To Remember

Kwibuka

To remember

The seventh of April is a day of poignant significance in Rwanda. 

Twenty-three years ago, in 100 days beginning on 7 April 1994, over a million people were murdered in Rwanda, not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were.

“Genocide means . . . acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group…”

From Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (source)

Every year on this anniversary, the nation shuts down for a day of united mourning and memorial, and today I, an American for whom this day holds no memories, was invited to stand in solidarity with those who remember.

My neighbour Theophile took me to the Gahana cell office near the town centre where most of the residents of our area were gathered, sitting in desks brought over from the school. Aside from quiet greetings, the crowd sat silent—a rare occurrence among Rwandans, who are, in my experience, generally social, jovial, and unselfconscious. 

We opened with a prayer by one of the local church leaders and some remarks by a local cell leader, describing to us the theme of this year’s memorial—remember, unite, renew. The theme, as he explained it to us (and as Theophile translated for me, since I understood only some of what he said) is to remember the genocide against the Tutsi, fight against genocide ideology, and continue to build up the country. 

The speaking was punctuated intermittently by a men’s choir from the nearby Adventist church. From what I could understand of the lyrics, they sang that the genocide happened because love was cold, that this earth is old and we must journey, that someday there will be no death.

 “Genocide is possible when the messages of hate from would-be perpetrators go unchallenged and when the people at risk fall outside the awareness—and/or the sense of moral obligation—of anyone who could help to ensure their protection.”

(source)

After this, we all walked to the memorial site. Every area has a genocide memorial, usually a building and a small landscaped space, often including mass graves. Ours is in Songa, a distance of about two kilometres from my village, and together we took what Theophile referred to in English as “a walk of remember.” 

Mostly silent, collecting people along the way, we walked together, shoulder to shoulder the width of the road, moving feet and bowed heads as far as I could see ahead and behind.

A primary student from my school, apparently with no adult supervision and one of the few children I saw, came up beside me and stayed quietly through the whole of the event. He was born after the genocide, but he will grow up remembering these memorials every year.

A few neighbours and teachers shook my hand in passing. Nobody else seemed to notice me. On this day, in this place, my foreignness ceased to be important. I never heard “umuzungu,” and no-one looked at me as if I should not be there.

As we neared the memorial, Theophile nudged me and pointed off to the left. The trees broke to give a stunning view of the hills and valleys rolling away to the east. This, he told me, was where the abatutsi in this area were brought to be killed.

“Over the past century, more than 200 million people died as a result of state-sponsored mass murder.”

(source)

At the memorial site, we gathered, as many as could fit inside the fence standing pressed together, more lining the fence outside, some sitting across the road on the grass. Theophile and I stood next to a low wall separating the walkway from one of the mass graves, and he whispered to me that in this place were buried 43,000 Tutsi.

The leaders of three different churches prayed, and various community members and officials gave speeches. One speech—whose words I understood none of—was presented in short passages over and in between the constant sound of a choir I could not see, who sang over and over in Kinyarwanda, “Rwanda nziza—ntuzongere.” 

“Beautiful Rwanda—never again.”

Someone turned on the radio and we listened to the official broadcast—speeches in Kinyarwanda, French, and English detailing the history of Rwanda and of the ideology that lead to the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, reminding us of the immense progress made since then, and urging people to be unified as we move forward. 

In front of me, sitting on the low wall by the grave, five abakecuru—old women—sat with their hands to their faces, wiping tears away for the entire three hours that we stood there under the sun in that place of grief and memories. Beside me, Theophile occasionally let out an audible sob.

During 100 days in April 1994, over a million people were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped, many intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS. Thousands of children were orphaned.

(source)

We held a minute of silence to remember those who had died. President Kagame told us that we must live our lives by remembering what happened, accepting that we cannot change the past, and making it our task to prevent such a tragedy ever occurring again. I thought of the way radio was used in 1994 to stir up hatred and violence, and of the way it was used today to encourage peace and unity.

And then, together, we walked home, no Hutu, no Tutsi, only Rwandans—and me.

