December 31, 2015
Today we visited the genocide memorial and this was a heart stretching experience. I don't know if I am more blown away by how it is possible for people to commit such violent actions toward one another because of something like a difference in ethnicity, or how peaceful Rwanda has become after the fact.
The Rwandan Genocide, which was backed by hatred of people towards one another simply because of their socio-economic status, caused so many deaths. In short, Rwanda was composed of 3 ethnic groups; the Hutu (85%), the Tutsi (14%), and the Twa (1%). The genocide was a mass killing of the Tutsi people, and Hutu moderates, by Hutu extremists. Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsi for the country’s growing economic and political problems, and the government (Hutu lead) was able to use propaganda and play on previous tensions between the two groups to convince the Hutu population that they needed to kill off all of the Tutsi people.
Visiting the Genocide Memorial was a life-altering experience. One thing that really surprised me was how open and honest the memorial was about what happened. Nothing is sugar coated! The experience started with a video that gave us some background information and that shared the stories of some Rwandans. This video was a little hard to watch because we had to hear about how people were mutilated, tied, and beaten, or even thrown down pits. Also hard to hear was the many people who lost their family members. Most shocking was that some family members and neighbors were turned against each other. This was hard for me to understand, but it just so happened that some were Hutu and some were Tutsi, so they had to become enemies. This did show me, though, was how strong of an influence things like mass mentality can be. Many people were convinced that their "enemies" were less than them through propaganda and politician influence. Also, I look back at the conditions during the genocide time, as Rwanda was undergoing an economic crisis, and think the desperation of trying to feed and provide for one’s family could be the fuel the perpetrators needed to accomplish their mission. As a result of being on this trip with actors, I had to ask myself “what if this were me?” which lead me to wondering what would it take for me to be able tokill someone or turn against my own family members or a neighbor? Even if I did manage to resist joining the perpetrators, would I be bold and brave enough to help others? Would it be wrong if I decided my own life was too valuable for me to take the risk of trying to save someone else?
One thing that made the experience even more real for me was a Room that featured pictures of over 2000 victims and their families. Seeing those pictures, which showed the victims under normal circumstances and with their families, brought light to how many innocent people were killed. After that, the genocide is no longer a story that is told or just a piece of history, but one is reminded that these were real people that this happened to and their stories matter.
I wasn’t ready for what came after the room with the pictures. As we went through the museum, I became separated from the group as I took time to re-read information and write in my journal. I didn’t mind being alone though, until I got to this next room. The next room featured actual skulls and bones of victims' bodies. I soon I walked in I wished I was with someone else because my first reaction was to grab onto someone’s arm and share a look of understanding and comfort with them, and I couldn't. This room gave me such mixed emotions. My stomach grew weak and I became shaky. It was so hard to see actual evidence of people being harmed. Especially since bullet holes and machete marks could be seen in the skulls.
Then, there was the children's room. This room featured stories of children who didn't survive the genocide. It was heartbreaking to see lives lost so young and to imagine the possibilities of what they could have grew so accomplish but we're instead rid of that chance. It also showed the innocence of genocide victims as the plaques listed things like their favorite foods, activities, sports, etc. The plaques also listed their causes of death, which were brutal. One that really got to me was a baby whose cause of death was being smashed against a wall. All I could think was “how could someone do that to a baby?” I think this was the hardest room for me to be in. At times I found myself avoiding the pictures and only reading the stories. Then, I’d catch myself doing that and force myself to look back. Now, I realize that this occurred because of how hard it is to put a face to such a heartbreaking story.
The amazing part, though, is that even after all of the tragic events that occurred in Rwanda, it has become a country of peace and unity. When the genocide was over and reconstruction began, perpetrators where made to confess their crimes and publically ask for forgiveness. People were then encouraged to rebuild their lives together without seeking revenge.
After seeing the exhibits and learning more about the genocide, I thought back to the looks of various Rwandans walking on the streets. Their faces are serious and even look a little angry (until you wave at them and then they light up with kindness). This may be an incorrect assumption, but now I believe the heavy looks on their faces are because of the stories they carry. I can only imagine what they've seen and experienced and I know it must be at least a little unbalancing to continue life as normal after experiencing something as tragic as the genocide that took place in Rwanda. Also, I imagine that many of them lost family members and friends and that life for them definitely isn't the same.