Venturing to Rwanda to study the genocide, and the implications in transitioning to a ‘new Rwanda’, I question how a nation recovers from such horrific events in their recent past. Similarly, I question the reputation Rwanda has obtained with some international observers, as being a model African country in post crisis recovery where eighty percent of Tutsis (and sympathetic Hutus) are victims of genocide perpetrated in the name of ethnic cleansing from ‘cockroaches’; hundreds of thousands more affected through family massacres; internal displacement and forced migration; physical and psychosocial trauma; poverty, illness and disease; and not knowing the complete truth about what transpired to the nation and loved ones.
Certainly, the initial view of Rwanda on our arrival echoed positive post-conflict views. Kigali is clean, neat and seemingly ordered. It appears almost sterile with everything and everyone in place; reminding me of Singapore’s tightly controlled public spaces. However, in only a matter of hours I questioned how individuals could recover from the genocide (or find a ‘new normal’) amidst the Kagame regime’s plan to transform the national identity into one which does not appear to account for the legacy of pre-genocide conflict and violence, nor persistent intergenerational trauma on identities, but dictate that everyone must fall into line in relation to identity, memory and recovery.
My concern in relation to limitations of truth and transparency on the part of memory architects was reinforced in visiting a Ministerial Office. We became part of a narrative which felt carefully scripted, and suggested an Office, if not government, intent on tightly controlling the image and memory of post genocide Rwanda communicated to the world. However, possibly not to raise alarm regarding transparency, the Director explained the need to obtain permission to ensure memorial site photography is not inappropriately used; and reinforced that the most important thing is ‘that we (you) are here’. This encounter mirrored cautions raised by former World Bank researcher in Rwanda, Bert Ingelaere (April 2010), in that what the world hears regarding post genocide Rwanda is what political leaders are willing to tell, and is not always accurate. This interaction should heighten our critical assessments of post-genocide sociopolitical narratives in assessing whether censorship is a genuine attempt at national recovery, or merely to ensure sensitive information does not cause further political calamity.
In a lecture with Dr Baker we also discussed the Kagame regime’s prohibition of ‘ethnic’ titles (‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’), attempting to unite citizens as ‘Rwandans’. However, this current language of unification, appears to conflict with memory creation characterised by graphic displays of conflict and loss in networks of memorials and museums, and the elaborate institutionalisation of the memory of the ‘genocide against Tutsi’. Such language, articulating ‘Tutsi’ as the victims, may exacerbate tensions in relation to the genocide, particularly with victims and perpetrators living side by side and having to integrate socially and through institutions (as former Hutus join the public service); and feeling pressure to conform with national narratives which conflict with personal experience, knowledge and memory in relation to the genocide, and pre-genocide violence and oppression. In addition, ignoring pre-genocide violence may reinforce radicalised and politicised ‘ethnic’ identities, destabilising both personal and national recovery.
I look forward to the site visits, discussions and testimonials to come to better assess the progress of individual survivors amidst the imposition of their new national identity.
As the wheels of the plane lost contact with the South African ground and we began to ascend swiftly into the brisk morning sky, I gazed out the window and reflected on the week that was. It was 7 days ago now that I embarked on the journey of ‘seeking justice’ which was primarily concerned with studying the dynamics of post conflict societies. My week in South Africa was one of amazement and discovery. After living in the country for the past 6 months and speaking to a number of people from a number of different back grounds I felt I had some kind of understanding of the nation and its complex past. However, over the past week it has come to my attention that there really is so much more to understanding this nation than mere surface experience offers, it is not a simple case of black and white facts. To comprehend the structure of South Africa in 2013 it is necessary to delve into the nation’s history and tear it apart, breaking up each segment into pieces in order to discover what lies at the heart of this Southern nation.
