What Remains: Rwanda Twenty Years Later

AHAZAZA HACU NTIHAGIRWA N’ IBYO TWABUZE, HAGIRWA N’ UBURYO DUKORESHA IBYASIGAYE. Translation: Our future is not defined by what was taken from us; we are defining our future by what we do with what remains. Kinyarwanda is such a rich and complex language, which seems only fitting for a country like Rwanda. I believe it is this focus on what remains that has helped the people of Rwanda to recover and develop Rwanda’s gifts.

Capturing an accurate picture of all the shades of recovery and healing in Rwanda would take thousands of artists. My portrait of this miracle has been shaped by my experiences living in Rwanda before, during, and after the 1994 genocide. In the spring of 1990, my wife Teresa and I moved with our three young children to Rwanda. I made a six-year commitment to serve as the country director for the Adventist Development Relief Agency. Our primary work was partnering with communities to build schools and operate health clinics.

On April 8, 1994, two days after the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down, Teresa and I made a decision we could have only made together. Given the level of violence, we realized that she needed to evacuate the children. While all Western expatriates were ordered out by their governments and employers, we decided that I should not leave. I am often asked why I stayed while all other Americans and all but nine Europeans didn’t. There were several reasons: we knew that the two people who worked in our home were marked for death – they carried Tutsi IDs. We felt we were part of a community both at work and at home where our children played with the Rwandan children. Our faith played an important role providing us with direction, strength, and hope. We knew that if Rwandans ever needed help, now was the time. Though I’ve since come to more fully understand the “power of presence,” at the time staying just seemed like the right thing to do. When I received orders to leave from both the US government and our church headquarters, I said, “I can’t leave, I’m not leaving.”

As the genocide exploded, the international community ignored the promise made after the Holocaust of  “Never Again.” It was as if the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide did not exist. That the UN voted to withdraw 2,500 peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda despite clear documentation of genocide by the international press is one of the cruelest ironies of the situation. Soldiers were uniquely positioned for the first time in modern history to stop a genocide—the slaughter of more than a million people could have been prevented. Instead, these soldiers ended up providing a false sense of security that proved fatal for so many. Had the UN not been there, many Rwandan families would have fled when they saw the signs of approaching violence.

Each day, as the extremists who had taken over the government were ordering ordinary people to kill their neighbors, I was there working to build relationships with all types of people at every level of authority. My goal was simple—find and deliver food, water, and medicine to three groups of orphans trapped around the capital city of Kigali—but the need was enormous. A Congolese man named Heri cared for one group, and a Frenchman named Marc Vaiter for a second.. The third and largest orphanage, Gisimba Memorial Center, housed more than 400 children and was managed by its Rwandan director, Damas Gisimba.

On July 4, after three months of working to exterminate all Tutsi and sympathetic Hutu families, the genocidal extremists were driven out of our neighborhood, out of Kigali, and eventually out of Rwanda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The genocide was over. We were overcome with joy and gratitude for so many reasons, one of the most obvious being that the vast majority of the orphans we served were alive. But how crippling would the emotional scars be? Upon arriving at the orphanage one boy simply said, “I watched my father get chopped up like a goat.” Another infant brought to the orphanage had been found trying to nurse from his slain mother’s breasts. Horrible images, multiplied thousands of times over, make for an inconceivable collection of nightmarish memories. All things considered, you would want to pray day and night that this generation would not grow up hell-bent on seeking revenge.

Seven months after the genocide ended, we moved back to Kigali and participated in the rebuilding process for another 18 months before permanently moving back to America. I have visited Rwanda 9 times in the last 5 years, and every time I return, I see positive changes. Most people would imagine that a visit to Rwanda would be an incredibly difficult and depressing experience, though it has never been so for me. This is not to say that I don’t experience some apprehension when returning to Rwanda. During the initial visits, it seemed like every corner I turned confronted me with a powerful mixture of dark, violent memories and then a memory of joy–some small yet not-so-small victory in those months in 1994.

I found myself almost desperate to make new memories with each successive visit, and I discovered that making new memories was exactly what the people of Rwanda had been doing in the course of daily life. For example, hundreds walk over the bridge that crosses the Nyabarongo river on the edge of Kigali every day. This same bridge was the site where so many were brutally killed–family members, neighbors, innocent people thrown in the river and sent floating to the shores of Lake Victoria. It seems so wrong that anyone should have to relive those memories day after day. But new memories were being made as people crossed that bridge: new conversations, new acquaintances, new plans for businesses and weddings. It’s not that these new memories will replace the old ones; rather, they are helping those terrible and difficult memories find their place in the story of Rwanda, making it possible to cross the bridge one step at a time and continue to move forward. As one young American visitor put it, “In Rwanda I learned that it’s what you do next that defines you.”

