Listening to Yvette’s story today, I started to doubt. Could reconciliation – as broad a term as that is – ever be possible after the kind of violence that took place in Rwanda? There are certain acts that are both unforgivable and unforgettable, of which genocide is surely one of them. The claim that killers and victims could and should coexist peacefully without conflict or real resentment seemed hollow to me as Yvette gave her testimony. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the deep, irreversible trauma that she has suffered, or indeed that she continues to suffer. To lose your entire family in such horrific circumstances to me would be unendurable. Her loss of speech is a testament not only to the degree of trauma that Yvette has experienced, but also to that inflicted on thousands of genocide survivors. Given the enormity of the breach, it felt impossible, as I sat with Yvette’s words ringing in my ears, that any kind of meaningful social unity could be achieved in contemporary Rwanda. Yet even as I listened and doubted, I thought back to the morning tutorial. We had agreed on the importance of reconciliation in rebuilding the country and in forestalling future conflicts between and within the ethnic groups. Rwandan peace and prosperity is contingent on Hutus and Tutsis being able not just to tolerate each other, but also to cooperate. More importantly, each group must set aside their separate ethnic identities and subscribe to a shared national one. For my tutorial group, this was possible. For me, I am torn between the detached, academic view of affairs – namely that power sharing and economic development equals reconciliation – and the emotional response – that some injuries can never truly heal.
Despite this apparently intractable dilemma, there is one point which accords with what I know both in an analytical and personal sense, and which I realized today. The Rwandan government’s policy approach to reconciliation is deeply flawed. Outwardly, it appears ideal; there is an inclusive administration and bodies such as the Centre National de la Lutte contre le Genocide (CNLG) provide much-needed support to survivors and other services to repair the damage done in 1994. However in truth, there is much to be desired. The official narrative of the genocide is marked by countless “silences”. The most deafening of these is the refusal to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the RPF in the post-genocide period. In my view, this is a dangerous and deeply dishonest path to take. It has already generated resentment among many Rwandans, and risks widening the divisions between the two dominant ethnic groups, although nobody would acknowledge that such divisions exist.
On a personal note, I was shocked to discover that this was the state of affairs in Rwanda today. It appears to be such a calm, collected society, with the past firmly under its grip. But I have since learned that often what is not said is the most revealing of a nation and a community’s character. In retrospect, I can clearly see those silences; from the one-sided story of the memorial museums, to the CNLG director’s evasiveness in answering questions regarding some of the more controversial of the government’s reconciliation policies. Nevertheless, after having spent some time in Rwanda, I am hopeful for its future. Reconciliation is not a mere fantasy. It may be imperfect and incomplete but it will come to this country. Time will undoubtedly play the greatest role in this, as a new generation emerges just that little bit more removed from the events of the past. There is not doubt, however, that better, more concerted efforts by the government will be needed to give Rwanda a fighting chance. For me, the state of reconciliation now is symbolized by the piles of documents from the gacaca courts at the CNLG; there is still much work to be done. Yet, having witnessed the incredible strength of people like Yvette in overcoming their own personal loss, I have faith that the country as a whole can do it too.