Today I felt the weight of the privilege I have of living with these people; of being invited into this country, this culture, this village; of being welcomed, not as a visitor, but as a member of the community; of standing united with those who remember.
If you want to learn more about the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994 or about the memorials held in Rwanda during this time, you can go to one of these websites:

National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide

Kwibuka 

Aegis Trust 

I Cried

I cried over a bowl once.

I don’t remember what it looked like, really; I was six or seven, and it was some kind of mixing bowl, but it had been my great-grandmother’s. We were packing to move overseas, a process I understood in terms of its end result. My parents were up late, deciding what to pack, what to put in storage, what to get rid of. You don’t realise how much you own until you have to condense a houseful of belongings into a few airport-ready bins.

I remember yellow kitchen light and open cupboards and the chaos of boxes and kitchenware littering the floor, and my mother holding the bowl and deciding to get rid of it.

And I remember crying.

She told me it was silly to cry, because I hadn’t even known the woman, and it was her grandmother, not mine, and her bowl, not mine, and she told me that sometimes you have to get rid of things, even sentimental things, because you can’t keep everything.

She got rid of the bowl.

I don’t know why that mattered so much to me; all her reasons were right. Maybe it was the stress of the transition catching me unawares, or maybe I was an emotional kid awake after my bedtime. Somehow, though, in the moment, it felt right to cry, to mourn without inhibition what I saw as the loss of something beautiful and meaningful.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/irteza/5922171727/in/photolist-a2jFk6-8bBrX8-rpFgum-JerKp-eeG4gh-4h2Dhw-a4GjY4-bQmwg4-85LaZk-4y3K9S-c18unC-crVFsN-9gNcst-bACWR7-9tSm1t-KAkU-a66E5d-AGc9Wp-5E4k1j-dVhmMD-smwbp-zZDX36-5iXdaD-g671Bo-6twiPY-nCFM-o28GN-a4JUTS-6fmybb-4QzDpG-fYGziu-8cQxVt-dcs1ru-5XCqe8-QRxBz-8cTQ85-7B7ywb-7kCK7-92mokf-7EgqdY-aJtonp-4tAq1X-4rY5Gi-9YvyhF-7uoiHf-soDQG-gh2Gw-Gizvv1-yRciei-5AjEfV

I used to cry a lot, actually, but I don’t so much anymore.

I cried for homesickness after every move, but at some point that stopped. Sometime between moving to the desert and moving into a dorm room, homesickness stopped being a poignant ache and started being a fact of life—like a chronic backache, it’s always present, always painful, but no longer debilitating; it’s so constant I hardly remember what life was like before it.

I cried over deaths of people I hardly knew. I cried in the living room over sad movies and in the back of the classroom over sad books that I hid in my lap and read during lectures. I cried over beautiful music and skinned knees and lost toys.

I cried a lot.

I cried unashamedly.

But somewhere along the lines things changed, and I started to hate crying. I began to develop tricks for avoiding tears—biting my cheek, thinking of something funny, dissociating, counting backward from a hundred, anything that would distract my brain long enough to regain control of myself.

My childhood self saw tears as a beautiful thing—a cleansing, a connection, a genuine expression. My beginning-to-grow-up self lost that perspective. Sometime after that bowl, tears became a weakness instead of a strength, a betrayal instead of an admission. They became something to hide, something to deny, something to avoid.

I cried over a rabbit yesterday.

bunny

She died in my hands, and there was nothing I could do, and somehow, through the panic and the grief, I remembered my mother standing in that yellow kitchen telling me that you can’t keep everything even if you love it. I held the tiny convulsing body and I cried, and in the infinity between fluttering heartbeats, I remembered every other animal I cried for.

I remembered the mouse dead in the mousetrap when I was eight, and the baby bird dead in my hands when I was ten. I remembered one puppy kicking and going still when I was nine and one puppy watching through the fence as we drove away when I was eleven. I remembered a pair of baby quail in a cardboard box and an old mare rearing in a new corral.

And as I cried, uninhibited, unashamed, over the loss of something beautiful, I thought, for the first time in a long time, that maybe tears are a cleansing.

Grief: A Sacred Space

https://unsplash.com/photos/HefnuyFh2Yg

“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.