Expat Reflections During Genocide Commemoration

Any person who has spent even the shortest amount of time in Rwanda knows the impact that the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi has had on this land of a thousand hills. It’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful environment could breed such hatred but so important to understand the underlying causes that led to the Genocide. Genocide ideology was a slow burning fuse that erupted late on April 6th, 1994 following the crash of President Habyarimana’s plane. In 100 days of darkness almost 1 million lives were lost and the social fabric of the Rwandese was deeply torn.

As a foreigner living in Kigali, the commemoration period can feel like a time where I don’t really belong. In 1994 I was one year old, living halfway across the world, and definitely had no idea about what was happening in the world I lived in. I have been privileged to almost always feel secure wherever I live and have never feared for the safety of my loved ones. How can someone who has not gone through a genocide or violence of the same magnitude relate to Rwanda’s national healing processes? Is it right for me to participate in the commemoration activities? And if so, how should I do so?

While I cannot commemorate in the same sense that my Rwandese friends and coworkers can, I believe there is space for me to participate in commemoration. As a foreigner, I feel it is really important to reflect on the Western world’s influence in genocide ideology and ultimate lack of action to prevent the Genocide in the early 1990’s. Colonialism turned Rwanda’s three groups based on job positions into a racial hierarchy where one had never previously existed. Furthermore following independence in 1962, the Belgians left a newly independent Rwanda with no infrastructure for working together after decades of oppression. When foreigners living in Rwanda warned of growing violence, Western institutions turned a blind eye in order to save face following previous failed missions. This escalated into the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. As much as I wasn’t part of these systems, I still carry the weight as a person of European ancestry and Kwibuka is a sensible time to reflect and grapple with this.

The first step of commemoration as a foreigner is to listen and learn about what lead up to 1994. I was fortunate to study the Genocide Against the Tutsi in one of my university classes and read a really informative book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. This book is full of testimonies from survivors and perpetrators collected by a journalist in the years following the Genocide and gives context for how the Genocide was possible and the refugee crisis it produced.

Luckily for those of you who aren’t big readers there are also films that accurately portray the Genocide Against the Tutsi including Sometimes In April, Shooting Dogs, and Shake Hands With The Devil (which is also a book) These films can easily be found for sale around town and are a good way to attempt to understand the events of 1994. You can also find an online genocide archive that is maintained by Aegis Trust, the same organization that runs the Kigali Memorial Center.

Attending commemoration events is also a good way to understand Rwanda’s ever-evolving healing processes. Usually held on or close to April 7th, which is the official start of commemoration week, there is a Walk to Remember which ends at Amahoro Stadium for commemoration activities. Gathering at the Parliament building at Gishushu was a meaningful time to reflect and remember those lost in 1994. During commemoration week there are often arts events happening throughout Kigali to use performance and films to remember. Art has played a crucial role in tackling Rwanda’s post-genocide challenges and is a key part of reconciliation and healing.

In my opinion, the most important way to commemorate the 1994 Genocid Against the Tutsi is to be there for your Rwandan friends and support them during this difficult period. Make sure you spend time with them and let them know that you are there if they need anyone to talk with. If you have friends who lost many loved ones in 1994, offer to accompany them to the commemoration sites and go to any events with them. But don’t forget to respect their wishes if they need space, alone time, or prefer to commemorate with fellow Rwandans.

One thing that has really touched me is the support systems that have been built both from the government programs and starting organically from different communities. I was invited to join a What’s App group called Hora Rwanda Family which means something like “so sorry for what has happened to you Rwanda.” In the group of 68 people, different families of 4 or 5 have been formed with a mother, father, and children. The point is to promote meeting new friends and build families who are there to care for one another and love one another unconditionally. I was so surprised how this idea came from survivors themselves and how loving once strangers were to start a family together; it’s a beautiful way to rebuild.

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11 thoughts on “Expat Reflections During Genocide Commemoration”

  1. Nice piece of paper but I have to do a remark about “Rwanda’s three groups based on job positions”.

    Batwa, bahutu and batutsi are not defined by their job position. It’s a patriarchal society and whatever we are doing we belong to one of these groups by heritage.

  2. Quite some factual mistakes for such a short text. Maybe these things are best to be left to people who actually know about them, like Rwandans.

    It’s spelled WhatsApp.

      1. Kirsty, Jason is quite right to criticise this article. The genocide was at the end of a four year campaign by the FPR against the government of the day. It was also the fourth civil war in the country between the two main ethnic groups. it is difficult for newcomers to uncover all of the facts because we are not allowed to discuss them and especially not in public. Unless of course you want to end up in 1930 house.

        1. Nigel, thank you for your comment. I think that the focus of this article was more towards Kwibuka thoughts than to be a lesson in Rwandan history. I tried to give a little historical background to show my train of thought as to why foreigners need to be mindful during commemoration.

          As Jason commented, Rwandans of course know their own history best and I think Kirsty is planning to add Rwandan writers to the site to make us wazungu aware of such things. I’d be happy to learn more!

  3. When I lived in a remote area in Rwanda I wrote this poem….

    Child with seven shadows

    In the cool green shade of trees and darkness of silent churches
    shadows congregate and pray for those who survived
    Soft whistle of a flute and the distant rumble of drums
    reminds them of a future unlived
    Memories wrapped in leaves
    drip from heavily laden branches
    A sigh mingles with morning mists
    when a woman picks up two little feet
    and carries these to the little boy
    Still attached to his shadow
    until fear and death divides
    The shadow of the girl next door stops and stares
    at the old man walking away from his own body
    Ethereal the grey and gruesome fog
    flows over the once green hills
    leaving red footsteps imprinted on the muddy paths
    Shadows search among scattered limbs
    looking for lost legs and discarded arms
    Silent voices whisper softly
    In the wind they sing their songs and pray
    for their lonely orphaned children
    sitting in church with those who slew
    Red rain of remorse pelts down on arid soil
    Cannot restore the crushed head of a crying child
    Time passed and preserved pain of who were
    Red and black shadows detached from breathing bodies
    fade to grey when no relatives remain to remember
    Those who died roam the land
    of a thousand hills and crowd it with lives unfulfilled
    In church seven shadows hover in the prayers
    of a solitary young man
    They walk out with him into the sparkling sunlight
    The steel of his crutches reflects and shatters brightness
    like the crushed crumbs of broken stars

  4. Nigel,
    I don’t even know where to begin…
    “Genocide was at the end of 4 year RPF campaign against the governement of the day”, “the fourth civil war between the two main ethnic group” Dude, are you for real?? And where do you go to uncover these “facts” that others have no access to? The mind boggles

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