Preserving history and other lessons from Rwanda

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Loosely translated as remember 25, Kwibuka 25 is the sign that welcomes those visiting the compound of the Kigali genocide memorial. It is a coincidence that I am 25 when visiting the memorial that harbors commemorations of what happened to the people of Rwanda 25 years ago.

At the reception of the memorial, you’re shown a video with survivors’ recollections of what happened in gruesome detail. How their loved ones were butchered. I have never been immersed into something so dark yet moving my entire life like I was during that short session.

When the genocide happened, I was an infant. Today, my mind was opened to the realities of the atrocities faced by the Rwandans. How my fellow infants lost their mothers to rape and their fathers to butchery. How they survived the bloodbath. I wonder how it was for the children, who not knowing what was going on, had to struggle to remain safe; the millions who suffered just because their height was a little different and their noses a little longer and the innocent who died in a situation about which they knew nothing.

Unlike many other countries in the region, Rwanda protects and documents its history in a special way. The genocide ordeal is well documented and preserved at the memorial. There, the stories of each individual soul comes to life. Foreign visitors are immediately struck with the sad realities of that dark past of Rwandan history. For locals who lived through the period, many of whom lost their loved ones, the memorial serves as a way to remember their loved ones. What they were like, what they loved to do, the times they spent together, the bitter memories of how they lost their lives, and what happened thereafter. The tears welling up with tears says it all. They understand this better than any of us ever will. I cannot even try to pretend that I understand how they are able to live on. An ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. And now 25 years later, the void left from the cruelty hasn’t been filled. Does reconciliation fill this void? A past so close, and the burden to move on and build the future weighs them down.

At the memorial, you’re taken through the entire history of Rwanda in precise detail. How Rwanda was before, during and after the genocide. There are pictorials and literature on how everything transpired. Like the emblem reads; Kigali Genocide Memorial remembrance and learning, it is a place of remembrance for the more than one million victims of the genocide against the Tutsi. An introductory line in the gallery chambers of the memorial reads, “In recent times, genocide has cast a cloud over our lives and torn us apart. This chapter is a bitter part of our lives, but one we must remember for those we lost, and for the sake of the future. This is about our past and our future, our nightmare and dreams. Our fear and our hope; which is why we begin where we end, with the country we love.”

In there are details of how a previously united nation was divided along racial lines by the colonialists. How some were presented as ‘aliens’ in their own land and pitted against the rest and the exiling that began way back in 1959-1973. The scattered massacres in 1990, the genocide rehearsals in 1992 and the utterances that started the massacres in 1994. The Hutu commandments, and details of those who funded the genocide are also on display. There are details of how the media was used to incite the public and how the hatred spread to hospitals and the church. In fact, there’s an account of over 10 000 people being murdered in a church at Nyamata, Bugesera. In another church, a cleric collaborated with the militia to execute those who run to the church for refuge.

‘The section you are about to enter contains shocking images of the genocide,’ reads a sign at a door leading to inner rooms. Inside are remains of the millions who perished in the genocide. Skulls and limbs preserved for you and me, as well as the generations to come, to see the extent of the brutality and cruelty meted against the victims of the genocide. Victims’ clothes are also displayed, almost in the state they were during the murder. Farther inside, there are photos of those who were murdered during the genocide. Outside, there’s a resting place for more than 250 000 victims of the genocide.

What makes this bitter is the negligence of the international community. It is sad that the international bodies could not commit resources to relieve the suffering victims. The UN Security Council reduced its troops on the 21st of April 1994 against the plea of its then general in Rwanda. The international community watched as many lives were taken yet they had all the resources available to them that could help stop the genocide.

The people of Rwanda, those who survived the genocide, found a way to recover, reconcile and build their future. What they have today and whatever the future holds for them is a product of their collective effort to work on their country—for the good of the future generations. The memorial is now part of their lives but as a lesson for those to come, on the immense consequences of division and genocide.

What happened in Rwanda should never happen again, in Rwanda, or any other part of the world. No other people should experience what the Rwandans experienced in 1994.

Ubumuntu” means humanity – goodness, generosity and kindness. A person who has ubumuntu is someone who has greatness of heart. In the context of the genocide against the Tutsi, Ubumuntu refers to those who selflessly risked their lives to rescue or help those who were persecuted. We can be champions of humanity by standing against division wherever we live.”

I write this with my country Kenya in mind. For most of our politicians, incitement is part of politics. They throw words carelessly barely 2 years after the general elections. The political scene is very active yet there are 3 years left to the next general election. We have this recurring situation during the electioneering periods when all are reminded of their ethnic backgrounds. A phase characterized with tribal coalitions and heated political rallies. Nothing good comes out of war. The efforts to build a country over the years can be reversed by one silly act that result from politics gone bad. We should not toy around with the idea of a civil war. We have not the slightest understanding of what civil war means, and we shouldn’t dare experiment with it. Perhaps it would do our leaders more good if they visited the Rwanda Genocide Memorial to learn the magnitude of the outcomes of their ethnic utterances.

My hope is that we find a way of documenting and preserving our history and culture like Rwanda does. Everything from our origin, cultures, the different events that make up our history – for this, and the generations to come.

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