during the war, only to be summarily torn apart by grenades thrown into the stadium or by gunshot through various fences and gates. It was hard to sit there without imagining it all.
The vigil was powerful, unlike anything I’ve witnessed in the past. Imagine if you will a funeral, but in a stadium where you are surrounded by 30,000 mourners and families and friends of mourners. 30,000 individuals compelled to gather in one place for 2+ hours of speeches, poems, storytelling, songs, and apologies.
I don’t know anywhere else on the planet* where people convene to hear a woman talk at length about her harrowing experience during the 100 days of slaughter, only to be followed by a convicted Genocidier, apologizing for 20 minutes, naming every man, woman, child — every aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, nephew, niece, son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, neighbor, cousin, friend — that he remembers killing 24 years ago. Apologizing for each of them and praising those that were spared (even those that he spared) for their resilience. Talking about a better human, a better future, a better world. Asking, pleading with the friends and the families of those he killed to forgive him.
They do this. They come here. Every year. Every year, they share, and listen, and wail, and cry, and fall and get carried away by their emotions and carried out by many caring, strong arms and loving faces.
It is easier to truly understand a person’s feelings about something that happened to them if it also happened to you. This is natural. This is human nature. But, with a bit of empathy and openness, sometimes, all you need to do is sit with someone (or 30,000 someones) and listen and, while you don’t feel the loss or the horror or the pain the same way or near to the same intensity as they do, you do feel and you do mourn and you do understand. And you do cry.
Then you leave the stadium and you wait for the guards to open the gates to the street and a crowd is gathering and thickening and you feel scared. You remember the stories you just heard. You remember the horror, and the pain, and the panic. People are unpredictable. Suddenly, people are moving in ways that make you uncomfortable. They are moving in waves, trying to push through and over the fences. We all want to go home. Police are pushing them back — pushing you back. An ambulance works its way through the crowd and again you are in a wave of movement and you are stuck ebbing and flowing. But as your anxieties heighten, as you feel the intense urge to turn back, flee from the crowd, find an open space and watch from afar as everyone leaves the gates before you, an old woman and her grandson turn to you and she smiles and takes your hand and says, “Okay,” and he puts his arm around you and you feel loved and you can’t imagine how much hurt she has endured tonight and through the last decades. You can’t imagine how many times the grandson has heard her stories. Her resilience makes her strong and allows her to care about things greater than this moment, or that horrid moment years ago, and you put your head on her shoulder and you get it. You feel at home.
To all the victims, the survivors, and families of victims and survivors, yours was an unimaginable trauma to endure and I am proud to see the nation you have become in spite of it. You are in my heart tonight and I honor your resilience and your ability to still love, and trust, and give, and move forward.