23 – Remember Twenty-five years ago

23 – Remember Twenty-five years ago

When you hear “Rwanda”, you may well think of the genocide that happened there in nineteen ninety-four. Perhaps you have seen the film “Hotel Rwanda”, watched documentaries or read articles about the atrocity that occurred. Before going there, when we heard “Rwanda” we too thought of the Rwandan Genocide.

Now, when we hear “Rwanda”, we think of what a beautiful country it is and how lovely and friendly its people are. We think of its cultural heritage (see article N°24) and its colourful art (see article N°22).

Though it is important not to define Rwanda by its tragic history, it is important to remember it. For we cannot avoid future monstrosities if we do not understand the past.

Kwibuka25: Remember 25 years ago

The Campaign Against Genocide Museum is found within Kigali’s Parliament building. As the name suggests, it campaigns against future genocides by educating the public on how the Rwandan Genocide began and the events leading up to it.

It is crazy to think genocides are possible, especially within our lifetime. Many have occurred in the past and sadly, they will not be the last. Thankfully there are museums such as this one and organisations like the “Aegis Institute (UK)” and “Prevent Genocide International” which help understand the causes and consequences of genocide.

Propaganda against Tutsis fuelled the Rwandan genocide. In newspapers and radio broadcasts, Tutsis were represented as the number one public enemy and a threat to Hutus. It was shocking to see the same kind of terms and images used in Nazi propaganda just sixty years after the Holocaust. Proof that history can repeat itself when fear is used to manipulate the masses.

We were struck by how quickly it all escalated. After the Arusha Peace Talks, the President’s plane was shot down, then the UN Belgian Peacekeepers were murdered. Three months later, over eight hundred thousand Tutsis (and Tutsi sympathisers) had been massacred by Hutus.

It was impossible to stay neutral. The whole population either became an attacker or a victim. Whilst walking the streets, we could not help but think that everyone around us over the age of thirty was probably involved in the massacres. Surrounding countries were also affected, becoming refugee camps for those who managed to escape.

Sadly, many did not manage to escape. One of the things that hit us most was a photo of expats (and UN personnel) being evacuated in a pick-up truck, whilst the surrounding Rwandans begged them not to leave. The international community failed to act. Even when the UN commander, Roméo Dallaire, warned the world what was happening in Rwanda, no one came to their rescue.

The museum explains in-depth how the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame (now President), managed to “win back” the country. It also explains how the French made things worse by helping the genocidal forces to escape into the DRC (Operation Turquoise). Since then, the relationship between France and Rwanda has been very tense. In 2008 Rwanda changed its official language from French to English. We have found that most people prefer to speak English with us, though the older generation speak better French than English. Things are slowly improving between the two countries and Rwanda recently signed a marketing contract with PSG (the Parisian football team). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKyeQXPHjP4

We finished in the museum and were led onto the roof by a guide. As our eyes adjusted to the light, everything we had learnt spun around our heads. Bullet holes tarnished the building’s façade – a permanent reminder of the fratricidal war. The view was breath-taking, though it was difficult to imagine the surrounding hills echoing with gunshots instead of birdsong.

The Genocide Memorial Museum was different to the Campaign Against Genocide Museum in that it was a lot more emotive. It began with a short documentary of Rwandans describing how their families where murdered (sometimes by their best friends!) and how they managed to survive.

The museum touches on the history between Hutu and Tutsis, but unlike the Campaign Against Genocide Museum, it concentrates on testimonies, photos and videos. It is difficult to put into words what these people suffered. We walked from room to room in silence, flooded with emotions: sadness, seeing how these lives were broken; fear, knowing that humans are capable of such horror; anger, that it was allowed to happen. Some images were too difficult to look at, forcing us to turn our heads. It was devastating to see that there was no refuge – even churches became slaughtering houses.

The numbers in our heads were given faces as we entered a room filled with photographs of victims. A lot of them were wedding photos. Another room was filled with clothing and personal possessions of the dead. Besides that, victims’ skulls and bones were neatly lined in a row. All practically identical – how is it possible to create differences between us which motivate to kill!?

The most harrowing room was plastered with photos of children (sometimes only a few weeks old). Below each photo was the child’s name, age, favourite food and favourite thing to do. Beneath that was a brief description of how they died. The brutality of their deaths besides their smiles and cuttings of their personalities was heart breaking. We left with tears in our eyes.

Amongst the horror, was also beauty. We were moved by the stories of people who had risked their lives to help Tutsis. One Hutu had created a hide-out for Tutsis in his garden (a hole, covered with planks with sweet potatoes growing over the top). Damas Gisimba, a director of an orphanage, hid and protected more than eighty adults and three hundred children. Sister Hélène Nayituliki hid dozens of people in her school. Félicité Niyitegeka helped numerous people escape the massacres and paid for it with her life. There were countless others…

Some of the victims’ names at the mass burial site

After visiting both museums, we were most moved by the power of forgiveness. When the genocide ended, the people had to find a way of moving on, of rebuilding the country. Communities launched their own courts called Gacaca. The guilty would come before the village and the remaining members of the family that they had killed, and would ask for forgiveness. These courts were key to helping the country recover. Survivors were told where their family members bodies could be found. Perpetrators were able to confess their horrific acts and to be forgiven.

Now there are no Hutus or Tutsis in Rwanda. There are only Rwandans. On the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans come together to work on community projects such as building houses and cleaning the streets. It’s called Umuganda. Of course, they have not forgotten their past, but they have chosen to forgive and to work together to build up their country. It is amazing to see how far the country has come in the past twenty-five years.

2 Replies to “23 – Remember Twenty-five years ago”

  1. Amazing. Forgiveness requires such incredible strength and has to be one of the most powerful forces for good. Very moving account. Thank you x

  2. Wow. Superbly written. These are powerful thoughts – harrowing yet there is hope. Wow. Touched by just reading. ♥️

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