National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
World -- First Person
Issue Date:  April 23, 2004

Rwanda's long road to reconciliation

Miracle of harmony balances memories of 1994 genocide


It was with some misgivings and a little fear that I agreed to go to Rwanda for six weeks with my husband, Richard. As on previous assignments to Africa, he went as a volunteer with the International Executive Service Corps. There was no hesitation on his part to sign on for this job, explaining that, besides the task at hand, he wanted to experience solidarity with the people of Rwanda. But I insisted that he contact the U.S. embassy and the International Executive Service Corps’ resident officials for the assurance that the place was safe, the fighting had stopped, and we would not be caught in the crossfire.

It was needless worry. We worked the entire six weeks last September and October mostly in Kigali, where there is nothing to fear but the random pickpocket found in any big city. Even our forays out to Lake Kivu on the western boundary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to the northwest corner of the country to see rare mountain gorillas were peaceful, though the leader of our trek carried an automatic rifle.

The task was to train the staff of the Rwanda Investment Promotion Agency in the particulars of exporting Rwandan products, few that there are, to the world. Richard and I worked as a team during the workshop phase of the training, so I got to know 10 young, educated, motivated government workers. In the capital city of Kigali, life is moving at great speed, as witnessed by the racing traffic that does not slow down, but expects the horn to clear away anything or anyone in its path.

All this bustling commerce was evident just less than a decade after a horrendous genocide during which 800,000 people were killed in three months, mostly by clubs and machetes. In the course of our weeks in Rwanda we learned about those horrifying 100 days in 1994 that, along with the fighting before and after, tore the fabric of society to shreds. Because the reporting was minimal in the United States at the time, we felt we were learning about the atrocities for the first time.

The massive eruption had been a long time brewing with many thousands killed and driven out during assaults at regular intervals in the decades between 1959 and 1994. The oppression of the Hutu tribe during 500 years of rule by Tutsi kings, continuing under the colonial government of the Belgians and Tutsis, followed by the attempts at ethnic cleansing by the Hutus when they came to power, ripped and rent the threads of the Rwandan community till it gave way entirely.

Rwandans living there today include survivors who remained in the country during the genocide as well as those who returned from exile. Rather than suppress their experiences, they talked about them, anxious to tell us their story, anxious that we understood -- although we met some who are unable to explain because they are suffering a trauma that makes it impossible for them to speak at all.

But for many, with little provocation but sufficient silence their stories begin. There were conversations we had with Moussa, the transportation man for the Rwanda Investment Promotion Agency. The better he came to know us, the more he wanted to be sure we knew what it was like, particularly for him. In 1992 he joined the army based in Uganda that fought its way back to Kigali to stop the momentum of the bloodletting in July 1994. He soon learned that his father and brothers were dead and the family home destroyed. Three months later in September, a friend told him that his mother was still alive and where to find her. It was moving to hear him say that his first meeting with her was impossible to explain. They hugged each other, remained speechless and then he had to leave. He doesn’t know why.

Another young man told me his wife and young child were killed. He wanted me to know, though the language barrier between his Kinyerwandan and my English made it impossible for him to explain further. Even today stories are told in the local newspaper. In a September issue of The New Times, a woman recalled escaping from a church in the midst of the genocide. She and her five children waited in surrounding bushes until the chaos quieted down, and then crawled back to the church to find missing relatives. “My eyes landed on the dead body of my husband.” The survivors recognized the killers at the time. They were their friends and neighbors and in-laws. They recognize them now, living in their towns, shopping at the markets.

Memorials of the massacres have been built throughout the country next to the churches and schools where they occurred, noting the number of people killed there -- 11,400, 4,000, 14,250, and so on. A handsome new building in Kigali is on the site of a mass grave for 250,000 bodies. One of the six large concrete vaults was open and we could see the wooden coffins for children stacked on top of one another, covered with elegant cloths and lace. Inside the building the skulls and bones of the victims were displayed, along with the guns and bloodstained machetes, clubs and rods used as weapons for killing.

Those who returned from exile, some of them born outside Rwanda, told us the city of Kigali was a shambles when they first saw it: burned houses, bulldozed neighborhoods and grenade holes (which remain to this day in the parliament building). John, a taxi driver, explained that he and his family could not return to their village in Gitarama since his two younger brothers had seen so much killing. Because of their impressionable age at the time, living there would be too painful.

The people are remembering. They are passing on their stories. They will not forget. At the same time, they are moving forward. Expecting a hostile environment when we went to Rwanda, it was this energy and harmony that we found so compelling. Along the roadways and in the city we observed Rwandans holding hands, often two men, as they walked along, greeting each other with hugs and kisses back and forth on both sides of their heads, happy to see each other. Harmony was evident in the streets, neighborhoods, workplaces and social spots. People continue to worship in the churches where so much killing took place. As much as they cannot believe the genocide and all the rape and horror and destruction that it carried with it -- “How could this happen?” -- they are in awe of the present harmony among them.

