March to remember the victims of the genocide from the
district of Nyarungenge (our neighborhood)
The month of April is devoted to remembering the victims of the 1994 genocide. Here the government and local press do not just refer to it as "the 1994 genocide", but "the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis". During this month, celebrations are strongly discouraged--no weddings, parties, etc. It is a very somber time. There is one particular day and one particular week this month which get extra attention.
April 7, 1994 is the day that President Habyarimana's plane was shot down, sparking the genocide that had been brewing for some time. The 100 days that followed saw the slaughter of nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus who refused to join in the killing of their Tutsi neighbors and family members. It is difficult for me (and perhaps redundant) to go into the details of those horrors. Here is a video with footage that can say and show more that any words I could provide: I'll Never Understand
April 7 of each year is a national holiday, the only day during the academic year that the KIST campus is completely closed, and the buildings' doors are locked. On this day, people gather in their communities to remember and to promise to each other that such things will never, ever happen again. (This was actually the third time in Rwanda's history that Tutsis had been singled out for violence. The first two were in 1961 and 1973.) This April 7th, the stadium in Kigali was filled to capacity for a morning service and then again in the evening for a vigil. At the morning gathering, which Bill and I watched on TV, there were performers singing, survivors bearing witness, and officials holding forth. Kagame spoke, half in English, half in Kinyarwanda. [It was perhaps not surprising that he used the event as a political pulpit to bash the increasing call from other countries for a more open press and the freedom to oppose the government without fear of being put in jail for "divisionism". (He has a special dislike for Human Rights Watch) Still, in the context of remembering, it was a weird speech.]
April 7th plus the following six days comprise Memorial Week, when businesses are open until noon, but closed for the afternoon so that people can attend memorial services. During this week, Rwanda Television (the only Rwandan TV channel) showed one music video after another devoted to remembering. The videos vary greatly in production quality, but they have in common that each is devoted to remembering individuals from particular towns and showing memorial ceremonies from those towns. Photos and the naming of lost loved ones are part of the songs. Here's one example: Mbahobere Bwa Nyuma
Each town has a mass grave site and memorial for the victims of that town. During Memorial Week, the bones of victims that have been found over the course of the past year are laid to rest in their town's mass grave. Every year they find more bones. Here's a video of a memorial service from 2009, the genocide's 15th anniversary: Nyanza Commemoration.
Needless to say, this is a very difficult time for everyone. Our students had Memorial Week off from school. Some went home to their villages, others could not afford the $4 trip home and stayed on campus to remember with each other. It is estimated that 90% of all Rwandan children observed at least one violent murder during the genocide. My students are those children, but you wouldn't know it to see them during the rest of the year. They generally act happy and upbeat. During this month though, they've been subdued. Several have missed appointments with me because they were "sick". I've come to understand that "sick" is code for sad, depressed, and not able to sleep at night. I do not ask about their experiences because it seems hard enough on them to dredge it up for each other on an annual basis.
Even I had a few days where I just didn't want to get out of bed, and I could only blame the sad air about me. Trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the vast majority of the adults around me collectively suffered so much violence and hatred gives a headache. Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hunted down and murdered, but no one escaped the terror of the times. The entire country completely fell apart. Hutu families fled to neighboring countries to escape what they felt would be certain Tutsi revenge killings. It took years to convince them that they could come home safely. Many died on the road and in refugee camps of disease and starvation. Some are still in the DRC jungles, nominally members of but essentially held captive by Hutu rebel army forces. Defectors are shot on sight.
Part of healing is confrontation and forgiveness of the murderers. The gacaca courts are where the people themselves try the cases of accused genocidaires. Here's a video from last year about gacaca courts: Gacaca Justice. It will take generations for the people of this country to recover, but they have made a magnificent start.