The large, tiled conference room was slightly abuzz. When you combine 40 odd university students (mostly girls) and a dorm-like environment, almost uncontrollable chatting ensues. Solace Ministries and the tranquil environment it encourages instilled in the group a sense of relaxation needed after emotionally trying day trips to the likes of Nyamata and Murambi. However, the atmospheric shift in the air was palpable when Yvette took the floor to give her personal testimony to the group. A beautiful, gentle woman, Yvette is visually captivating, even without knowledge of her intensely harrowing story. She relays to us how she grew up with four elder brothers, who were her protectors, caretakers and most importantly, loved her unconditionally. Her mother was a teacher, and her father a prominent figure in the community. She was seven years old when, in her words, ‘the genocide came.’ Often, when referring to the genocidal period, Yvette refers to the events and people who perpetrated atrocities as ‘it’, not them, but an entity entirely separate from humanity. This passive voice, adopted by a woman who stands before us, stoic in her demeanor, is somehow jarring to perceive. She then reveals to us that, for a period during and a long time after, she could not speak. Her unintentional occupation of their silent realm, both a consequence of the genocide and a personal coping mechanism, is a fitting personification of issues facing Rwanda and how it is grappling with the silences present in its official historical narrative. How then, do Rwandans confront these state-enforced gaps in memory when the government and the nation’s occupants alike are competing for control over their own personal stories? Trauma itself suggests a breach, a loss, a rupture, a wound, something that has a lasting impact. The loss of control inherent in the genocide, both on a societal level and even over life itself, created a platform, one which would ultimately be filled by the RPF, for an entity to impose a certain amount of control back onto the nation as a whole. Intrinsic in this, and where the contemporary issues lie, is a control over the narrative of the genocide and collective memory associated with it. For Yvette however, all that mattered was that we listened to her story, providing a cathartic environment whereby the re-traumatization oral testimony can induce, is worth the dissemination of memory and of bearing witness. Her final sentiment to us was that ‘life changes when you put your heart into it’, as long as people care and are willing to attempt an understanding, those perpetrating evil acts can never fully confine us to a world of silence.
Day 5 in Kigali and the assignment – to grapple with question of truth and reconciliation in post genocide society in Rwanda. A question that for me held a clear answer within only days of immersing ourselves in the narrative of genocide in Rwanda. That is reconciliation in in the context of this country is absurd. Upon reflection of today’s readings and survivor testimony I have come to a distinction between two types of reconciliation, revealed in two separate narratives of reconciliation. The first form of reconciliation being institutionalised, which is the imposition of a collective communal reconciliation depending on an unofficial social contract focusing on the integration of perpetrators and survivors in society. In many cases this dependence boasts forgiveness and tolerance from survivors despite the absence of the truth from the perpetrators. The second form is the individualised reconciliation narratives. An example of this individualised reconciliation is testified by Yvette, our carer at Solace Ministries. Individualised reconciliation occurs not through searching for truth and resolution dependent on the compliance of perpetrators, instead it follows, reconciling within oneself and acknowledging the truth of your individual narrative in order to move forward and succeed in post genocide society.
The perpetuation of notions of a ‘national unity’ in dealing with the legacy of genocide in an institutionalised reconciliation has placed negative impositions on the survivors of the genocide. Through attempts to seek justice the Government of National Unity of Rwanda has emphasised unification, neglecting individualised needs of reconciliation but imposes the requirement of forgiveness, which may dangerously amount to only forms of toleration within society. Such a policy as dehumanised and undermined the process of reconciliation as a homogenisation of reconciliation has not provided individuals with closure or truth. The concept of national unity has no vested interest in reconciling of finding the truth for individuals. National Unity as an institutionalised tool of reconciliation can be merely interpreted as being designed to quell the inequalities existing in society, whether they are economic, social or political as a result of the 1994 genocide. The negligence of individuals in institutionalised forms of reconciliation leaves open and raw the wounds of those victimised in the 1994 genocide, seeping through to contemporary society making national reconciliation and absurd concept for Rwanda today.
Alternatively, individualised reconciliation as testified by Yvette has provided life and hope after the atrocities of 1994 in reconciling within herself in order to move forward. Integral to Yvette’s story of individual reconciliation is the unspoken contractual agreement with herself to be happy; there is no dependence on an external party that will dictate her path of reconciliation. This therefore eliminates the necessity of the perpetrators in reconciliation. By no means can it be expected that one can forgive and reconcile with perpetrators capable of genocide crimes. Instead individual reconciliation is driven by the vengeance to prove ones worth in society to demonstrate the futility of the perpetrators agenda. As summed up perfectly by Yvette in her testimony “the people who killed our parents are still out there – they are not willing to confess. We are out there to show them we can do something with our lives…so it’s a pity for them.” Such remarkable strength shown by Yvette to be the master of her future to triumph the evil of others demonstrates a form of individual reconciliation that transcends the success of an institutional approach.