Rwanda’s Women and Youth

Maria and her family were targeted for extermination; she is the only one who survived. When asked how she found the power to move forward she answered, “I did not allow myself to be held by anger and trauma. Instead I did everything possible to overcome and to build my family.”  New families were “built” by survivors of all ages, including many of the orphans we had cared for.

Maria is now passing on to her neighbors the knowledge she gained on a trip to India for the use of solar energy systems. One of the neighbors she trained was the man who murdered her husband and children. He was released from prison under a presidential pardon and eventually asked Maria for forgiveness, which she graciously gave. Maria says, “I felt that the only thing I could do to honor my husband and children was to not be held by anger and work very hard, as my husband was a hard worker as well. I wanted to show him that I can do what he could have done.”

The empowerment of women both in government and in the private sector is playing a major role in the healing process. Rwanda’s constitution states that women must make up at least 30% of its decision-making bodies, and last September’s elections bumped the percentage of women in parliament up to an impressive 64%. A longtime Rwandan friend recently told me that he had closed his construction company to work for his wife’s thriving business. He took me by her small hardware store where I learned that she had sent him to Dubai and China on purchasing trips

These are not isolated stories, and they would not be happening without an environment that not only welcomes but encourages women’s participation in both the marketplace and houses of parliament. It becomes more evident everyday how women’s abilities to build relationships, find mutually beneficial solutions, and bring nonviolent alternatives to the table are so crucial to the rebuilding process.

Youth account for 62% of Rwanda’s population–that means 7 million of Rwanda’s 11.4 million people were born after 1990.  Children of genocide perpetrators have come forward to tell the government that they do not want to be defined by their parents’ actions and instead want to be part of the new Rwanda that is working to create a place for everyone. Any time spent with Rwanda’s youth leaves a very strong sense that lasting peace is a priority and that they are not waiting for someone else to achieve it for them.

It has been particularly moving to meet some of the people who were children at the orphanages we helped during the genocide. Denise, a wife, mother, and member of Kigali’s professional community, was 13 years old in 1994. She writes:

The government has recently introduced a program called ‘Nd’Umunyarwanda,’ meaning ‘I am Rwandan,’ with the aim of building trust amongst both the genocide survivors and those who committed genocide. It is not easy to heal completely, but the focus on what to do with what remains gives us a platform to live together. What happened shaped the person I am today, but I refuse to remain a victim. I want a bright future for the generation to come – a generation that will learn to trust one another; a generation that will accept their differences and use those differences to build a nation. Remaining a victim weakens and gives no hope. I don’t discriminate against those that are not of my tribe. I have friends that are Hutus and I choose to not talk about tribes in my conversations; I like to focus on being Rwandan and contributing to the development of my country. I want peace in my country so anything that jeopardizes that, I am against.

Mutti is another young man I met for the first time two years ago, though he says he remembers me delivering water back in 1994 when he was a small boy hiding at the Gisimba orphanage. Mutti has just graduated with distinction from law school, and is committed to being part of a justice system that can ensure lasting peace. He writes:

According to my own experience, what was taken away from me gives me a strong reason to think about who I really am and not simply act like somebody else might expect. The fact that I have only a few family members left has given me a determination and strength to make every effort to build a better future for my remaining family.

I did experience a time when I got myself caught up in a situation with no hope. There was no way I could find to overcome that situation. But then I thought about the experiences I had come through, I thought about my background story, and I knew that I could find hope in the fact that I could become someone who someone else could place their hope in.

We have to address the problems the genocide created for both the survivors and the perpetrators if we are going to begin living a normal life. There are many parts to the recovery and healing process for the larger community. Parts like telling the truth. We must be characterized by ethical behavior, and this will enable people to live in harmony.

The Healing Process

When many people try to imagine the challenges of rebuilding in Rwanda, they understandably focus on the physical challenges. Everything from office equipment to military hardware to bank reserves,  were looted from the country and taken to Zaire by the fleeing génocidaires. One of the greatest challenges, however, was the need to rebuild trust after mass betrayal.

