Now, things are getting interesting.
It’s April in Rwanda. The rains have come.
Today is April 6. On this day in 1994, Juvenal Habyarimana, the Rwandan president, was assassinated when his plane was shot down. It was on that evening that the genocide began, killing between 800,000 and one million people in 100 days.
Tomorrow is April 7, Genocide Memorial Day. There will be events at the stadium, and at the “old cemetery,” where they have freshly repainted the massive headstone. Of all the words on the Gisenyi memorial, “JENOSIDE” stands out the most because it is painted in red. They call it the “old cemetery” because there is no more room for more bodies; during the genocide, the land was filled to capacity. I am told that they have not finished burying genocide victims.
It marks the beginning of a week of mourning. Music and dancing are seen as disrespectful, so they have been forbidden. Only genocide documentaries, movies, and discussions are shown on television. Drinking at cabarets is discouraged.
I’m not sure what else to expect—all that I know is that it is only now that people are beginning to talk about it. The elephant in the room that no one would mention is out in the open. My driver pointed to a small red cross in the middle of the cemetery. “That’s my little brother,” he said. He had told me before about how his little brother had worked at the brewery in neighboring Nyamyumba, and how he had been going to work on the bus in April 1994 when the bus was stopped by a roadblock. Everyone had been slaughtered. A concrete memorial next to the road marks the spot of the massacre.
One of my friends, who lived in Congo at the time, told me a story this morning of how her aunt had been hacked by machetes. She had deep cuts on the back of her neck, all over her body, and in several places on her skull. She had been thrown into a mass grave and buried. At midnight, someone knocked on my friend’s door. The family was horrified to find that it was her aunt, barely upright, a walking corpse, blood running down her face. She had found enough strength to climb out of the grave and stumble across the border. After being taken to the local hospital, she eventually healed—but she refuses to step foot in Rwanda ever again. She lives in Uganda now.
As a rule, I don’t ask questions about family—partially because family is a very fluid concept here. Everyone calls each other “cousin,” or “brother,” or “uncle”—but they are hardly ever related. Nuclear families, after the genocide, were often reduced to one person. If a family was lucky, there were two survivors. One NGO worker told a story of how he hid under a bush in his garden while his mother and six siblings hid in the ceiling of his house. His family had been caught and forced out into the garden. The militia knew that he was hiding in the bush, and forced him to watch as his family was cut into pieces, literally, one by one. His father, who was in Congo on business, wasn’t aware of the tragedy. When his son finally revealed the news to him, his father went insane.
There are many stories like this. When I hear them, I will share them—because people outside of Rwanda need to hear them to understand the extent of the suffering here, as well as to understand the fact that these events continue to influence the way that people act, the way the government conducts business, the way that foreigners are perceived, and Rwanda’s relations with its neighbors. It’s a thread that runs through every aspect of life here.
I can’t say that I haven’t been affected. I admit that I sometimes feel like a crazy person. In my apartment, I searched for a good hiding spot. I get goosebumps just thinking about the fact that there was a time when there were corpses in the streets where I walk every day. I think about what life would be like all alone, without any nuclear or extended family. I think about how difficult it would be to maintain my sanity after having seen torture and slaughter on such a grand scale.
I also feel like this place is a powder keg. Hutus and Tutsis are self-segregated; the former tend to be farmers in rural areas or blue-collar workers in the towns, while the latter tend to dominate the urban white-collar jobs and the universities. There is a great deal of resentment that continues; Hutus resent Tutsis because there is still an enormous economic inequality between the two, and Tutsis resent Hutus because of the genocides of 1959 and 1994. One incident that really illustrated this for me occurred in Kigali last month. I went out with several Rwandans, one an IT manager, the others lawyers. We met up with my Italian friend and a Rwandan woman, about my age, who went to university and has a well-paying job at an NGO.
The woman was silent the entire evening. When I asked my Italian friend about it, he said, “Well, you know, she told me that it was because they were all Tutsis and she was Hutu.” She was uncomfortable. And if she, easily considered an elites among Hutus (not to mention Rwandans in general—having a job at an NGO carries quite a distinction), felt uncomfortable, I could only imagine what poor Hutu farmers must think.
I have also spoken with many Rwandans who have told me privately that, because they are Tutsi, they have made special efforts since 1994 to ensure that they have family members in other countries, particularly Belgium, France, England, and the U.S., so that, should another genocide occur, they won’t be stranded like they were last time.
So we’ll see what happens this week. I don’t have any idea what to expect.