Moussa is an exception. He says that everyone is “pretending,” that they do not really feel affection or forgiveness for each other. Surely, there is some truth in this, and it points out the complexity of the situation.

For Rwandans, there is no adequate explanation nor understanding of this harmony. “It is a miracle. Yes!” we heard over and over. Emelienne at Catholic Relief Services told me softly, “It is a miracle. We come from way over here,” she stretched her arm far out to the right, “to way over here,” the left arm did a stretch. “The churches are full because the people are searching for God. It is a miracle. People living outside Rwanda do not understand.”

The Rwandan people, however, recognize more than ever that their efforts must continue with ever-new energy, that slackening now could place the peace in jeopardy. The world at large, which stood on the sidelines during the massacres, should know the truth about Rwanda. Rwandans desperately want their story to be told, the memory, the recovery, the healing and the hope that lives within them.

It seems it is as necessary to share their experiences with their fellow citizens as it is to tell the world. Articles from all corners of the country appear in every issue of The New Times. From Bugesera, a destitute area in the lowlands of southeastern Rwanda, Emmanuel Rutaisire wrote at the end of September that the “badly needed healing process seems to be sprouting from this disadvantaged region. … Ex-genocidaires helped relatives of their victims exhume bodies of six family members. The killers and survivors have since then been trying with the help of area administrators to appreciate why it is a necessity for them to live together.”

Such individual sentiments are nurtured and sustained by people at all levels in Rwanda. The collective disposition does not ask the population to forget -- they tell their stories, they build the memorials -- but to begin the long process of reconciliation. This sentiment, to never forget but also move forward, is supported by programs both public and private. President Paul Kagame continues to make a massive effort to push for genuine peace. He is tough on those who would seek revenge, creating a framework within which reconciliation is possible.

His presidential clemency allows self-confessed genocidaires, the chronically ill, the very young and the elderly to be released from prison, yet tens of thousands, including women and children accused of genocide, remain in overcrowded prisons. Based on a traditional system, “Gacaca” courts set up in villages allow the citizens, both prisoners and families of victims, an opportunity to face each other, to talk about their fears and anxieties during that time and their nightmares since then. Compensation is not possible now, but an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and an apology, a chance to say out loud what has possessed their minds and hearts in the interim, are major goals.

Nor does the government pretend it can do it alone, but works in partnership with numerous organizations through its National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation. The peace and justice department of Catholic Relief Services, under the direction of Paul Rutayisire, initiated a program that allows priests and people to talk to each other about their behavior during that time. Therapy sessions are offered to clergy to treat the trauma, fear and self-incrimination many of them feel.

Two-thirds of the population on both sides is Catholic, and the official Catholic church is making an effort to join the forces of peace. Because the church has typically aligned itself with those in power in Rwanda, the hierarchy sided with the government during the genocide. Some church leaders did leave the country, some are accused of contributing to the killing, but none are known to have used their influence to halt the chaos.

Overall, forgiveness, “to grant free pardon of an offense,” as the dictionary defines it, is still off in the distance, whereas reconciliation, an acceptance of one another, is moving forward. The more we talked to people who were willing to acknowledge a “miracle,” the more we found the garment is not yet complete. Pieces are basted together, so that it is possible to envision the finished product, but there is much work to be done. One man told us that his reconciliation will happen once he rebuilds his house in the place it was destroyed. He still holds strains of bitterness in his heart, and insists that the goal of a new house is necessary to his healing.

Somehow, bit-by-bit, day-by-day, step-by-step, the people are responding to the goodness within them, moving away from the evil that was here, reaching for a future that will unite Rwandans into a cohesive community. The reasons may be pragmatic -- aversion to more killing, acceptance of friend and foe living as neighbors, emptying the prisons, stabilizing the economy -- but they are responding in a realistic yet liberating fashion, determined to dislodge the long-standing enmity and replace it with tolerance.

Rwanda knows it cannot relax into complacency, but must keep the present energy pulsating through the community. In the spirit of a village chief, one of 10 survivors out of 100,000 killed in the area, “The genocide happened. We can’t reverse that, but we must move ahead.” As the leader of his community, he was helping some released genocidaires find homes in his village. “It will be a double tragedy if we become hostages of our dark history,” he told The New Times.

Seldom do we witness a time of such great evil that was the genocide being brought to a time of such great tolerance and hope. This journey in Rwanda has only begun and will continue with victories big and small. The torments -- physical, mental, psychological, spiritual, financial -- experienced by Rwandans during those three months in 1994 are beyond comprehension. The spirit that is rising from their “tortured history” is equally beyond comprehension.

Kathleen Hage is a hospice chaplain and lives in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004

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