Shadowed by Tragedy: Rwanda strives to rise above a history of horror
One of the most notable characteristics of the Kigali Memorial Centre is its simplicity: a small fountain; a stone courtyard; some gardens with water fixtures flowing through them. Most striking, perhaps, are the plain, long, brown slabs of brick marking the graves of 250,000 of the men, women and children who died in Kigali in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Beginning in April of that year, and continuing for 100 days, Hutus, the nation’s ethnic majority, killed an estimated one million Tutsis, the minority, as well as many moderate Hutus. The memorial center here is one of six national memorials throughout the country, each marking a past that is as crucial to remember as it is difficult to discuss.
The mass grave here remains open, in part, and through a wide plate of glass visitors can view a gray cloth with three white crosses stitched onto it. Nearby, there is an arrangement of yellow roses bundled with a piece of tulle and adorned with a ribbon on which someone has written in blue marker: “Never Again.”
Rwanda is a country that longs to be known for something other than the genocide, and over the past 20 years, the nation’s government has worked hard to replace that reputation with a more positive one. In many ways, it has succeeded. Rwanda has made dramatic advances and now ranks among the cleanest, safest and least corrupt countries in Africa. Yet its deepest wound is one that cannot be healed by superficial changes.
The challenges to peace building after the genocide were numerous: the killings resulted in an estimated 500,000 widows and three million refugees; thousands of others were disabled and traumatized by the violence and their personal experiences. The population was deeply divided and suspicious of one another; the country’s judicial system was destroyed, as was the economy and much of the infrastructure. The inflation rate was 65 percent, and the country lacked necessary administrative capabilities. It quickly became clear that rebuilding the country would take more than bricks and mortar.
In 1999 the Rwandan government established the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Now, 14 years later, in a dimly lit conference room in a government office building, Deogratias Nzabonimpa, the director of administration and finance, says that the commission aims to “unite Rwandans without regard for differences” and to allow equal rights at all levels of society. These days it is common to hear someone say, “We are one Rwanda.” Rwandans no longer present themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, and it is impolite at best to inquire about such matters. So much remains unspoken.
The commission hopes to achieve this national sense of “Rwandanness” through “memory, truth, justice, confessions and forgiveness” by 2020. To help achieve this goal in the not too distant future, the commission has drawn on Rwanda’s rich past. Many of the government peace-building initiatives build upon traditional, precolonial practices. “We are coming back to our homegrown approaches to restore social cohesion in our daily life,” Nzabonimpa says. “Before [the genocide] we were united; we were seeing each other as one people of one father and one mother.”
The programs are varied in style and scope. The Ingando, or solidarity camps, are part of a civic education program that helps to reintegrate returning Tutsis, members of the former national army and released prisoners into their communities. The Itorero Ry’Igihugu is an informal education system based on traditional Rwandan schools that promote integrity, hard work and conflict management. Umaganda is a program of mandatory community service that brings neighbors together once a month often for cleaning, construction or collaboration. Individuals known as abunzi serve as conflict resolution facilitators for local communities. They assist citizens in resolving their disputes, thus reducing the number of cases that go to court.
The gacaca courts, established in 2001, are perhaps the most famous of the traditional practices. The proceedings often were conducted at a simple wooden table in a village field, with community members sitting on the ground. In gacaca, local individuals held public trials for alleged genocide perpetrators, a process that, given the enormous numbers of accused, would have taken an estimated 100 years to complete if done through the country’s traditional court system. The judges were elected based on their integrity by the people of their villages. Some perpetrators, if found guilty, agreed to a form of service that benefits all, such as building roads; others were given prison terms. The courts also served as a way to document the genocide.
Nzabonimpa says that the churches also have played a valuable role in the reconciliation process. The large majority of Rwanda’s 11.6 million people are Christian, and approximately 57 percent are Catholic. “The reconciliation process must be inclusive,” he says.
A Service Church
Oswald Samvura sits in a bright yellow office beside a large window at the Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission, a division of the Episcopal Conference of Rwanda, the country’s equivalent of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As program director, he has worked closely with Catholic Relief Services, as well as other partner agencies, to implement programs that foster reconciliation among survivors and perpetrators of the genocide.
Between 1998 and 2012 the commission worked with Catholic Relief Services on various peace-building projects in an effort to help both survivors and perpetrators see that each had something to learn from the other. And in many instances, these conversations have been fruitful. “The challenges of reconciliation are tied up with perception of ethnicity,” Mr. Samvura says. “It is difficult to bring these conflicting parties together, but it is possible. You might even find someone who survived the genocide who finds that the wife of a perpetrator is suffering more than he is.”
Catholic Relief Services has been present in Rwanda since 1960, and its work prior to the genocide was largely focused on development. Much of this work was wiped out in the chaos. The genocide prompted a rethinking of the organization’s mission. At the time, the national C.R.S. staff consisted of 30 people, half of whom were Tutsis. Nine of the staff members were killed along with their families. Across the country, expats fled, many led out in a convoy by the U.S. ambassador.
