The genocide memorial period concluded yesterday, after a week of discussions, films, speeches, church services, and parades. Businesses were ordered to close between the hours of noon and 6 pm so that employees could attend the events. All of Rwanda’s schools were closed. Only songs about the genocide were permitted to be played on the radio.
In one song, a man sang, “Death, why must you follow me? I’ve paid you, I’ve done everything I can to escape from you.” The song came out in 2004. Two weeks later, the singer was found in the Nyabarongo River, a waterway that winds through the marshes and valleys near Kigali and moves north, feeding into the Nile. During the genocide, Tutsis were killed and throw into the river because extremists said that the Tutsis should be “sent back where they came from.” (The generally tall, lean, fairer-skin characteristics of Tutsis had led many to believe that they have ethnically Ethiopian roots.)
Every year, the genocide memorial period closes with the burial of victims in a memorial tomb. This is done across the country. In Rubavu, the district in which Gisenyi is located, the memorial service was held at a relatively new genocide memorial in Rugerero, more than an hour by foot from Gisenyi. It was funded and built this year by a Chinese-American woman.
Thousands from the surrounding areas came to the site, many walking from Gisenyi in their best clothes. It seemed that everyone present wore purple if they could. Most wore deep purple handkerchiefs around their necks or wrists, a symbol of mourning and remembrance of the family members they lost. Purple is the color of genocide. It’s also the color of Lent. The genocide memorial period sadly coincides with the Christians’ Holy Week.
The ceremony opened with prayers by representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim faiths. Then the stories began. In French, they are called temoignages
, from the French word temoigner, “to witness.” I prefer the term temoignages
to any English translation because it is a better description: these are the stories of witnesses.
A woman told the story of her harrowing escape, hiding among the banana trees and paying her way through interahamwe roadblocks. She was hiding in a grassy field when her brother-in-law, a Hutu, found her. He left her there and returned with a group of interahamwe, machetes at the ready. She fled to a friend’s house. They found her there and slaughtered her friend’s family. They tried to kill the woman, too, starting by chopping her arms with machetes. She still bears the scars, and showed them. Her husband managed to save her from his family. He is now estranged from them; his family is angry that he married a Tutsi and that she did not perish like many others.
It was then that I heard the screams. They cut through the silence. It sounded like someone behind the memorial was being attacked. My heart jumped into my throat as policemen and Red Cross volunteers started running toward the noise.
When they emerged through the crowd, they were carrying two women, both looking possessed, convulsing and screaming in agony. They were carried to a tent nearby, erected to deal with cases like these—many people literally go insane during this period, when they remember what they suffered and the widespread carnage they witnessed.
The temoignages continued over the screaming and wailing, which became more frequent. They conclude with the remarks of a young child, maybe 13 or 14 years old, who had brought the bones of his father to the site to lay them to rest.
It was impossible, throughout the memorial service, to not be touched. Everyone around me was wiping their tears, leaning on each other for support, or softly wailing into their hands. I, too, was moved to tears.
Then came the coffins. There were about six or seven of them. They contained multiple bodies—53 people were entombed, their caskets draped with purple cloth.
The tone of the event then changed. The Minister for Social and Cultural Affairs made a speech denouncing those who denied a genocide had ever occurred. I hadn’t realized that anyone refused to believe it—it’s like denying that grass is green or that the sky is blue—the proof is everywhere. She said that those who denied it tended to be those who still had extremist views.
She had met a girl last month who had had problems with her father because he continued to maintain extremist views. She turned him into the authorities, reporting how he had been a genocidaire. In 1994, she was a very young girl, and was walking along the road when she found a baby next to its dead parents. She brought the baby home to take care of it.
“What is this shit?” her father asked, referring to the baby. He took his machete and chopped the baby into pieces before throwing it into a toilet.
The Minister also recounted how there was a mass grave of babies—the genocidaires used pieces of wood to smash the babies in the hole, not unlike a mortar and pestle.
“It’s not over,” she said. “Extremists persist here.” Two days ago, a Tutsi girl was attacked in Gisenyi by two young men on account of her ethnicity—she was beaten nearly to death, and was hospitalized. In another case, the goats of a Tutsi farmer were used to incite terror—their eyes were gouged out while he was away.
After four hours, the event concluded with a song. Everyone present was invited to the district office down the road to wash their hands, a traditional practice at the close of a period of mourning, before making the long walk home.