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Published: March 2nd 2009
I'm rarely at a loss for words. We've been back a week, though, and I still don't know what to write. What is there to say that hasn't already been said? It was important to visit the memorials - it made it feel so much more personal and brought the scale of it home to us. At the memorial centre in Kigali, more than 250,000 of the 1 million victims are buried, and more are added each year as their remains are found.
This genocide was different from the others in this century. And there have been far too many in the last 100 years. The memorial in Kigali (www.kigalimemorialcentre.org) has a section dedicated to the genocides in Germany (6 million), Turkey/Armenia (1.5 million), Bosnia (200,000), Cambodia (2 million) and Namibia (65,000). And those are just the ones that were selected for the memorial.
The difference is that those others were perpetrated by governments using their militaries or other tools of the state to do the killing. In Rwanda, the masterminds of the genocide got their fellow Hutu citizens to rise up against their neighbors in an incredibly brutal way. How do you do that? I believe that in any society there is a small percentage of people who are waiting for any opportunity to kill. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a small percentage who will NEVER kill, no matter what. Then the vast majority lie in the middle. What does it take to get those millions of people in the middle to become mass murderers? And this isn't killing at a distance - this is chopping people up with a machete and throwing babies at walls.
The leaders wanted it to be this way. They wanted everyone to be complicit so that nobody could point fingers. They were after group guilt. And it was hard work. 10,000 people per day were killed for 100 days. There were times when the genocidaires would lock a bunch of people in a church and when they got tired from killing, they would cut their victims' achilles tendons so they couldn't run away. This allowed the killers to get a good nights sleep and know that their victims would still be there in the morning so they could continue.
I won't even go into detail on the extent to which the international community holds some of the responsibility here. The French were arming the genocidaires. The Belgians set up the Hutu/Tutsi divide in the first place (contrary to media reports, this was not a “tribal war” that had been going on for hundreds of years. Hutu and Tutsi were more like class distinctions, and people could move between groups as their fortunes waxed and waned. There was plenty of intermarriage, and before the Belgians came up with a system of identity cards, many people didn't even know who was a Hutu and who was a Tutsi). Some say that the number of foreign and UN troops that arrived to evacuate ex-pats would have been enough to put a stop to the genocide. Even the regular UN troops that were stationed there were instructed not to intervene. Then the UNHCR and Red Cross refugee camps that were set up in Congo to house the fleeing genocidaires and surviving Tutsis became bases for continued raids on Tutsi communities and also indirectly funded the continued assaults. The Hutu leaders in the camps would take the food that was provided, sell it, and buy more arms. Even when it was safe in Rwanda for Tutsis to return, the Hutu leaders wouldn't allow them to leave the camps because they were such important bases for them. If you want to learn more, a very fascinating book is We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.
What amazes me most, though, is that this is a country focused on reconciliation, not vengeance. We sat down with a married couple in a village. She was a Tutsi who had lost most of her family in the genocide. He was one of the killers and had spent 9 years in prison where he met a priest who was creating “Unity Villages”. Did I mention that this man had killed six members of that priest's family.
Rwanda is not trying to pretend this didn't happen. There are memorials everywhere, village-level courts to try perpetrators, articles in the newspaper on a daily basis. It is a living conversation. It is group therapy on a national level. Imagine the impact if it was kept quiet and people weren't allowed or encouraged to talk about it. I was in the back area, behind the memorial in Kigali, and heard screaming. There was an incredibly distraught school girl who had just come out from an educational session. I can only imagine the memories she was reliving. The thing that was most poignant to me about the situation is that there were mattresses out back where she was flailing around. Not only is it accepted that people have powerful emotions to process around this, but mattresses are provided to give you a place to do it. That mattress might be the most lasting image for me of the entire trip. It reminds me that this is real, that it happened to real people, and that real people are still living the trauma of it.
I don't think we can keep genocides from starting, but I would like to think that the international community could stop providing arms to the perpetrators, we could step in even when the victims aren't white, and we could set some very low bar for intervention. Maybe we could say “anytime more than 10,000 innocent civilians are killed in a place, troops will be sent in just to calm things down until we can figure out what is going on.”
One thing is for sure - when the world said “Never Again” after the Holocaust, we didn't really mean it. It has happened again, it is happening again in Darfur and Nigeria and probably other places I am not aware of, and it will happen again in the future, particularly as resources get more scarce and the population continues to grow.
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