I wasn’t expecting to be sitting in a pew at my Mum’s church on a chilly November day in northern England, commemorating with the rest of the UK those affected by war.
But there I was in the congregation on Remembrance Day, tears in my eyes, as World War Two veteran Bill, his hair white and his step unsteady, was helped by his son to lay a wreath of red poppies before the altar. I heard a tinkling as he slowly made his way, and as he turned to face us I saw why. A brace of medals adorned his breast, won for the bravery he’d shown as a young man.
The reason I was there was embarrassing as it was painful: I’d broken my nose two weeks earlier while at a Catholic mission in rural Rwanda, on one of my trips for Catholic Relief Services. Believe it or not, I’d walked into a metal pole (and was holding a wooden statue of Our Lady at the time!) Happily, the prognosis from the UK doctors was good, and as I recouped, I could reflect on my latest trip to The Land Of A Thousand Hills.
Rather aptly, a thread of remembrance ran through that visit too. I was there with our Egan Fellowship winners — a group of US Catholic journalists, their first time in Africa, there to see the work of CRS first-hand. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, so we were there to learn, to acknowledge and, it soon became clear, to pay our respects.
As we traveled through the endless beauty of this little country, approximately the size of Maryland, it grew harder to fathom that around one million people had been slaughtered in just one hundred days.
We were told that resentment and divisions between ethnic groups had been instilled and needled over decades, with the explosion of brutality sparked when the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down on April 6th 1994. Blame could be apportioned on several sides, including within the international community. But when a country falls so utterly apart, it’s almost as if you reach a space that is beyond blame. Somehow it would be so overwhelming it would consume everything. Perhaps that’s the reason why in Rwanda the emphasis was — and still is — on desperately trying to move forward at all costs. Nineteen and a half years on, Rwanda is clean, efficient and seemingly very well governed. Business is growing healthily. It’s been hailed the third least corrupt country in Africa. The emotions of its people however are altogether harder to define.
One of the villages we visited which sticks in my mind is Nyamugaki in Kamonyi district in the center of the country. It’s a settlement of 29 houses where widows of the genocide have chosen to live together, to be able to face the future with each other. Some were raped during the atrocities. Some are now living as HIV positive. Some live with disabilities or injuries stemming from 1994. But they’ve found comfort in being together.
What is perhaps the hardest thing to get your head around: they’ve forgiven those who did them wrong. Agnes, a Mom of three, and one of the women we met there told us “the people who trespassed against us had the courage to come and ask for forgiveness. We saw they were feeling remorse deep within them, so we forgave.”
It’s a story we heard repeated at many places we visited: that slow, steady journey to forgiveness. A forgiveness of epic proportions. Saying “I forgive you” to the man who killed your family in front of you. With Christians making up over 94% of the population in Rwanda, Christian faith plays a vital role in this. CRS works with partners Caritas and through the Catholic Church network, to bring together survivors and perpetrators in projects aimed at reconciliation. Unity and self-reliance are the messages that are encouraged from the government level to the grassroots.
“Rwanda was dead,” one government official told us. “We’ve had to rebuild from nothing, less than nothing. We’ve had to rebuild the Rwandan identity, our dignity and our pride.”
The renewal that has and is taking place in Rwanda is extraordinary. But forgetting the genocide is not an option. “Never Again” is a slogan seen on sign posts. A yearly mourning period and memorial sites around the country keep the memory – and a warning – alive. One such site is Murambi school.
In April 1994 it was a technical college under construction. Thousands of Tutsis fled there for safety – only to be killed in the most harrowing of ways. 150,000 of them in a matter of days. The school is set amongst stunning hills. The juxtaposition of tragedy in such beautiful surroundings was jarring.
As we slowly made our way from classroom to classroom, where bodies preserved in lime were laid, we could not suppress our sobs. The dried up, sinewy bodies of men, women and children were frozen at the moment they died. The horror was something I will never forget. But somehow we had to keep going, to bear witness that this did happen, to pay our humble respects.
We heard heartening stories too of the courage of people who hid those in danger. Proof that the human spirit and desire for good hadn’t been totally annihilated. In post-genocide Rwanda the road has led to justice, to reconciliation and to reconstruction. But while walking forward on that road, none can – or should – ever forget what went before.
Helen Blakesley is CRS regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.
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