To liberate oneself
A hundred days ago, I wrote about Kwibuka 23, the national memorial day for the beginning of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994. Today is another commemoration day of a different kind—Liberation Day. Today we remember the end of that genocide.
On the 4th of July in 1994, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) succeeded in overthrowing the government and bringing an end to a hundred days of inhumane violence.
“Every time I remember the genocide, I think that I have to love people. I give a lot of value to people. Sometimes when I’m with my little daughter, I cry, because I remember . . . what happened to other daughters. . . . I knew people who were killed, people who were killing, and still sometimes I think, ‘Did this really happen? Was it a dream?’ Because it is beyond what I can understand.”
A hundred days sounds short when you say it, but it feels long when you live it.
Three months feels like an eternity to me; I barely remember the long-ago days of April’s beginning—the holiday from school, the lesson prep, the visits from friends.
Imagine what a compounded eternity that was for the Rwandan people, then—over three months of bloodshed and horror and fear, of unimaginable loss and pain with no end in sight. In retrospect, we know it was a hundred days. In the moment, living that nightmare-come-reality, they had no idea when it would end. They could not count down the days to liberation; they could only count up the days of violence.
My point is not to dwell on the terrible things that happened during those three months, but to point out the impact of liberation here.
We call this “Liberation Day,” the day the genocide ended, but the truth is that liberation in Rwanda is more than a single event. It is an ongoing process that began twenty-three years ago and continues today.
“‘Every night when we went to bed, we did not know if we would wake up the next morning.’ … How can we not have hope after that, when that nightmare is over? So many things have changed that there is no way that we don’t have hope. It’s like a big dark curtain in front of you that is not only disappeared but is taken far away. It’s gone, and everything has changed… Rwandans now working together to build our country, that’s our hope. …The hope is also built by those who want to listen to us, who want to observe, who want to learn, and then who want to walk with us [to get] where we want to go.”
1994 saw the climax of a long history of systemic inequality, division, and mistrust. Long before the killings began that April, there had been policies depriving Tutsis of educational and career opportunities; there had been strong voices propagating divisions among people; there had been a growing mistrust.
All of these things fuelled the atrocities committed during the genocide, and in its wake, the Rwandan people—liberated from the physical conflict—were left with a broken country.
Rwandans have spent nearly two and a half decades liberating their country.
Together they have worked and continue to work toward liberation from divisive ideologies, from resentment, from fear. The Rwandan people are realising a vision of their country in which all people are respected and valued and given equal opportunity, in which there are no artificial divisions, in which hatred is not tolerated.
“My hope is that in this country there is no discrimination . . . Everyone is Rwandan. Everyone can go to school. Everyone can get a job. We are living in a place where there is no longer discrimination.”
Rwanda today is not perfect. Rwandans are quick to tell the ways in which they want to continue developing their country. They are quick to acknowledge that there are problems to be solved and disparities to be evened out. Most individuals live with some form of loss and trauma that no number of years can erase.
But they are also proud of their country—as they should be.
Rwanda has made incredible progress against significant odds, constantly improving its security, successfully using a culture-specific justice system to address millions of cases related to the genocide, repatriating millions of Rwandans who had fled the country, actively working to diminish poverty and increase education, and caring for hundreds and thousands of people left orphaned, widowed, wounded, or traumatised.
“My hope is in the youth. When I have discussions with the youth, I think, ‘Perhaps this country has a good place it is going.’ . . . Different people have different perspectives on the history. . . but the youth say, ‘No, this cannot happen again.'”
Today Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world. Children play freely in the streets because, as one Rwandan Peace Corps staff member pointed out to me, their parents know that anywhere they go, someone will look out for them. My students are quick to emphasise unity and the value of supporting one another.
There are no longer systemic divisions; instead each person says proudly, “Ndi Umunyarwanda”—“I am Rwandan.”
“I find hope in the progress that Rwanda is making. I was here in 1994 after the genocide. It was like chaos. Everything was kind of destroyed. Even people were fearing each other. But now the progress in unity is so high. If you look at 1994, 1995, 1996, there is always something more in Rwanda. When I meet foreigners, they always say, ‘Kassim, do you realise how Rwanda is a good country? Do you see how it is progressing?’ I don’t always see that, because I live here and I see things as normal, but people from other countries, when they see how . . . Rwanda is developing—they keep telling me, ‘Kassim you are lucky, you have a good country.’ That’s what makes me feel hopeful. And because I know how things have been progressing from the worst to the best.”
Today in Rwanda, there is hope.
And today I feel incredibly privileged to be here, to know these people, to witness the progress they have made and continue to make. I am inspired by their optimism and determination. I am touched by their unity and strength.
I am encouraged by their hope.