It’s been a month since I wrote Part One of my Rwanda trip, and I apologize to anyone who cares that I haven’t been on top of my writing lately. I got a call last week from my aunt who told me that she and my granny were eagerly awaiting Part Two, so it’s nice to know that I have at least two fans out there…who are bound to me by blood to love anything I do. I am currently in Lilongwe, Malawi and I’ve been so busy here so it’s hard to keep up with the blog, especially when I don’t have much Internet access outside the office. So here it is, for Auntie Jenni, Granny Julie and anyone else who has been eagerly awaiting Part Two (hi, Dad).
Rwanda died in 1994. In Part One, I detailed the essential facts of that death. Now, I will tell you about Rwanda’s rebirth.
In the wake of the genocide, the country was in ruins. Aziz Mwiseneza, associate advisor at the Rwanda Governance Board and a new friend, explained to us that after genocide, “Rwanda was dead.” Even the people who survived were dead; they were breathing but the life inside them had been ripped out of them. The international community had abandoned Rwandans and they were left broken and alone. It was during that time that the country had to make a collective decision whether to stay down or get up—“we needed to find the courage to live again.” And somehow, they did.
The country is filled with survivors as well as perpetrators. In fact, almost everyone in Rwanda over the age of eighteen has a story to tell: some of survival, some of regret. We met many survivors during our time in Rwanda; one of them was actually a Hutu man, named Charles*, who is a good friend of Jonathan’s (the young guide who organized the trip). Charles—in his early-sixties—he has a kind face and a genuine interest in the people he meets. He hardly speaks English but constantly tried to get to know Sigal and me. He loves to keep busy and is constantly building additions to his beautiful home in the Kigali. He has a thing about his house, you see—sort of an obsession. Charles grew up in a mostly Tutsi community in western Rwanda, the son of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. He married a Tutsi girl; they had 3 daughters and moved to Kigali, where Charles became a businessman who bought and rented property to tenants. His friends were mostly Tutsi neighbors and for this the Hutu community shunned him.
In 1990, he was arrested and imprisoned in solitary confinement for 9 months for being an RPF collaborator. The thing is, he had never even heard of the RPF. In 1992, when civil war resumed, he and his family went to Kenya, where they lived for two years. After the Arusha Accords in January 1994, the family returned. Upon his return, Charles became increasingly interested in the RPF as he was a big supporter of the peace process. He would invite RPF members to his home for dinner and drinks and talk with them about current events amongst other topics. He never saw any differences between Hutus and Tutsis. His “blindness” led to constant death threats and Charles and his family were placed on a list of ‘Hutu traitors’ who were to be killed when the right time came.
On April 6th, 1994, Charles was listening to the radio when he heard that the President’s plane was shot down; he immediately knew what this would mean. Within hours, the Interahamwe showed up at his door and his moderate Hutu neighbors allowed his family to hide in their home. After a few days, Charles borrowed a car and placed his 3 daughters in its trunk, while his wife lay on the floor covered in blankets. He bribed his way out of Rwanda and into Burundi and then Kenya, thanking God the whole way that his family did not have to witness the streets filled with bodies and blood. Charles left his family in Kenya to return to Kigali when it was liberated. He arrived at his gate to find only ashes where his beautiful home once stood. As he searched through the rubble, he discovered the bodies of his tenants. He called his family and told them not to return—they only did 3 years later, in 1997.
Many Tutsi survivors looked down on Charles’ wife, seeing her continued marriage as a betrayal to her people, even though her husband had saved her and her daughters’ lives. She began an affair with a Tutsi man and left Charles; though they have been separated for years, they never got a divorce. They continue to share custody of the girls and Charles still financially supports her. He rebuilt his house and never stops adding onto it. He rarely leaves his home, for the fear that something might happen if he does.
As previously mentioned, there were many ways survivors needed to rebuild their lives and the process had to start with justice. After the genocide, there were over 120,000 alleged genocidaires who needed to be tried and imprisoned. For those directly responsible for the planning and implementation of the genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established. The tribunal tried cases of crimes against humanity and war crimes, both violations of the Geneva Conventions. But not all perpetrators were responsible for carrying out the genocide on such a grand scale; most were villagers who listened to orders to slaughter their own neighbors. For those people, a different system of justice was necessary.
