I think we need to talk about Rwanda.
I’ve been struggling all week to come up with words, any words, to try and articulate everything that my mind has been wrestling with when it comes to Rwanda. As you probably know, April 7th is the anniversary of the genocide. 20 years ago today, lists were being written up, roadblocks constructed, and the mass-slaughter that killed 800,000 Rwandans was just beginning. We all know the details, we all know the ending and we all know what has happened since. As a student who studies conflict, I read these stories everyday. I’m used to discussing violence, rape, and genocide, analyzing their components and consequences. But with Rwanda…I haven’t been able to detach. Its been on my mind, in my heart, and this week especially, I see Rwanda everywhere. Maybe its because it’s the anniversary, maybe its the increase of articles and op-eds, maybe its because I thought I heard the women on the bus mention Kigali– but for some reason I can’t stop thinking of Rwanda.
I’m not sure why this is affecting me so deeply. I wasn’t there in 1994, I haven’t worked in Rwanda; I haven’t ever even come close to experiencing that level of suffering in any context. I’m a naïve, little, white student from Canada – am I even allowed to have a claim on a conflict that I have no direct ties too? How do you talk about a conflict that isn’t yours, but that you care about so deeply, so fiercely? I need to find a way to wrap my head around what Rwanda should stand for, and I keep going back and forth in my mind on how to do just that.
Rwanda is my breaking point. I’m fascinated by it, always have been. Sometimes I worry that those who study conflict are a little bit perverse, have this weird fascination with human trauma that isn’t normal. But something about what happened in Rwanda, and what has happened since, captivates me in a terrifying way. Want to discuss the conflict in DRC? Go back to Rwanda. Want to understand the elements of modern genocide? Go back to Rwanda. Want to pinpoint the biggest failure of the international system? Go back to Rwanda.
This March, when I was travelling East Africa, I was able to visit Rwanda for the first time. I’ve written about this previously, but Rwanda was a beautiful, breathtaking country, that in no way resembles its history of 1994. You don’t suddenly cross the border and enter a broken country, complete with flashing signs that say “WE HAD A CONFLICT HERE.” In reality, my trip to Rwanda was filled with clean streets, friendly people, and lush hills of the countryside rolling past as I drove out to Lake Kivu. Rwanda has a booming economy, a great tourism sector, and has made substantial progress in reaching development indicators. Yet, although its not on the surface, the genocide is there, breaking through when you notice machete scars or when you get in a taxi and the first thing someone tells you is that their entire family was killed.
Memorials were the hardest, especially those that were not official. The churches on a hillside, a field where people had fled, a school where women and children had been told they would be safe. Nyamata was my first. A women who only spoke Kinyarwanda, a genocide survivor, took me through the church, pointing out the piles of torn clothing, where you could see skulls that had been cracked with machetes, where grenades had taken chunks out of the building. She took me underneath the church, into a tiny hallway filled with coffins. There were coffins for the bones of babies, for the bones of children, and then larger ones for the bones of adults, laid out from floor to ceiling and piled one on top of each other. The next church was similar, except here you could see where people had come to try and survive, displaying all of the pots, pans, food, schoolbooks and other materials they had carried to the church because they had thought that here they would be safe. There was spears laid against the wall, and as my guide explained, these were used to go in through a woman’s private parts, and out through her head. Beside this, a wall of blood from children’s heads being smashed against the concrete.
How do you make sense of this amount of violence? How do you remember, how do you reflect, how do you articulate that you don’t know whether to cry, to scream, to sob, to get angry? After exiting one of the churches, I was taken to a reflection bench, where I was supposed to take a moment to contemplate everything I had just witnessed. How do you reflect on that? How do you look at the tools used to destroy entire communities, how do you look at bodies of children preserved in lime and laid out on tables, how do you rationally make sense of that level of violence? How does reflection, or remembrance, or sadness, or contemplation ever allow you to be able to comprehend that sort of trauma?
I guess that all I can say to describe Rwanda is that my heart hurts. All I can say is that I want to understand, to care, to take on some sort of collective guilt, but that nothing will ever be enough. All I can say is that I’m million of miles away, sitting in my cozy grad-student apartment in Toronto, and all I can do is picture myself, standing under a crumbling church, with bones piled high above me, coffins stacked so high that I can’t breathe, that I’m suffocating on the mildew of old skeletons, realizing with unmistakable horror just what humanity is capable of.