Forgiving the Unforgivable
Story and Photos by Hanna Stevens '11
Driving higher on one of Rwanda's thousand hills brings a divine view of the river below. I can't help but think: What is this river called? Were bodies floating here years ago? The 1994 genocide left survivors with broken memories and scattered remains of their loved ones. Here, red dirt roads race along the lives of the living who carry memories of the dead.
In May I joined a five-week summer field study offered by Concordia College. It focused on experiencing Rwandan culture related to the genocide by teaching orphans, nursery and primary school children, and deaf children.
I set few expectations prior to the trip, simply because traveling in Africa, teaching and working with children were foreign to me. However, I wanted a reason to believe that love and genuine goodness exist naturally and can withstand even the tragedy of genocide. Working in Rwanda and visiting genocide memorials exposed me to ultimate forgiveness and healing.
In 1994 the plane of the Rwandan president, a Hutu, was shot down, igniting ethnic tensions and sparking a hundred-day bloodbath between the socioeconomic classes Hutu and Tutsi. During this time, murder equaled justice, and Hutu extremists set up roadblocks and began to kill Tutsis. Women and children were targets of mutilation, rape and murder. Hutus hunted the Tutsi minority like beasts as they pursued an ethnically cleansed Rwanda, free of Tutsi "cockroaches."
Rwanda's current president, Paul Kagame, is a Tutsi refugee. He assembled the Rwandan Patriotic Front and stopped the genocide three months after it began. A few months later survivors returned home. They couldn't imagine living with neighbors who had murdered their family and friends, but there was nowhere else to go.
Rwanda seemed hopelessly trapped amidst piles of rotting corpses, debilitating grief and boundless fear. Kagame challenged his people to look beyond pain and fear. Forgiveness could even be achieved, Kagame told his country. It's the choice a nation has to make.
But who would start talking about the tragedies Rwandans wanted to forget?
While in Rwanda we met Jean Gakwandi, who founded Solace Ministries where we taught English to genocide orphans in their 20s. Every member of Gakwandi's family was murdered, except for his wife and their children. Fear and memories kept him numb for a year. Then he began to talk with others.
"When they wept, I wept," Gakwandi remembered. "It was not for show." The sincerity of emotion that Gakwandi witnessed in hours-long meetings allowed him to acknowledge his own feelings. He connected more deeply with other Rwandans. Stories were shared and, like other Rwandans, Gakwandi began to heal.
Today no one speaks the words "Hutu" or "Tutsi"; they are all Rwandans. The sense of national unity connected with the country's healing stands as an example to all humans as we wrestle with conflict, healing and forgiveness.
While healing, however, Rwandans have not forgotten the genocide.
Fifty thousand people were killed at a technical school in Murambi where they had sought refuge. In 1995 soldiers exhumed bodies from the mass graves for preservation in the classrooms. At this memorial, the bodies lie in the same position they were found — many are contorted like circus acrobats. Skulls sit near nicely manicured rows of bones and incomplete corpses, some of which are headless, the skulls smashed like carelessly dropped Faberge´ eggs. Standing at this memorial and hearing the near silence corrupted only by the sounds of birds and cows, I realized that 15 years ago it probably looked and sounded similar to the very moment I was experiencing. The difference then was that the bodies in each room were fresh corpses, not preserved artifacts.
At Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, a display honors Rwanda's lost generation. Huge photographs of individual children line the walls. One 12-year-old child was shot dead after asking, "Mum, where can I run to?"
Because I worked with children in Rwanda, it was frightening to think that they may have been killed if their lives had begun just 15 years earlier. One student we worked with at Wisdom School in Musanze was Onette, a shy 4-year-old with bright eyes and a bright mind. Her abilities to read and write wouldn't have protected her from a machete blade or a spiked club.
Building relationships with Rwandans while studying the genocide made the tragedy real to me. Unlike the Kigali Memorial, genocide statistics are hard for me to grasp. Frankly, "1 million dead in 100 days" affects me differently than a single person's story or a visual example of the mass killings. Meeting those who were personally affected by the genocide puts such statistics in a different framework. After volunteering in Rwanda, the genocide seems less like a distant horror story and more like a common, yet personalized, experience of each Rwandan person.
It's still difficult to imagine this beautiful, peaceful country in the midst of genocidal war in 1994. Today Rwandans make conscious efforts to progress past the hatred of genocide. It is hard to love the unlovable and to forgive the unforgivable, but Rwandans believe that forgiveness and reconciliation will bring peace and hope for the future.