In a ten-year period between 1996 and 2006, courts tried approximately 10,000 suspected perpetrators—a rate that would make the process last more than a century. The courts realized that a specialized system of justice would need to be created in order to address the problem. They came up with the Gacaca courts, a faster and less expensive system, which aimed to promote moving on from the past. From 2005 until 2012, genocidaire trials were held under the Gacaca system in over 8,000 courts throughout the country. Here’s how it worked: a trial would be held in which the accused would be confronted by survivors and victims’ family members in the village the crimes were committed in. Defendants could either confess to their crimes or argue their innocence; if they did confess, their sentences would be shortened. They were encouraged to seek forgiveness from their victims’ families and sometimes the confessions allowed families to find out how loved ones died and where they were buried. Each court had nine judges that could sentence criminals up to life imprisonment, but not the death penalty.
Many survivors were deeply offended by the justice, or lack thereof, put forth by the Gacaca trials; they found the system trivialized the brutal crimes committed by the perpetrators. They disagreed with the idea that perpetrators would be allowed a plea bargain for confessing to their crimes, believing this created a lack of genuine guilt and remorse. There are also people who argue that there were many benefits to the Gacaca trials as well: it delivered truth to many who sought it for years and it allowed survivors to confront the perpetrators who murdered their loved ones.
Though there are some Hutu survivors, like Charles, the genocide affected millions of Tutsis and so there are many more stories of Tutsi survivors. Aegis Trust is a U.K.-based genocide prevention and awareness organization that does incredible work in Rwanda. One of the projects they fund is a village in Kigali that supports widows and orphans of the genocide, both financially and emotionally. Freddy Umutanguha, the director of the Genocide Memorial Center (this trip was his brainchild), arranged for us to meet one of the widows who lives there. Sigal, Jonathan and I were escorted to the village by a 24 year-old young woman named Beth*, who was raised in the village by her mother and who now works for Aegis. When we first arrived, Beth introduced us to Sophia*, who welcomed us into her home with her 18 year-old son, David. Sophia is a beautiful woman in her late thirties, but she looked frail which was most likely due to her HIV+ status. We must have sat in her small living room for about 20 minutes, awkwardly filling the silence with minute commentary. We could tell she was reserved about sharing her experiences with us and we were certainly apprehensive about pushing her so we waited. I can’t remember what triggered it, but eventually she started talking. “I had two children,” she began, looking at David.
Before the genocide, Sophia had a husband and 2 babies: a boy and a girl. She is a Tutsi who looks more like a Hutu, but at the time she didn’t know the difference between the two. When genocide arrived at her village in the spring of 1994, her husband was killed by the Interahamwe, who then came for her and her children. She lied to them, insisting she was a Hutu, hoping they would spare her and her babies. An Interahamwe officer replied, ‘you may be Hutu, but your children are not,’ referring to her husband’s heritage. He then grabbed the baby girl and threw her against a nearby wall, killing her instantly. This is where Sophia stopped with her story. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she explained—though no explanation was necessary.
She said (as translated by Beth), “It’s hard to talk about…people look fine on the outside but on the inside there is a wound and talking about it is like digging something sharp into that wound.” Later she said that when people from outside Rwanda come and speak to her, it somewhat allows her to talk about those things she doesn’t want to talk about, which helps heal the wound in a small way. The seemingly contradictory remark makes sense to me. For many people, it’s easier to talk about their issues with a stranger rather than with a loved one; a stranger may pass judgment, but that judgment matters less so. Perhaps Sophia notes the importance of teaching others of Rwanda’s disturbing past, and so she compels herself to speak, though she yearns to remain silent. Or maybe, like she admitted, she simply knows talking about what happened to her is a healing process like no other. Either way, her mixed feelings toward post-genocide life in Rwanda are evocative of a nation trying to move forward while remembering the past.
