Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sometimes in April...

It was on April 7th 1994,  that the darkest time in Rwanda's history began. When Hutus took machetes, guns, and whatever other weapons they could find and began to kill their Tutsi neighbors, colleagues and friends. Their thirst for blood was so ravenous that it was only satiated 100 days later when the bloodbath ceased. In those 100 days, close to one million people lost their lives and Rwanda would never be the same again. At the time, I was in the 7th grade and didn't have a clue that Rwanda existed, much less the events that unfolded during that time. The U.S. media largely ignored the conflict, in favor of intervening in the crisis in the Middle East. I remember even at 12 years old, holding up the peace sign and saying "Peace in the Middle East" as was popular at the time. When I thought of Africa, I thought of "We are the World" and starving children, never of war or military conflict. In all honesty, the first time I heard of Rwanda, was when Hotel Rwanda came out in 2004. Even though I had graduated from college and traveled to different parts of the world, I was still ignorant about the continent of Africa. I remember watching the movie and thinking, "How could this happen?" "Why didn't anyone do anything?" Never did I imagine that seven years later, I would be living in Rwanda, three blocks from the real Hotel Rwanda-(Hotel des Milles Collines) and commemorating the 17th anniversary of the genocide, side by side with the survivors.

On April 7th, 2011, 17 years after the genocide, Rwanda was unusually quiet. There were no cars whizzing by in the street, no blackbirds squawking on my balcony, no children playing in the school yard next door. I woke up as my alarm went off at the usual time of 6 am. Since it was a national holiday, there was no work or school for anyone in Rwanda. I planned to commemorate the day at the Stade Amahoro with thousands of other Rwandans. When my co-worker Malick, picked me up that morning, we decided to visit the Kigali Memorial Center before going to the stadium. When we arrived at the memorial center, we realized that we had just missed President Kagame lighting the memorial flame. So security was tight and the air was thick with tension and heaviness. After a long wait at the entrance, we were finally permitted inside. As I walked inside, I was blown away by how beautiful the center was. Set on top of  a huge hill in the center of Kigali, the memorial center consists of beautiful gardens, a large fountain, small pool, genocide museum and library. I started walking around and taking pictures. I stepped on a large flat step and took pictures of the fleshly laid flowers nearby. I heard a voice behind me yell "You're not supposed to step on that!" I turned around and saw a woman on the balcony above me point to a sign that read: "Do not step on the MASS GRAVES." I immediately stepped down and looked around to see that the step was actually a long flat slab of cement that held hundreds of genocide victims. Many of them were buried together because they were unrecognizable even for their family members. I noticed that the people that were around me were all quietly praying and looking down. That's when it hit me! These people were family members of the victims. They had come to the center to pay their respects and to mourn their loss. The reality of the situation hit me hard and I put down my camera and stopped taking pictures. Suddenly the genocide became very real to me and it was inescapable from that point on.  I walked around the center and saw the graves, the names of the victims written on the memorial wall and read the survivor stories. The stories were tragically moving, stories of neighbors and friends turned against each other in a bitter murderous mob. I kept asking myself, how could this happen? How could people be so brutal to children, the elderly, friends, classmates, co-workers because of ethnic pride? I couldn't read enough stories or listen to enough songs or testimonies. My mind just wanted to know everything about the genocide.

Here is a brief timeline of the events that led up to the genocide:
1923: Belgian troops occupied Rwanda-Burundi during World War I and ruled the countries indirectly.

1932: Rwandans were associated with various clans and the terms Hutus and Tutsis referred to socio-economic classifications which could change at any time. The Belgians divided Rwandans into racial groups and called the two groups Hutus and Tutsis. The members of each group had to carry identity cards.

1957: Belgian authorities who had previously favored the Tutsis, shifted their alliance to the Hutu majority and placed them in power. The Hutus in power drafted  the 'Hutu Manifesto' that gave them political rights and control of the military.

