Monday, June 15, 2009
15 Year Anniversary
Remembering the Genocide
Genocide Memorial Centre, Kigali May 14th, 2009
Technical College Memorial, near Butatare, May 17th, 2009
We entered Rwanda not knowing much about the horrors which took place in 1994. Typically Western maybe, or perhaps just naïve we were only just aware that there was a genocide. They say knowledge is power, but sometimes it feels like a burden. Past mistakes weigh heavily on guilty western conscience. Starting at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali we started reliving the sickening events. Historically there were always tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis, however this tension escalated due to Belgian colonialism. In efforts to control the colony, the Belgians decided to divide the region placing strong emphasis on the differences between the groups of people including measuring physical differences in nose shape and making people carry status relating identity cards indicating belonging to either group. They then ‘rewarded’ the minority population, the Tutsis by giving them all positions of power and declaring them to be superior. Time passed, the country gained independence, a more balanced population gained positions of power (both Hutu and Tutsi), but hatred grew.
Plans emerged, sickening detailed plans. The UN had a small presence in the country at this time including Romeo Dallaire and ten Belgian soliders (Beligan was the only western country to offer soliders). Romeo Dallaire received information that an organized genocide which was going to take place from an informant. He repeated sent word to New York UN headquarters only to be ignored. Days later the plans took shape. A helicopter was shot down carrying the Rwandan Prime Minister and the Burundi Prime Minister. The Hutu faction took control of radio and t.v. stations beginning a propaganda campaign blaming first the Belgians for this event and later the Tutsis. The ten UN Belgian soldiers were killed and mutilated beyond recognition- so much so that when Dallaire saw the bodies he thought there were eleven men not ten. The UN was then unwilling to send any additional troops and Dallaire was left. He gained a force of Ugandan troops and began his battle to end the genocide.
The facts which remain are disturbing. The amount of soldiers used to evacuate the western population would have been enough to prevent the genocide from occurring. A French bank funded the Hutu weapons. Churches where people fled to for safety were often locked and set alight- sometimes the Minister himself would alert the Hutu to kill his congregation. Innocent people fled to the hills where they would fight against machine guns by using sticks and stones. Women were systematically raped by known HIV positive men. Children were killed in front of their parents. Neighbours killed neighbours. In three months over 900,000 people died. The death toll is greater than that though, as the killing continued in refugee camps along with other killers such as cholera (killed 1.2 million) and estimates are as high as four million people died as a result.
In times of travesty true heroes emerge. We read stories of individual rising above and helping the victims. One man dug out a trench in his yard and had 19 people live there. Over the trench he put planks and dirt and planted sweet potatoes to disguise what he was doing. A woman who was known in her local area as being a witch doctor housed people in a shed in her garden. When demanded by rebels to open it, she told them if they did terrible things would happen to them. Luckily they believed her.
Besides the information we learned at the Memorial Centre we went to a Technical College Memorial site. During the genocide Tutsis were told that they would be protected if they came here. Thousands fled here. They were held here for two weeks without any food and water. Then they were systematically killed. 50,000 people died there- men, women, children and babies. They were then buried in shallow graves. After the genocide the mass graves were excavated. Many of the bodies were cast in lime and are thus preserved so one can see them. The sadness and horror Karel and I were able to witness first hand was powerful. We were taken to see volumes of bodies in room after room until we could stomach no more. They were small bodies which are just bones now, some wearing clothing, some missing limbs which were macheted off, some with crushed skulls, I could go on. We both felt the sensation of wanting to be sick. The smell and stuffiness was thick- even though the rooms were ventilated. Conflicts were between wanting to see and wanting to avoid seeing. The corpses were so fragile, so vulnerable that I wanted to pick them up, cradle the bodies and rock them like a small child.
It is now the 15th anniversary of the genocide and the country is working hard at building relations and a status of being Rwandan- there are no longer Hutu and Tutsi. It may seem like the violence is over- and it may be in Rwanda- but it’s not. During the genocide the French provided safe passage for Hutu rebels into the Congo where the murdering and raping continues- we might not hear about it in the UK, Canada or elsewhere but its happening. Yesterday on BBC Africa we heard that remote villages in the DRC on the eastern side of Lake Kivu (which also borders Rwanda) were being burnt. Woman raped. Limbs cut off- arms, legs, breasts. The UN is present in the DRC, but is not currently in access of this region. Let’s put pressure on them and not have another empty promise of “never again”.