Reconciliation in Rwanda has not been achieved and it is absurd to impose it on individuals in an institutionalised manner. The perceived tranquillity and harmony that resides over this country is strictly imposed and controlled by an idealistic government policy. I for one cannot comprehend a fathomable way to implement strategies of reconciliation between perpetrators and survivors or see how it can be achieved for atrocities committed only 19 years ago. Within time perhaps this can be done, however for now individual reconciliation as displayed so courageously by Yvette is the only reconciliation possible to move forward for Rwanda.
The National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG) was formed in 2007 with the goal of genocide prevention, advocacy, education and widespread acknowledgment. It wasn’t until a year later in 2008 that the CNLG started its activities, which involved genocide commemoration, advocacy, the management of memorial sites and the research and documentation of the genocide. The CNLG research center had 5 research areas, which included denial, consequences, prevention, history and society, and interdisciplinary and comparative research. I personally found the broad areas of research conducted by the CNLG particularly important, as there is a strong focus on specific aspects of social constructs and relationships within a relatively new post-genocide era.
Furthermore the CNLG’s management of the display of bodies within memorial sites, such as Murambi, was especially thought provoking. While it was stated that it was used for research purposes and their respective families were informed of the location of their deceased; I personally felt unsettled that the dead were used for “research” purposes. It seemed almost disrespectful and impersonal to have the deceased individual left within a collective mass display of the dead. Which raises an issue where the dead cannot give consent, and the homogenization of an individual’s testimony. For me the word “research” used on the deceased of the genocide has undignified connotations. Although it could also be argued from the Rwandan government’s perspective that the bodies laid out at the Murambi Memorial site is a necessity to serve as a form of evidence for the rest of the world and to illustrate the severity of violence and the mass scale in which the Tutsis were killed.
The research and document department of the CNLG is responsible for recording and maintaining the testimonies, details and minutes of the Gacaca proceedings. Because a lot of the infrastructure was destroyed and many of the educated were killed during the massacre, the legislation to establish the Gacaca courts was implemented in 2001 and commenced from 2002-2012. Gacaca, meaning “grass”, was a culturally appropriate way in which Rwandans had once used to resolve conflict during the pre-colonial era.
When entering the complex that held 10 years worth of documentation from the Gacaca trials, the first thing that struck me were the number of armed guards. The mood changed rapidly as soon as we got off the bus. The number of armed guards created an intimidating atmosphere with a serious disposition, which only further emphasized the importance of what was being guarded. We continued walking down the aisles of what seemingly felt like a never-ending row of boxes labeled “snj Gacaca” stacked 10 boxes high. These boxes contained the details, confessions and testimonies concerning the Gacaca trial documented in various formats of booklets, audio and visual recordings. An issue that I found particularly concerning was the vulnerability of the original documents and the lack of funding available to digitize them. Nonetheless the fact that these documents were well guarded and there are plans underway to digitize them creates a sense of hope that the history of Rwanda will never be forgotten.
We started off the day hearing testimonies from survivors of the Tutsi genocide. One of the speakers was Yvette, we had begun to know Yvette because she works at Solace and was the person that helped us with everything. Hearing her story was particularly challenging because we had all begun to develop an emotional connection with her. Yvette’s story was inspiring and harrowing, Yvette talked about how a person can only move on with their life once they have removed themself from the cycle of self pity, she said that this was a challenging cycle to get out of but once she had removed herself from this cycle she was able to live her life again. Yvette spoke of how she was left in the care of her Aunty who was married to a Hutu in the hope that the aunty and uncle would protect them, this was not the case. Yvette’s aunty had betrayed her and the rest of her family. Yvette was taken away to safety and was the only survivor in her family. This story highlights how the genocide lead to families betraying one another, husbands murdered wives, wives killed their husbands, parents killed their children and friendships no longer mattered. No one was safe during the genocide and no one could be trusted, the genocide removed the familial lines, it created only two categories, Hutu or Tutsi, people stopped caring about how they knew someone and only cared that they were killing a Tutsi.
