Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts on Genocide Memorial Week

It's a little delayed, I know, but finishing the school year has kept me from taking the time to post about my last visit. It was definitely hectic--and stressful, since I technically skipped a week of school to come out to Rwanda for Genocide Memorial Week. (Doing economics problem sets with sketchy internet is no fun.)

I'm glad I went to the conference. It was very academic, and I was left feeling like it could have attracted many important attendees. It wasn't particularly well publicized. Some of the panels were a bit dry, and others a bit obvious, but some were very, very interesting. One made my mouth drop, and another nearly made me cry.

Two French academics presented on what some French people have been saying about the Rwandan genocide. It was the last panel on the second day, and while everyone was tired, as soon as they began to speak, everyone's mouth fell open. Some of the most outlandish things they said included:

"It was a double-genocide" (meaning that both Hutu and Tutsi were massacred at alarming rates)
"It was a product of the Anglo-Israeli coalition to meddle in French Africa"
"It was only a genocide of Hutu. 4 million Hutu were killed by Paul Kagame's RPF"
"All the killings during the genocide were committed by the Tutsi rebels, who infiltrated the Hutu army, killed Tutsi civilians, and threw them into the road when international reporters came by in order to mislead them into thinking that Hutu were committing genocide" (This one really doesn't pass the laugh test, since it's pretty easy to distinguish between the two groups...among other things)

I should note that the French academics delivering this talk didn't subscribe to these points of view (or else they wouldn't have been allowed into the country).

The other interesting talk was by a Rwandan academic who presented on a unique coping mechanism among Rwandan genocide survivors. I have talked with others about this because I was so deeply moved, and they have said that similar coping techniques have emerged after conflict situations in other countries.

The man spoke of two youth survivor associations. I only caught the name of one, the GAERG (Groupe d'Anciens Etudiants Rescap├ęs du Genocide des Tutsi). Groups of youth survivors, having no family left, band together into an association, creating an artificial family. The family can be large. They choose a new surname, one they all share (in Rwanda, this is less common). These surnames have meaning; translated, they mean "resilient," "brave," etc. Regardless of age, one association member assumes the role of "father," and another of "mother," and they fulfill these roles faithfully. When report cards for the "children" must be signed, the father and mother sign them. When a "child" is given away in marriage, they do this as well. When children are born to members, they become part of the family. In other words, the family functions as a normal family would, only the family members could all be the same age.

I find this model particularly interesting (and touching) because these survivors are trying to piece together a new life, to start over. In forming a new family, they are also modeling good family behavior, which is important not only for the "family members" to deal with their grief, but are also providing support to the next generation, to lessen any pain and suffering they may inherit.

Following the conference, two friends and I attended the official ceremony at Amahoro National Stadium in Remera. It was packed--by my estimation, 10,000 or more people attended, including President Kagame. We didn't stick to the official schedule (rare is the occasion when one does), as the ceremony seemed heavy on music and light on speeches. (Usually, I would argue that this is better than the reverse, but the musicians kept repeating the same songs.) The Rwandan government had flown in top musicians from the countries of East Africa, one from each. Representing Rwanda was my friend Faycal Ngeruka. They sang a song called "Never Again," and showed the music video they produced, which I've just found on YouTube:

The ceremony was sponsored by Aegis Trust, a UK NGO that educates about genocide and has funded the construction of genocide memorials in Rwanda and elsewhere. After showing a touching video featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tony Blair, Scarlett Johansson and Ben Affleck. (The last two are head scratchers, but whatever.) Several individual videos of that were used in the compilation can be found here:

The main event of the ceremony was a beautiful candle-lighting in the center of the field that read "hope" in French, English, and Kinyarwanda. The ambient music was punctuated by occasional shrieks from the audience, usually survivors who suffered from flashbacks. The Rwandan Red Cross was on standby in every section to escort them out; one person's screams can incite others to scream, creating mass hysteria.

The event concluded with a screening of a Rwandan film about a Hutu man and a Tutsi woman who come to be very good friends (with a hint of flirtation...) and eventually find out that the man's father killed the woman's father. It was short but effective, and the people around me seemed to be very engaged in the plot's twists and turns.

The people around me were the best part of the event, I think. You could tell by the way people were dressed that they weren't just Kigali's businesspeople, yuppies, and other professionals. There weren't many abazungu there, either. Many of the people around me were workers and farmers (there are still farms in urban Kigali; they tend to farm in the valleys, where it floods and wealthier people choose not to live. More valuable land is higher on the hills). It was nice to know that, despite significant international funding and some ostentation, the event wasn't entirely catered to the higher socio-economic classes.