Day 4: coursework/Gisozi/reflections

It’s raining right now–thick, pounding rain. They say this wet weather reminds people here of the genocide, of tears and sodden bodies. The killings started in the rainy season twenty years ago.

I’m sitting outside, alone, listening to the droplets strike the red earth. Everybody else is in the living room, but I needed some alone time to gather my thoughts.

I’ve seen so many images of bodies in the last 24 hours. I’m trying to figure out how to cope with and what to think of the lifeless limbs behind my eyelids–and trying to prepare myself for the next three weeks of class.

Last night we officially began our course with a powerpoint presentation from Allan and a movie screening of the film Sometimes In April. The three Rwandan students we met last night joined us for the lesson.

Allan told the story behind some of the only available footage of the genocide. The clip, which was captured by a BBC videographer, shows a group of young men milling about a street, casually gripping machetes, lounging on one side of the road. On the other side there are bodies, heaps of clothing for every driveway on the winding block.

In the foreground, two indistinct figures wave their arms in prayer, begging for life. A small child crosses the street, casually. A truck, loaded with bodies, heaves down the road. Eventually, a man walks over to the begging figures. He raises his arm, slashes downwards. The body collapses. Another pile of rags.

For years, the identities of the people in the video were unknown, but Allan returned to the street and found witnesses and survivors, who identified the two as a father and daughter. He met the remaining family and saw photos of the victims.

Allan wrote an article about the family. When it was published, he said, the response was tremendous. He thinks people reacted because they finally had a face, a life, to pair with the death toll numbers that have emerged from the Rwandan genocide. He donated the earnings from the article to the remaining family members.

The movie was an emotional story of how the genocide destroyed one family. When the lights came up, we sniffled and wiped our eyes in silence for a few minutes. I didn’t want to make eye contact with anybody. I picked a spot on the floor and stared, until somebody else broke the silence, suggesting some chocolate and card games to lighten the mood.

I went to bed and dreamt of shooting guns and the way fresh blood blossoms on white cotton.

Today, we saw many more faces and heard more stories. We left the house at about 9:30 a.m. to visit the Kigali National Genocide Memorial Centre (also called the Gisozi memorial). The memorial is the largest and most prominent in the country, and serves both as a mass grave site and a genocide museum.

We were joined again by our three Rwandan students. I’ve made friends with one of the boys, N., who is also a third year student. We talked for a long time at our party, and today he walked beside me as our tour guide, Serge, led us around the graves.


There are some 250,000 people buried at the memorial, though the number continues to grow as new graves are discovered. The bodies, reduced to bones, by now, are packed into coffins, multiple people per casket, and stacked in graves that extend six or seven feet underground. The tombs are sealed with stone, and people place white flowers on top in remembrance. The official colour of mourning is grey, Serge said. Grey like ashes.


Adjacent to the graves is a garden, for reflecting.

Inside, we toured the museum part of the grounds. The top floor contains an exhibit about genocide, explaining the origins of the term (it was coined by Raphael Lemkin to describe Nazi actions, and has since been enshrined in UN Convention, which defines the term as “the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”), and giving examples of genocides throughout history, including The Holocaust and Cambodia.

Also on the top floor is an exhibit about children who died during the Rwandan Genocide. For me, this was the most difficult part of the experience. The exhibit featured blown-up photos of small faces, and plaques with details such as the child’s favourite food, last words, or best friend (often a sibling). Each plaque also included a cause of death.

There was a two year old who was crushed against a wall.

I couldn’t comprehend. How could somebody do that? Why would they? Can they live with themselves now?

I paused at a window to the garden and wiped my eyes. Outside, the sun was strong and bright. It seemed impossible that the garden outside could exist in the same world a two year old was murdered simply for being a certain ethnicity, for a social construction. That’s how this country’s history and present seem to be: both tragic and beautiful in an impossible way.