1959: Over 700,000 Tutsis were exiled from Rwanda and prevented from returning. Most exiles settled in the Congo, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Burundi. The remaining Tutsis were targets of routine violence and many were killed in the ensuing years. Others were sent to live in the district of Bugesera known for its flat, infertile land and Tse Tse flies.

1990:  Exiles formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded Rwanda, throwing the entire country into a bitter civil war.

1993: International pressure led to the end of the civil war and the signing of the Arusha Accords on August 4th. The agreement called for rule of law, power sharing, integration of the armed forces, resettlement of refugees and fair elections between the Hutus and Tutsis.  In spite of the agreement, Hutu allies established a radio station dedicated to hate propaganda against the Tutsis.

1994: April 6th - President Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Ntaryamira of Burundi were flying back to Kigali when their plane was shot down. Both presidents were killed and by the end of the night, roadblocks were set up to prevent Tutsis from leaving the country.

April 7th- the killings began and lasted for the next 100 days. Hutus were encouraged to kill their Tutsi neighbors and co-workers. Over 5000 women and children who hid in churches were slaughtered in vicious attacks at the Nymata and Ntarama churches.  The district of Bugesera, where Tutsis were forced to live, lost 90% of its population. UN peace keepers left Rwanda in the first few days of the genocide. The world watched and did nothing. An estimated 1 million people died.

July 17th - The genocide ends when the RPF invades Rwanda and drives the Hutu militia into Zaire, (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where they remain until today. UN Peace Keepers returned to bring stability to Rwanda. Thousands of Hutus were tried and convicted of their crimes.


Testimonies: Innocent's Story;          Beatha's Story;        Dancilla's Story


As we prepared to leave the memorial center, we were told that President Kagame was now at the Stadium and we would not be allowed to go there for security reasons. So I went back to my apt and watched the events unfolding at the stadium on my TV. The ceremony which lasted until 10p was all in Kinyarwanda and featured many songs, testimonies, and speeches. One of the major reasons for the commemoration is to remind the world about the genocide and that it was a horrible act that should never happen again. Is another genocide possible in Rwanda? I don't know the answer to that question. When President Kagame took control of Rwanda, racial classifications were done away with. So no one is considered a Hutu or a Tutsi anymore, just Rwandese. Yet Hutu forces are still causing unrest in the Congo and two weeks ago over 1,000 people were killed in the Ivory Coast due to ethnic violence. So while the American media focuses on Libya, thousands of people in poor (non-oil rich) countries die needlessly without any intervention from the United Nations. Sounds familiar?

"Today, the world just wants silence about the genocide. I demand that the world recognize this genocide existed, and is not only a problem of these Africans; that it is a problem of the whole of humanity. If your neighbor's house is burning, you help put out the fire, because you don't know where the wind will blow the flames. We struggle against genocides, but we don't struggle enough against the ideologies that lead to genocides, and that is the problem. Our struggle today- our work today- is very important. Maybe we will not see the results of that work, but it is important for the next generation. Let's be generous for the next generation. Let's be generous so that tomorrow, mothers will not suffer as I suffered." - Yolande Mukagasana: Genocide survivor and author 

I know a lot of this stuff is really heavy and depressing. My point in writing this is not to depress anyone but to make you all aware of what is going on in our world, particularly in Africa. Living here the last couple of months has made me sensitive to the issues that concern Rwanda and other African countries. Given the theme of my blog "Now that I have seen, I am responsible", I felt compelled to share all that I have learned about the genocide with all of you, so that the events that started on April 7th, 1994 will never happen again in Rwanda or elsewhere in the world. Let us stay informed about Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries, because as the poem says, " you help put out the fire, because you don't know where the wind will blow the flames."







Kigali Memorial Center

Flowers laid on mass graves

Memorial center flame and grounds

Coffins representing victims - men, women and children

Gardens

Genocide library

A little boy's plea


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