C.R.S. staff began wondering how they could have misunderstood the severity of the events that led up to the genocide. “It was a time of pain, great disillusionment and anger,” says Chris Tucker, the C.R.S. senior advisor, at the organization’s world headquarters in Baltimore. “We knew about the tensions, but when we looked at that we said, ‘That’s not part of our mission and development.’ Afterwards we asked ourselves, ‘If we don’t pay attention, then who?’”
C.R.S. and the church began working deliberately to address the larger issues underlying the immediate needs. Instead of focusing solely on relief, C.R.S. began to ask more nuanced questions. “We had to think, ‘What if people had a fish and knew how to fish, but society says they don’t have access to the river?’” Tucker said. This prompted C.R.S. peace-building staff and relief staff members to work together more closely to better understand the importance of the others’ work.
Today the goals of peace building have been largely integrated into the priority projects, such as nutrition and economic independence, on which C.R.S. focuses. Tucker says that Rwanda helped to form C.R.S. and continues to push the organization to reconsider its role. “What does it mean to walk with the church?” Tucker says. “How do we bring God’s love into the world in changing, often messy times?”
A Healing Church
During the genocide, the reactions among church hierarchy, leaders and lay Catholics varied. Some bishops, clergy and religious were killed. One bishop was later convicted of war crimes. Some members of the clergy simply did nothing. Others worked to save people. Feelings about the church’s role remain similarly mixed today. Many feel it was complicit in the tensions that led up to the genocide, as some Catholic schools taught Hamitic ideology, which favored the Tutsis over the Hutus, and early Christian missionaries affirmed the supposed superiority of the Tutsis. Many missionaries had arrived with the German and Belgian colonists, who created the artificial class divisions in Rwandan society. When the Belgians instituted ethnic identity cards in 1932, the determination of whether a Rwandan was a Hutu or a Tutsi was based on property rather than people. If a person owned more than 10 cows, he was a Tutsi; fewer than 10 made a person a Hutu.
In more recent years, the episcopal conference’s commitment to unity and reconciliation has been clear. Working with C.R.S., the diocese helped to establish the peace-building programs; while the results of such programs are nearly impossible to quantify, the testimonies of the participants carry great weight.
The parish building in the Rugango parish in the Diocese of Butare has thick brick walls and a metal roof. Clusters of children run around it peeking their heads into the windows. A colorful, 3-D portrait of Jesus hangs above a circle of villagers, who together create a rainbow of colorful, bold-patterned clothing.
The parish is situated, as most places in Rwanda are, in the midst of many hills. The parish also remains greatly affected, as is every place in Rwanda, by the genocide. Twenty years later, individuals and families still struggle with how to live with the effects of this tragedy, a process made more challenging by the fact that many people now live side by side with individuals who murdered their family members or looted their homes. Catholic Relief Services worked with the people of the Rugango Parish and the diocese to create a Community Healing and Reconciliation Program, which fostered discussion and forgiveness among people of the community.
Esperance M’Mugemana sits directly beside Fidele Mparikubwimana, who killed several members of her family during the genocide. She speaks calmly, and with quiet strength. “When they said I could meet the person who killed my husband and family, I didn’t want to meet him,” she says. “But he came to ask me forgiveness. I told him, if you ask from deep within your heart, I forgive you.”
Mparikubwimana spent 11 years in jail for his crimes. “After the participating in [this program through the diocese’s] justice and peace commission, I realized that I did wrong,” he said. “I came to ask forgiveness. She forgave me.” As Mparikubwimana speaks, M’Mugemana’s eyes become glossy with tears. The anger seems to have subsided, but the pain of loss is evident. When he finishes speaking, the two embrace. It is not a bear hug, but it is not merely a polite gesture; it contains true warmth and seems to recognize what a strange, intimate tragedy they share.
“I am a genocide survivor,” says Viviane N’Habimana. “It was difficult to forgive.” And yet she managed not only to forgive but to help Boniface Hakizimana, the man who had harmed her, as well.
“I killed people. I was in prison 10 years,” said Boniface Hakizimana, who is dressed in a black and white gingham jacket over a black shirt with jeans rolled at the ankles, revealing his bare feet. “Because of the crime I did, my conscience urged me to confess and ask forgiveness.” During the genocide, he destroyed N’Habimana’s house, but when he was released from prison, he learned that she was living in peace and harmony with his wife. “She helped my wife to feed me in the prison,” he said. The two demonstrate their unity by embracing. “Today we are united and together we focus on the future. I can’t express how I feel in my heart after being forgiven,” he says. “It was a kind of rest. I had it heavy on my heart.”
One survivor acknowledges with candor the difficulty of that forgiveness. “After the genocide, I hated everyone in the community,” she says. “People [from the Community Healing and Reconciliation Program] came to teach us forgiveness, and it took a long time. It was a process. It was difficult to listen to them. But then we had the capacity to listen to the one who came to ask forgiveness.” She said she saw over four dozen people loot her home. Three returned to ask for forgiveness. She says also she forgives those who did not come.
