By Sivan Breemhaar
Rwanda is such a beautiful country, especially when you leave the city for the countryside. Countless shades of green, people everywhere, hills as far as the eye can see. And all these hills are divided into little squares – every square meter is cultivated. The following account is based on the three months I spent conducting field research in this tiny Central African country during the spring of 2011.
The first time I went for a trip outside of Rwanda’s capital Kigali was when I joined a group of Americans on their way to a little village where widows that had lost their husbands during the genocide of 1994 lived together. When we reached the village, all women started to sing and dance for us: the Americans I had joined for the day have supported this village for many years and this was a ceremony of reciprocal speeches and expressions of gratitude, testimonies of the widows about the genocide, praying and preaching, and an exchange of goats. That is how most charity rituals seem to work around here. It was so sad to realize that all these women sitting in front of me were violently raped during the genocide and probably also lost their entire family. I had thought I would understand things better when I would be here, but instead everything became even more incomprehensible.
Later during my stay in Rwanda, I visited the churches in Ntrama and Nyamata and also these places were beyond my understanding. They are memorial sites, dedicated to the more than fifteen thousand people that were killed in them during the genocide. The blood stain on the church wall, a local explained to me, was from babies who were thrown to death against it. It is too sick to describe. Words that come to mind; bizar, barbaric. But should I actually call it this way? Because in fact it is pretty “human”. I mean history is full of these stories. Killing others is human, and the point is that everyone could do it. This could happen everywhere, of that I am convinced.
There I stood in this church, full of torn clothes covered under a layer of reddish dust. Broken walls and windows. Broken skulls and bones, displayed on the racks in the back. I was standing there and I was not able to comprehend it, as if it were pictures in some history book you browse through. I know it all, I have read so much about it, but still it is so unreal. How scared those people must have been, how devastated because of the friends and family they had already lost, hacked to death before their eyes. How insecure about their own fate and the fate of their loved ones. How hopeful to be saved in this church, that church where the pastor had been able to safe them last time, during the outbreaks of violence in 1990 and 1992. That same church where almost everyone would be killed two years later and where those who survived probably regretted that they had not suffered the same fate. Traumatized and alone.
However dreadful these events must have been, we can all empathize with this story: ”Want ik heb meer gemeen met de slachtoffers, dan de daders”, a Dutch rapper sang in his famous song against ‘meaningless violence’. But is that true? Can we really be so sure? It is hard to imagine, but even the perpetrators are people with emotions like anger and love, hate and happiness. Do you really have to be insane to get this far?
No: that perpetrator had a family that he had to take care of. So little food in an overcrowded country. He feared their safety because the enemy they had heard so much about was getting closer. Approaching that safe village where he lived. But even here everyone could be an infiltrator, they have been saying that for months on the radio. That there is no Tutsi you can trust, not your neighbor, not even your best friend. That they are cockroaches that have to be trampled. And then that hunger! Not even your own, but you can’t even feed your little daughter. The country is too full, the rebels are advancing! And then that gun pointed to the back of your head: “If you don’t kill that man, I will kill you.”
Those cockroaches, or your little daughter without her dad, struggling to survive in a country full of cockroaches.
Picture credit: Sivan Breemhaar