Since 1994, the Rwandan government has made massive efforts to encourage peace and reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis. If you think about what post-Holocaust Poland would like if all the Jews stayed, you would have Rwanda. Yes, many Hutus fled to nearby countries such as DRC and Burundi, but many stayed. Rwanda is filled with people who have every reason to hate one another. There are still Hutus that live next door to Tutsis and Hutu children sit next to Tutsi children every day in school. But, if you ask most Tutsis, they would never allow their child to marry a Hutu—and can anyone blame them?
Let’s return to classrooms, where the young minds of the future Rwanda are molded and shaped. Before 1994, critical thinking was not taught in schools. When you wonder how neighbors could easily kill neighbors because they were simply told to, the answer lies in the lack of such training. Nowadays, the Rwandan government has put an emphasis on the subject, hoping the impact will be significant. But what about the genocide itself? How can the government possibly teach genocide to the sons and daughters of both genocidaires and victims? Won’t the hatred simply be perpetuated when one classmate learns of what the other’s father did to hers? The government was just as concerned about these issues after the genocide and in fact did not teach history in the general curriculum until 2011, seventeen years later; thus, they are still working on exactly how to teach the subject of genocide in classrooms. Throughout our trip, this is probably the one thing that stuck with me more than anything: how can they move on without ignoring the past? But how do they move forward without knowing where they came from?
Pushing forward too far and too fast—without grieving, acceptance and understanding—can be a very dangerous thing. Rwanda has pushed forward more than most of its neighbors—in fact, Rwanda is the second-fastest growing economy in Africa. Even after seeing large aid cuts in 2012, Rwanda is the 9th fastest growing economy in the world. Rwanda has made incredible advances in technology and trade and prides itself on its anti-corruption initiatives. Even when we tried to get the Rwandan price to see the famous Rwandan gorillas with our connections (foreigners pay over $500), we didn’t stand a chance due to their no-tolerance policy on corruption. The government is also very concerned with girl’s and women’s right, making sure that all young women have access to education. While its neighbors are still fighting civil wars and unrest due to corrupt leaders and unstable governments, Rwanda has flourished. This is a country, that just 19 years ago, was “dead.” Now, it’s thriving and shows no signs of slowing down. I only hope that Rwanda’s people are growing together, instead of apart; but 19 years is not enough time for some wounds to heal. Perhaps, if people can find a way to educate the next generation about the past and for the future, there can be true peace and reconciliation in this miracle country.
On our last night in Rwanda, we had dinner with the former Chief of Staff of the Rwandan military, Lt. General Caeser Kayizari. Jonathan asked him to tell us the one thing he’d want us to take away about Rwanda. Kayizari replied: “Rwanda has a destiny. After the genocide, both sides lost their dignity; if you lose your dignity, you die—you have no value. Rwanda died in 1994. When you survive people trying to wipe you off the earth, you have to rebuild and become strong; not just physically, but you must also rebuild a strong character and that is what Rwanda did. Rwanda has a destiny—keep track of it.”
Note: There’s something important I wanted to add to this post, but it didn’t quite fit in with what I wrote so I’ll add it here. I’m pretty sure the first time I learned about the Rwandan Tutsi genocide was when I ditched school with my best friend, Rebecca, to go see Hotel Rwanda in 2004. I’m sure many people became aware of the genocide the same way. I learned on my trip that Paul Rusesabagina’s account of what happened in the Hotel Des Mille Collines is almost completely false. “Among those who dispute his heroism are survivors who had taken refuge at the hotel, as well as hotel staff who were present during the genocide. They have all contested Rusesabagina’s purported heroism and their testimonies are on record.” He required a fee for Tutsis who wanted refuge in the hotel, while those who could not pay were put in the courtyard and not allowed inside. People even claim that he was working with the Interahamwe to make money off the Tutsi refugees and planned to keep them there until the Interahamwe would no longer need them alive. Paul Rusesabagina is persona non grata in Rwanda and lives in Belgium with his family because he is banned from Rwanda. When asked why the Rwandan government never publicly disputed the facts portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, First Lady Jeannette Kagame replied that most people didn’t know or care about Rwanda before the movie was released.
*Name has been changed