As the seat belt sign was switched off and we were told ‘it is now safe to switch on electronic devices’ The man who was sitting next to me started to talk to me about my comings and goings and his business trip to Dar es Salaam, after hearing his thick Afrikaaner accent and his use of words such as ‘forefathers’ I found myself analyzing this man. That’s when it became apparent to me that I was in the middle of an intensive university course, I had noticed a number of changes within myself. My vocabulary had become filled with buzz words like narrative and memorizations, I kept catching myself analyzing the most insignificant and trivial things like street signs and advertisements.
As I folded down my tray table and busied myself in what was the first reading for the Rwandan genocide, I was overcome with a feeling of helplessness. We had just spent a week in a society that 19 years on was grappling to come to terms with its tainted past, obvious obstructions had been implemented like road blocks to mask yesterday’s mistakes.
Shortly after touching down at the airport in Rwanda a voice speaking an unfamiliar language sounded over the speakers, it was the air hostess welcoming us into Kigali; the language was the mother tongue of the Rwandan people, Kinyarwanda. This instantaneously elicited a new sense of pride for me, a type of pride that had no shame; it was out in the open loud and there for all to hear. Stepping off the plane and absorbing the warm balmy air into my dehydrated airplane skin I looked ahead with a renewed sense of the world , ready to tackle the week ahead.
Rwanda, the “land of a thousand hills” It is a country consisting mainly of rural villages which are amongst and surrounded by green forests. These forests hold the history which has shaped the country today. Prior to the trip I had watched a few documentaries and movies to prepare me for my journey. I was extremely excited to be a part of the country that I had been researching and reading about in the past few months.
At the airport we were welcomed by the warmth, not just of the weather but also of the people. I struggled to stop myself from staring and looking at people and wanting to categorise them as Hutu or Tutu. I felt like I was analysing everything, how they communicate and socialise with each other. We had to meet one of the commissioners in order to get our authorisation; here the sensitivity of the genocide in this country was reinforced. Upon entering Rwanda and with the aid of research, I found out that as a way of moving on with life, the events of the genocide have been blocked out of individual’s lives and are not spoken of openly in society.
I got an opportunity to travel around town and get to meet and engage with more people. I was amazed at how at peace the society of Rwanda is. In my first day alone in Rwanda I had learnt enough Kinyarwanda, local spoken language, to get my way around and everyone was willing to help me learn.
This peace was soon wiped out by the movie that was watched by the group. It was a movie that graphically showed the magnitude of the killings that happened. I had seen a number of documentaries that had images of the aftermath of the genocide however the movie we watched showed the actual act of the killings. The horrific act of perpetrators killing women as the women pleaded for their lives. This revealed to me how brutal these perpetrators were and just prepared me for how the week to come would be; it promised to be intense and quite emotional.
This also made me wonder how a country with such a history could be so warm, friendly and just at “amahoro”, peace, in the local spoken language- kinyarwanda. Has there been reconciliation? Has the country truly moved on? I have so many questions and I am so privileged to have them answered on the land where it all happened. My journey begins…
Sitting on the plane to Rwanda I wasn’t too sure of what to expect. A tiny country in the east of Africa, Rwanda is known, if at all, by most as the place where genocide occurred. A vague sense of horror pervades the context in which many people who haven’t thoroughly studied the country’s past mention Rwanda; a general aversion to this event called genocide. I admit to being one of these people, carrying an almost Western air of “oh, how terrible.” Actually coming here has allowed me to see the many complexities of Rwanda’s genocide narrative and the sharply juxtaposed views of society now with society then. Two things in particular had a memorable effect on me.
The first instance was when my friends and I decided to spend some free time walking the dusty streets of the suburb we are staying in. It was about 5:15 in the evening as we slowly returned, when school children started to appear running down the hill towards us. As they neared us they would slow and greet us with “Hello, good morning!” (we assumed that they may only know that one phrase in English), smiling and reaching out to touch our hands. I was delighted. Upon further consideration, I feel I must say that others from our group thought it was because they wanted money, however in comparison to other children we have met here, they didn’t linger but ran on after greeting us. Even if naïve, I choose to think that they were merely greeting us.
