Thursday, April 8, 2010
Mourning and Learning
Yesterday was Genocide Memorial Day and the start of the official week of mourning in Rwanda. There is much to mourn here.
Sixteen years ago, a well-organized Hutu extremist group galvanized the most horrendous slaughter of an ethnic tribe since the Jewish Holocaust – seeking to eradicate the Tutsi minority from the country. More than 6 men, women and children were murdered every minute of every hour of every day for a hellacious one hundred days beginning April 7, 1994. By some figures, twenty percent of the country’s population was murdered in the Rwandan Genocide – neighbor against neighbor. The extremists numbered one militia member for every ten families in the country, and were organized nationwide with representatives in every neighborhood, armed with machetes and lists of the Tutsi neighbors they were responsible for killing.
In the bloodshed that followed, people who had shared the same streets, Sunday dinners and church pews, raped, tortured, mutilated and slaughtered their neighbors – in their homes, in the streets, and in the churches where they had fled for protection. Hutu civilians were forced to participate in the killings or be shot. Many Tutsis were tortured until they killed their own families. All told, close to one million people were slaughtered in one hundred days in a country the size of the state of Maryland. An additional nearly 500,000 Tutsi women and girls were brutally raped during that period as a weapon of genocide – more than 67% of the women raped were intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS. Two million people were forced into refugee camps. In one hundred days. In a state the size of Maryland. Sixteen years ago.
Rwanda has countless orphans and child-led families as a result of the atrocities of the genocide. Children walk around with smaller children tied to their tiny backs. 75,000 of the survivors were orphaned because of the genocide, and 40,000 are still without shelter. And because the prisons and court systems could not handle all those responsible or complicit in the atrocities, survivors continue to live next door to those who killed.
Yesterday was Genocide Memorial Day and the start of the official week of mourning in Rwanda. Everything was closed. I spent the late morning driving back to Kigali, the capitol, from the mountains. From the start of our trip, the mourning was palpable.
The usually boisterous streets were solemn – lined with thousands of silent Rwandese walking miles to their local village’s memorial gathering. There was a gathering of this type in every village we passed, and everywhere men, women, and tiny children were walking to them. The mourners – the country – met in fields and empty muddy lots, where most sat on the ground, some with umbrellas for shade from the Equator sun, and some with plastic chairs if they could carry them on the walk. And in the center of each gathering, men spoke to the crowds. Here is a photo from the street – far in the distance you see one of the gatherings we passed –and the thousands who met there to remember the unspeakable human cruelty and to resolve, against every human instinct, to live peacefully and gracefully in spite of it.
I do not know what these men where saying; it is a private affair, grieving the slaughter of your family. I do not know what these men said. I do not know what they could have possibly said to help heal the terror and quell the rage. I do not know how these people move forward from the torture of what was inflicted on them and their families, and what they were forced to do to their neighbors. I do not know how they possibly manage to radiate the generosity and peace that I have seen in them given what they have seen in this life. I do not know how or why they embrace me so warmly given the way the world abandoned them in their slaughter. It is a miracle – one made of extraordinary resolve and restraint, superhuman forgiveness and grace, and a breathtaking, stubborn will to live peacefully.
There is much to mourn here. And there is much to learn here. Much to learn in the miracle of these peoples’ joyful smiles and peaceful eyes, which have endured impossible cruelty. I do not understand it. But I know I will never be the same for having watched these brave people on this day.