Downstairs, Serge led us through a history of Rwanda from precolonial times until now. Before European contact, Hutus and Tutsis lived peacefully. The labels referred not to rigid racial distinctions, but to fluid class differences. The country shared one monotheistic religion and one culture.

The Germans were the first to colonize the country, but lost control after WWI, when the League of Nations gave Rwanda to the Belgians. It was under Belgian colonialism that Hutu and Tutsi labels became racialized and institutionalized. The Belgians granted favour to the Tutsi minority, whom they saw as more European, taller and with fairer skin. The Hutus were discriminated against. Everybody had to have an identity card.

After WWII, as colonialism diminished around the world and independence movements grew, the Belgians switched their favour to the Hutu majority. When they withdrew, they left the Hutus in power. Independence was achieved in 1962. Revenge killings against the formerly-privileged Tutsis began.

Many Tutsis fled the country and grew up in surrounding regions. In the early 1990s, some of these refugees formed a rebel group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Led by Paul Kagame (the current Rwandan president), the RPF marched on Rwanda. Civil war broke out and lasted for years.

Throughout this time, Rwandan media broadcasted hateful propaganda against the Tutsis, calling them cockroaches and demanding their extermination. The radio broadcasts, in particular, were wildly popular.

The Arusha Accords between the rebel RPF and Rwandan government were supposed to bring peace to the country, but the peace process was abandoned when, on April 6, 1994, the president’s plane was shot down by still-unknown assassins. Within an hour, extremists had set up roadblocks around the city. Killings began.

The extremists targeted Tutsis and Hutu moderates from the previous government. Radio programs directed killers by broadcasting names and addresses of victims. Some 8,000 people died on the first day. Nearly 1,000,000 were killed in three months.

The genocide ended when the RPF took over Kigali. They have been in power ever since.

The final section of the memorial was a selection of family photographs, skulls, and wrinkled clothing. The remains of so many lives.

There was one blue shirt that said “Ottawa…from/du Canada.”

We emerged from the darkness of the exhibits into the sunlight and walked to the memorial café to drink some tea and relax. I sat with N. I imagine my facial expression looked much like his: a vacant stare, mouth drawn. He told me that though he’d been to the memorial twice before, he’d never quite felt that way. He was only four when the genocide happened.

We went back to the house for lunch and some quiet blogging and reading time. I sat beside a student named D., a tall, beautiful, and quiet girl who likes basketball. We sat in amicable silence, until she suddenly offered her phone screen towards me, wanting to share her latest text with somebody.

There was a photo of a woman, lying down, only her shoulders and head visible, a knife plunged into her neck. The blood was still bright red.

I tried to hide my surprise. We’d spent a morning reading about death, but I wasn’t prepared for that image. “Who is she?” I asked.

D. told me that she was a local woman, murdered by her husband “for refusing to have sex with him.” I asked how D. got the photo, and she told me that her “colleague,” a journalist she knew, was reporting on the story and had sent her the photo and an explanation. Then she shook her head, clearly as affected as I was. “It’s too sad,” she said.

I nodded. “Is violence against women a problem here?”

She paused, searching for the words in English. “It is…too easy here. People kill too easily.”

“Ahh,” I said. I didn’t know how else to reply. Despite my horror at the photo, I didn’t feel qualified to comment on crime rates in a country where I am only a visitor. Husbands murder their wives in Canada too. Evil is difficult to quantify.

D. and I changed the topic. She showed me her personal blog and I showed her mine. We laughed a little.

I felt closer to this quiet girl. I understood her need to talk about the horrible things in the world. I think I have that too: a need to discuss it all, to try and find some common human opposition to violence, some comfort in the fact that somebody else also hurts when they see mass graves and hear the stories of murdered children and are suddenly confronted with the photo of a woman whose husband drove a knife through her throat.

Funny, how confronting the worst of humanity spawns such desperation for those small, human connections, but also drives me out into the rain alone, trying to escape it all.


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