The group has helped the participants to restore their faith not only in one another, but in God and themselves. “When the gacaca courts started, I was not a human being because I was traumatized,” says a woman in a dress printed with large images of lemons and oranges. “But because of prayers and sensitization, I started to again become a human being.” Another woman in a yellow and brown dress says: “It took a long period even to pray. The international community left us, even those living with us, and it seemed like God left us. It took a long time to come back to the church.”
While many people in the West are aware of the 1994 genocide, fewer are aware that other violent conflicts preceded it, forcing many thousands of people, mainly Tutsis, out of the country in the 1959, 1963, 1967 and 1973. The Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace is a nongovernmental organization founded in 2001 to work toward rebuilding both Rwanda and its people and to help prevent a future conflict. Pierre Rwanyindo, director of I.R.D.P., believes a new Rwanda must be built on good governance, democracy, the well-being of its citizens and economic development. A large part of the institute’s research brings to the table villagers and members of the Rwandan diaspora, soliciting their opinions and documenting their stories. The institute also has worked to establish schools of debate in four universities and 40 secondary schools to help foster dialogue among youth in the schools. “We want to encourage people to tolerate diversity of opinion,” says Rwanyindo. The youth can discuss controversial ideas with the help of a facilitator in a neutral setting.
“Unity is possible, provided people know and accept what is the cause of our division,” he said. “The key problems are power and economic conditions.” Both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide often place blame for the tragedy on poor governance. “In all genocide cases there is a role of the government; the leaders play a crucial role. However, you can’t reject or dispute or deny the individual responsibility. We are encouraging a change that starts for the individual. People tend to blame others—just like in a car crash.”
Some individuals neither take nor place blame, however, preferring to deny or refuse to acknowledge the genocide at all. The National Commission to Fight Against Genocide, known as well by its French acronym, C.N.L.G., fights against this ignorance. The commission was launched in 2008 to help promote the commemoration of the genocide and to advocate for children and survivors affected by it. This commission is in charge of the six national memorials, but it also oversees the national research and documentation center, which was launched in 2012. The commission conducts research on genocide denial, prevention, consequences and history. It seeks to make those findings public through the publication of papers in academic journals and through collaboration with universities.
When the gacaca courts closed on June 18, 2012, documents from each village were put into sacks, loaded onto trucks and delivered to a huge building created solely for such files. C.N.L.G. staff are devoted to classifying these files. In his large, windowed office overlooking the hills surrounding Kigali, Jean Damascene Gasanabo, director general of C.N.L.G., speaks about his work, while a large and ubiquitous portrait of Paul Kagame peers down from the wall. “When you see those documents, you understand the magnitude of the genocide,” he said.
Gasanabo holds up a sheet of paper in front of him. Each box of records holds 2,500 sheets, he says. There are almost 20,000 boxes. This means there are close to 40 million pages to be sorted. The commission is working on a feasibility study to determine the time, funding and technological requirements necessary to preserve and digitize the files for the sake of history, memory, education and research, he tells us.
Grappling With History
Twenty years is a remarkably short time in terms of history and healing. And yet it is long enough that there are many young Rwandans who did not directly experience the horror of those three months in 1994 but have nevertheless been affected by them their whole lives. Preventing another genocide means, in part, first addressing issues like poverty, gender roles and nutrition, which fuel unrest. It also means that Rwandans must warn the next generation. But first, many adults must grapple with their own role in the atrocities.
“It is a history that children have to know, but when you approach the topic, it is very difficult to explain,” says Zacharie Ndayishimiye, a member of the Episcopal Peace and Justice Commission in Rwanda. “A child can ask an adult, ‘Were you killing people?’ and parents have a hard time giving an answer that doesn’t traumatize kids.” Places like the Kigali Memorial Centre can play a role in those discussions. It is a place that works to preserve the memory of those who died, but it also serves as a research and teaching center working to prevent such tragedy in the future. Its exhibits might very well serve as a jumping off point for conversations, not only between parents and children, but for all who value peace and justice.
The center’s unassuming exterior gives way to exhibits documenting a nation’s complicated past. Visitors will learn about the systematic rape and murder of Tutsi women, and of Hutu women who had married Tutsi men. You will read about the 300,000 orphans that were left when the killing ended. You will see photos of the faces of hundreds of those who were killed—a man against a brick wall wearing a black and red sweater, a father in a white shirt holding his child in his arms. You will walk by skulls and bones and tattered clothing hanging like ghosts in darkened rooms. You will pass by rosaries and pens and children’s shoes, all found beside their dead owners. You will pass by heartbreaking photos of children, which are mounted above their names and accompanied by short lists.
You will not be able to pass by without tears the display for Francine Murengezi Ingabire, a girl with a wide smile and closely cropped hair, which reads:
You will walk through exhibits remembering other genocides—in Armenia, Namibia, Cambodia, the Balkans and the Holocaust—and recall that after each one, someone pledged: Never Again. And yet. You will wonder why it happened and know that there is no good answer. You will search for one anyway. Because in the end you know the only possible reaction, the only possible way to heal, is love. And you will think: If only it were that simple.