In the afternoon we were taken to the archive that housed the gacaca trial information. The gacaca trial is the traditional method of trial that was brought in to help speed up the process of trials, there were such a large number of people to be tried that the modern method of trial would take far too long. Upon entering the archive it is overwhelming to witness the sheer number of boxes within the building. Within each box are numerous people’s files. The boxes provided a visual image for the first time that highlighted to me just how many people were involved in the murdering of Tutsi people. The memorials provided an insight into the number of people that were killed but until I visited the archive, I don’t think I had fully understood just how many people had been involved in the murdering of Tutsi people.
The archives also highlighted to me that while Rwanda had come far in the 19 years since the genocide that it still had a long way to go in recovery. The archives were organised in as much that the boxes were placed into sections that corresponded to the region that the gacaca trial took place, however, all documents were still only in hard copy form, there was no soft copy format, which means that if something were to happen to the building in which the boxes were housed all the information would be lost forever. The archive does not have access to internet and they do not have the funds to pay people to speed up the process of entering the information. This is problematic to the preservation of the history of genocide, these archives aim to serve as a reminder of the atrocities that occurred and to deter them from happening again.
Today was an eye opening experience, to have a visual image of the number of murderers that were trialled and convicted was unbelievable, we were very fortunate to have access to this archive as it is not open to the general public. Hearing Yvette’s story made me understand more thoroughly that familial ties, marriage and friendship no longer mattered during the 100 days of genocide, people only cared whether someone was a Hutu or Tutsi. To read statistics and stories in a book is horrifying but to hear them from someone that you have grown to know is more horrific and challenging and to have a visual of the level of involvement in the genocide is far more shocking than just reading a statistic on a page.
DAY 11: Kibuye
CLAIRE P. Arriving at Lake Kivu at the only ‘living’ memorial we were to see … Continue reading DAY 11: Kibuye
DAY 9: Avega, Agahozo-Shalom
STEPH K. As part of understanding peace-building efforts in Rwanda, we visited two sites where … Continue reading DAY 9: Avega, Agahozo-Shalom
DAY 8: Murambi, Nyanza
NAVA S. Guilt paralysed me as Mama Lambert began to speak to us about the … Continue reading DAY 8: Murambi, Nyanza
DAY 7: Nyamata, Ntarama, Gisozi
SAMANTHA G. Purple bunting waves in the wind as I walk through the grounds of … Continue reading DAY 7: Nyamata, Ntarama, Gisozi
DAY 6: Kigali
SARAH L. Venturing to Rwanda to study the genocide, and the implications in transitioning to … Continue reading DAY 6: Kigali
DAY 5: Lilieslief
LENA Mv V. Is truth enough? On a sunny Sunday morning on the outskirts of … Continue reading DAY 5: Lilieslief
DAY 4: Soweto
MASERAME M. I cannot remember the last time I was in Alexandra Township. The one … Continue reading DAY 4: Soweto
DAY 3: Pretoria, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park
JESSIE B. The Voortrekker Monument is momentous in its role, both as a part of … Continue reading DAY 3: Pretoria, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park
DAY 2: Johannesburg, Apartheid Museum
SCARLETT T. Having a rather underwhelming amount of previous knowledge of South Africa’s political history, … Continue reading DAY 2: Johannesburg, Apartheid Museum
DAY 1: Johannesburg, Constitution Hill
SAMANTHA G. Sitting on a hill overlooking the city of Johannesburg is Constitution Hill, the … Continue reading DAY 1: Johannesburg, Constitution Hill