Most people around the world rightfully expect their governments to protect them, but the abuse of power displayed during the genocide shattered that expectation for the people of Rwanda. Many thought that organized religion would have stood directly in the path of genocide, but scores of churches became slaughterhouses and many religious leaders actively encouraged and participated in the executions. Tragically, neighbors even turned against neighbors. Genocide could not have been carried out as quickly and as thoroughly as it was without the cooperation of average citizens. If those same neighbors could have looked to more leaders of integrity, and if Rwanda could have relied on caring and committed international allies, the genocide could have been stopped. The greatest challenge has been to rebuild trust in the government, the international community, religious institutions, , and, most importantly, in one another.

There have been many governmental and non-governmental “healing” initiatives that have met with varying degrees of success. Recovery from a genocide places enormous pressure on the judicial system. The courts had a monumental task ahead of them: how do you deal with the thousands upon thousands of people accused of organizing and carrying out genocide? For years, schools and businesses would be closed one afternoon a week and everyone would go to the local soccer field where Gacaca was held. Gacaca, a community-based court system, was the chosen response to the problem of the thousands accused of killing or violent assault at the community level. There were over 8000 Gacaca courts around the country. Meanwhile, the formal court system handled the cases of those accused of the greater crimes of organizing and implementing genocide as well as rape, which was used again and again as a weapon during those months in 1994.

Confession, a potentially powerful part of the healing journey, was one of many things that happened during Gacaca. People also learned where loved ones had been buried–often in mass graves and pit latrines. Their remains were exhumed and prepared for respectful burials. Imagine either the healing or the resentment that might arise from conversations between people scrubbing bones to be placed in caskets for burial. My experience has been that Rwandans more often than not choose healing.

Still another part of the healing process has come in the form of the prisoner work-release program commonly referred to as TIG–a French acronym for “Travail d’Intérêt Général,” or “community service.” Those guilty of genocide could serve their time and often have their sentences commuted by working on projects around the country. TIG workers not only build roads, bridges, schools, and survivor housing; they also make bricks and roofing tiles, and construct radical terraces. In this land of 1000 hills, there is no slope too steep for a garden plot. These newly constructed terraces that slope back into the hillside actually yield 30 to 50 percent more crops than the old downhill sloping terraces. In agricultural economies, percentage increases like these have tremendous potential to positively impact the whole society.

While crop yields are relatively easy to measure, how do you gauge the impact of watching people day after day now serving each other and building for the benefit of the whole community? During the genocide, going out and killing was called “going to work.” Today, many have found redemption through work of a very different sort.

Preventing Another Tragedy

Since ensuring basic human rights is essential for lasting stability and security, post-genocide Rwanda has placed much emphasis on public safety. Today, the country boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  In the context of this newfound sense of security, Rwanda’s education system has expanded and flourished. According to UNICEF, “Rwanda has the highest primary school enrollment rates in Africa. There has been sustained progress in access to education with the primary net enrollment rate increasing to 96.5 per cent in 2012,” with female enrollment at 98%. The overall completion rate at the primary school level is 72.7% (2012), a substantial increase from 52.5% in 2008. Girls make up more than half of the students in secondary education. Lessons on human rights continue to be written into the primary school curriculum, and classes on entrepreneurial business have been added to secondary schools. Secondary school teachers have told me, however, that it is still very very challenging to find effective ways to teach about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Consequently, they teach about respect, proper channels of conflict resolution, and other genocides in history.

Impressive improvements in so many other areas are evident, including basic healthcare plans for every family, an ever expanding network of free wifi hotspots, and sufficient food production to feed all Rwandans.

Women and men building terraces in Northern Rwanda to prevent soil erosion. Sam Thompson/DFID Rwanda

Women and men building terraces in Northern Rwanda to prevent soil erosion. Sam Thompson/DFID Rwanda

The idea of being defined by what we do with what remains has become a huge part of my life.  While Rwanda still faces enormous challenges on economic, social, and political fronts, I am convinced these challenges can be overcome. Part of the process of overcoming includes playing an active part in relieving the tremendous suffering of so many families in Central Africa. As we examine what often appears to be an endless sea of misery, we must also look for islands of bravery, beauty, and optimism. Rwandans have proven that recovery and sustainable peace are possible. They are demonstrating that it is possible to journey on from an unspeakable past and move forward. I’m proud to be standing together with Rwandans as we work toward to a time when the mention of Rwanda around the globe will not automatically bring the word “genocide” to mind but rather the words courage, forgiveness, resilience, and hope.

Women and men building terraces in Northern Rwanda to prevent soil erosion. Sam Thompson/DFID Rwanda

About Author

Carl Wilkens

Carl Wilkens is the former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda. In 1994, he was the only American who chose to remain in the country after the genocide began.