“G” is for Genocide
When I was a freshman in high school, my Honors World Studies teacher had the class watch the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda (with parental permission of course–it’s rated R and I was barely 14 at the time). My class was right before lunch, and I will never forget the trance-like state in which many of us walked into the cafeteria, sat down, and ate our lunch (if we could stomach it) in silence. We were all stunned. How was this possible? And in 1994? About half of us were BORN in 1994! And why had we never heard about this atrocity before if it was so significant?
(Well, as I have come to know, a major reason for our lack of knowledge is the fact that this time was a bit of a sore spot in international history, especially for Western nations like the United States – so sore that, had I not seen Hotel Rwanda in my class that day, I may not have known about the genocide before I began my research in preparation for this trip.)
It’s almost unfathomable that a genocide has happened in my lifetime in a country that I have come to know over the last two and a half weeks as extremely peaceful, tranquil, and overflowing with love. When you drive down the streets of Kigali, they are cleaner than many U.S. streets, the locals are happy to politely point you in the right direction while assuring you that “all is okay,” and there is basically no sign of the death that littered this city a mere 21 years ago. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which more than a million Tutsis, moderate Hutus, and Twa people were targeted and slaughtered by the Interahamwe (a Hutu parliamentary organization), began early on April 7, a mere 50 days before I was born. And yet, as I stood observing a moment of silence at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in which more than 250,000 victims of this genocide have been permanently laid to rest, it was so hard to not be overcome with grief and empathy for the millions who were displaced, killed, or who lost their families and friends. Rwanda’s history and culture today would not be the same had these atrocities not been committed. 1994 was not the only racially-motivated, often fatal, discrimination of the Tutsis – they faced similar conflict multiple times in the mid-1900s as well, though not on quite the same scale as the killings of 1994.
Overwhelmed is probably a good word to describe how I was feeling that day. After placing a beautiful bouquet of flowers on one of the graves, our group continued on to the next part of the memorial. In addition to the burial site, there is also a museum at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The museum, as well as this resource, explains the historical context leading up to the 1994 genocide. The museum does include graphic photos, but there is written warning in English, French and Kinyarwanda before you see them. As you walk through the museum, different multimedia elements are present to help explain the context and the casualties involved with genocide in Rwanda over the years, with emphasis on the 1994 genocide. The second floor of the museum branches out to discuss genocide in general, from the Armenian Genocide before World War I, to the Holocaust, to the genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s. Part of the museum is also a memorial to children who were killed during the Rwandan genocide – images of and basic facts about these children whose only foible was their birth. If there is one point that will push you over the edge emotion-wise, it’s the children’s memorial. To read the brief descriptions of how these kids, many of whom could have recently graduated from college, died coupled with their favorite food or their first words, was utterly heartbreaking.
(Pro tip: bring tissues.)
For many, according to a video played when you first arrive at the memorial, the Kigali Genocide Memorial represents closure – their families are finally at peace, and the atrocities committed in 1994 are recognized and have been condemned by the international community. But for some, the memorial may be a dark shadow. On Monday, December 14, 2015, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda closed after 21 years, with many genocide instigators still in the wind, according to the BBC. Many perpetrators of the genocide are still out there somewhere – and that can hardly bring peace to a grieving family member. This happened multiple decades ago, but that doesn’t mean the grieving will ever cease.
If this post seems like a scrambled version of my thoughts to you, you’re not alone. I’ve been trying to write something up about this for two weeks now, and at this point, this is the best I’ve got. I’m not going to go on a rant about the current political climate; I’m not going to come up with a list of ways in which the world, in an ideal situation, can eliminate this horror; I’m not going to try to be more a part of what happened than I am.
If you take away anything from my ramblings, take away this: Genocide is not unique to any one country or culture. Anything can happen anywhere in the world – just because one instance happens geographically far away from you doesn’t mean the possibility is all that distant.