Since I last wrote, I have met face to face for conversations with genocide perpetrators, victims, and survivors somewhere in the gray area between. In the justice process after the 1994 genocide, those who participated actively in intentionally orchestrating the genocide were somewhat easily identified and persecuted. However, much of the killing was carried out by everyday civilians, who often said they had no choice and were forced to kill or be killed. These people are too numerous to prosecute through the court system – thus the creation of gacaca, a community justice and reconciliation program that addressed cases locally. After meeting with some of those who went through gacaca trials, I can see even more clearly how messy the whole situation was. There is no black and white justice here. For example, a man I met described how he participated in the group killing of a young man in his village when he was given military orders to do so. He reduced his prison sentence after gacaca through TIG, a community service program for some of those convicted of participating in the genocide. Now, he visits prisons and advocates for people to tell the truth about what they have done. Another woman from TIG talked about how she was convicted because Tutsi children were killed under her care and she did not stop the killers. She told us, though, that she had no power to stop them, and now she said she doesn’t even feel like a mother anymore. It’s people like these who are victims of the history of the genocide themselves, too, despite being involved in killing. At first, meeting them face to face was even a bit frightening, since I knew they had served in prison for their actions during the genocide, but after hearing their stories I realized how human their actions were. There is little support for these people today, though they also deal with trauma, because they were on the perpetrators’ side. I imagine it is this gray area where former child soldiers live, too: forced to kill, they are also trauma victims from their violent actions.
We also got to meet with two amazing rescuers during the genocide in 1994. One was able to save 22 Tutsis by hiding them in his house and underground in fake graves until the RPF came to the area. He faced threats to his own life as well by doing so, because hiding Tutsis was illegal. He told me that he sent his own son to another Hutu home to protect him in case he was found out. The other rescuer told me he was also forced to comply and participate in the killings, but he refused, a choice which he said many did not recognize they had or did not want to take the associated risks. But, he did not fear his own death because of how many people just like him were dying every day. He said, “we, as ordinary citizens, did the work of the UN.” But the UN has not recognized either of these remarkable men for doing the job they failed to do in protecting innocent civilians.
Since the genocide, the development in Rwanda has been rapid and is astounding to see. Even today, roads and buildings are going up everywhere. Construction projects are completed in just days in Kigali. Since I have been here, I have already seen streets transformed. In school, we learned about and got to visit a development initiative in the Bugesera district called the Millenium Village Project, which is a village of 28,000 that has been transformed by an organization working to implement solutions that meet the Millenium Development Goals of 2000. The village in Mayange that we visited addressed income sources, environmental issues, healthcare, and education, and over the last 10 years were able to lift thousands out of poverty while developing a model they hope will transfer around the world to help reach the MDGs. One of the main initiatives was creating jobs that generate income, beyond subsistence farming. While there, we visited the cultural center, craft and business cooperatives, school, healthcare center, and a farm. We actually got firsthand experience getting treated at the health center, because three of my classmates blistered and cut their feet playing barefoot soccer with kids on their hot dirt field! Apparently, the center was not sanitary (flip flops and chickens wandering in the patient rooms), and even for pretty basic first aid, my classmates said they never wanted to go back. But still, it was much better than nothing in this village which previously had no or little access to medical care. My classmates said it was still worth it to play with the kids at the school – all 900 of them came out at recess and gathered to watch the silly muzungus take on the 4th grade soccer team. We also harvested some cassava with the help of a local farmer and cooked it up for lunch.
Though the village was not perfect, and clearly still struggled with poverty, the initiative made incredible improvements, especially just after the genocide. The benefits even spread to nearby villages as they shared skills and information. After discussing it in class, we learned an important framework for considering development initiatives, which I think will be very helpful to apply in our own project:
1) research – conduct a baseline survey on what is needed (the step we are on now)
2) map problems – use a problem tree analysis to understand root causes and acute problems
3) intervention, using a participatory approach and involving the community
4) evaluation, monitoring, and adaptation according to on-the-ground circumstances
Finally, another powerful encounter this week was with a man who was just 10 years old during the genocide. He didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but a man and his infant were decapitated in front of him. When he shouted out, his mom told him to keep quiet so they wouldn’t think he should also be killed. He told me he feels shame for what his family did during the genocide, and reflected on how his generation is to move forward. He said, “this generation is going to be a good generation if we can continue to teach the kids unity.” Post-conflict, it’s so important to reach out to children. They have the power to change ideology and reshape the future. This is why it’s also so important to reach out to former child soldiers. We must assure the generation now does not remain in violence.
(The boy waving in the featured image was the one who was afraid to touch me when I arrived. Later he held my hand on the walk back to the bus, and chased it waving goodbye.)
Personally, I am doing well but continuing to adjust to a new cultural setting. Something I dislike is how much I stick out as a muzungu. I feel it’s a barrier to interactions with people, especially strangers and kids. I don’t mind being stared at so much as being called muzungu instead of by my name, even sometimes at my homestay, but especially as I am walking by. Some people actually stop what they are doing (including biking past) to turn and stare. In the village school yesterday, I was the first white person this boy had seen up close, and he was afraid of me. His friends pushed him forward, daring him to touch me. After some coaxing in Kinyarwanda he came to shake my hand. I felt sad that I was so scary to him. I feel ashamed to have white skin that reminds me everywhere I go of how much white people have messed up here. But, I think it is good for me to experience feeling out of place because of skin color for once. This is just one summer, and many people may live their whole lives in the United States feeling like the outside group based on skin color or ethnicity.
Another cultural challenge is transport. I use the public bus system to get around. I take two buses and then walk a ways from the main road down a dirt road to the house. It can be hard to signal when you want to get off the bus, but usually it’s easy to find the right bus to get on. Sometimes when it is starting to get dark, men catcall me. There are usually people around, and I never feel really threatened, but it can be scary, and I feel like I always have to be on guard. The walk is really beautiful though; there are views of rolling hills all around.
It has also been a rough few days in my homestay because two people in the extended family died this week. It is difficult to comfort someone who is grieving when you can’t speak to them in their own language. But, I have found that words are not so important as presence.
The kids are doing fine, though. They are so happy when I come home and always want to play together. The littlest one has taken to acting like a monkey and climbing all over me and the furniture and whatever else he can find.
I’m excited to travel some more. This weekend, we are taking a short trip to see Gisyeni. Then, in Tuesday morning we will leave Kigali and head to Uganda via Nakivaale refugee settlement. I think it will be really interesting to learn more about the life of Rwandan refugees and the work of the UNHCR. Then, finally we will go to Gulu, and will transition to learning about northern Uganda.
Life is good! I miss home but am so glad that I get to be here. The weekdays are busy but full of good things. I am safe and all is well. I am sending my love to friends and family!