The starkness of reality imposed itself on me when later that night we watched a film of events unfolding during 1994, in which mass killings of the Tutsi took place, orchestrated by the Hutu government. The graphic images that were shown by the Belgian journalist were extremely shocking and disturbing. Images of corpses that lay as if carelessly tosses aside, women, men, children, all murdered by a civilian population turned genocidaires by a hate-inciting propaganda campaign.
These two conflicting representatives of Rwandan society were extremely difficult for me to reconcile. Initially, I felt that it must be impossible for victims of such violence to ever move on, let alone forgive. I felt that a society scarred by such injuries inflicted by machete, club, spears and fun might never find happiness again. Even when the community appeared happy and peaceful as it did to me in the afternoon, the underlying tensions of co-habiting with murderers seemed for me too much to move forward from. This was a depressing thought. I was unable to reconcile within myself, so how could an entire country do so? While an answer per se did not occur to me, I feel that I can offer hope, to myself, and also to others. Even though Rwanda is a country scarred and injured, all healing takes time. For me, if people can live together relatively harmoniously now, a mere 19 years after fleeing from or killing one another, then I must believe that Rwanda can eventually heal itself and remain ever mindful of what happens when deeply entrenched racial distinctions are used to engender hatred so strong that everyday people, neighbors and friends turn on one another with machetes.
My first impressions of Rwanda was tropical breezes and friendly smiles. Driving from the airport people waved constantly, the city was bustling with people, there was a sense of serenity of the people going about their everyday life. I almost forgot that 19 years ago the country was riddled, with arguably, the most brutal genocide ever recorded.
Through piecing together various sources of information it became clear that a major party of the genocide had been relatively left out of my own understanding – colonialism. How was it that the Hutus and Tutsi had lived in relative peace and cooperation, and then had brutally killed their neighbours and relatives? The composition of humanity to be capable of such acts, and capable of such manipulation astounded me.
Upon watching the film the reality of what had happened unfolded before my eyes. I felt numb, and despite the real footage I didn’t feel the reality of it. These were atrocities that I could not imagine, and therefore in my eyes were not real.
My mind was racing after the film, my thoughts filled with questions that I could not begin to unpack. The more I thought about the horrors that had occurred into Rwanda the sadder I felt as I recognised that this occurrence was not unique. This has happened time and time again across the globe, and across generations. All I could think of was how this could happen after the realities of the Holocaust, which has been labelled as genocide that should never be allowed to happen again. But while this occurred in Rwanda the world stood still, and still stands relatively still in its aftermath. I wanted to know why the world did not respond. A common answer is that intervention can only be taken once the situation has been classified as a crime against humanity, a genocide. But once this has occurred it is too late, the damage has been done. In world affairs, and in life, prevention will achieve the best outcome. Did the international community not value Rwanda as a nation? Did it not value their lives? The international community has since ‘apologised’ but these words do not restore the nation, just as the confessions of perpetrators does not heal survivor’s pain. Perhaps my thoughts were overly critical of the world at large given the film gave a clear criticism of the international community, particularly the French soldiers. This led me to think critically about the portrayal of history, and for what purpose these narratives were serving.
It is clear that the tropical paradise I witnessed involves layers of complex friction within Rwandan society. Surely the facade of unity and reconciliation must be shallow, given the extent of trauma the nation faced. But can we be too critical of the ‘authoritarian’ government? Is the relative peace that people now live in good enough in terms of reconciliation? Have their lives improved?
My first day in Rwanda has taught me that the potential answers lie in the why things are being said – what purpose is being served? But most importantly, I believe it is what is not being said that will reveal the true tensions and conflicts that this nation currently faces.
DAY 11: Kibuye
CLAIRE P. Arriving at Lake Kivu at the only ‘living’ memorial we were to see … Continue reading DAY 11: Kibuye
DAY 10: Kigali (CNLG)
EMMA F.M. Listening to Yvette’s story today, I started to doubt. Could reconciliation – as … Continue reading DAY 10: Kigali (CNLG)
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 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