So many things we have experienced in Rwanda. One of my biggest tasks here, the Advanced Midwifery students have finished their semester and thus I have a slightly easier schedule. What has not gotten easier is internet.
In early April the girls were off school for a week, due to the 20th Anniversary of the Genocide. “Remember, Unite, Renew” is the theme for memorial this year. There were many events, extremely tight security and VIP international visitors. One of our HRH colleagues found herself near former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for example, during one activity. We participated in one event, the main remembrance walk, as there have been several. This one started from the Parliament building with its bullet hole damaged walls maintained to remember… and concluded at Amahoro Stadium. We got to the starting place of the event at the correct time, but then had to stand on hot asphalt for 2.5 hours waiting for the VIPs to arrive. We were hemmed in between tall wrought iron fencing on one side, and armed soldiers on the other. After tight security to enter and with thousands of people in front and behind us, were actually “stuck” for the wait. I could now understand how crowd “un-control” might happen with the possibility for serious injury if the masses became too frustrated.
As we learned during Chinese New Year, which was several days of inconvenience for foreigners, Genocide Memorial week is similar…except no whining from us this time. I had read many articles, books, viewed films and documentaries about the Rwandan Genocide, which the government calls: “Genocide Against the Tutsis.” I had done all that research many years before this experience, due to my interest. I had been compelled to learn as much as possible, after seeing “Hotel Rwanda” a long time ago. I watched it for the second time, when my now, 23 year old son was in high school. Since he was a mere 3 years old when the genocide happened, he was shocked that something so TERRIBLE had occurred in his lifetime. Like most American students, he knew all about Nazis and the Holocaust, but was less educated on the subject of Rwanda.
When the girls and I arrived in the country, and the first time I saw an open truck loaded with Rwandan men carrying landscaping/farming equipment—which included several machete-carrying occupants, I thought about the images I had seen on film. Even now, as we travel around, I look at this small crowded country and think to myself, where did they hide? I study the faces of my Rwandan colleagues and think how could they tell the difference between Hutus and Tutsis? The key is that you can’t distinguish. Can you tell the difference between an US Native American and a Canadian First Nation person? Or someone from North European descent living in either of those countries?
The difference between being labeled as a Tutsi, Hutu and Twa was a legacy of colonization from the French and Belgians. Having 10 or more cows, you were a Tutsi. If you lost your 10 cattle due to disease or poor management, you could lose your identity and become a Hutu. Facial structure and bodily measurements were also included in the “scientific” analysis of tribal distinction.
Where I work, at the main hospital of the country, there is a medical unit for the aged and sick prisoners. I see them out on the hospital grounds and find myself thinking how I never see prisoners in America. The prisoners in orange are regular criminals but the prisoners wearing pink are the “genocidaires.” I look at their faces and see ordinary aging adults. They give no visible signs of the crimes they perpetrated. Once I saw a van of prisoners returning to the hospital grounds and a woman genocidaire was included. As she got out of the car, with her pink skirt, shirt and head covering, I was surprised and annoyed that she had a matching pink purse. It struck me as so odd, that seemingly inconsequential detail.
Those affected by Genocide live amongst the perpetrators. Due to the large number of criminals and the anticipated time it would take to process through the criminal justice system Gacaca courts were set up around the country. It is a community-based criminal justice system that has some historical tradition. Perhaps this is better understood with information taken directly from the Rwandan website: The “Gacaca Courts” system has the following objectives:
- The reconstruction of what happened during the genocide
- The speeding up of the legal proceedings by using as many courts as possible
- The reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity “
I do not know what it would be like to live, work, worship with those who harmed my family and friends, but it happens here with some success and some bad feelings on a daily basis. Many people say they had no options to leave or they did not want to leave their village, their country. People talk about starting from zero after the genocide. Which is what had to happen to the country of Rwanda. Not a single family was untouched by the death and destruction. What mattered was the degree of grief. “L” is one of the most educated Rwandans that I have met as she has taken an advanced degree in psychology. She mentioned that “Memorial” for her is not in April. I said, stupidly—“why not?” She looked at me with much sadness and explained because her mother was killed in May. That is when she and her family have their own memorial time.
L was in nursing school, whose academic campus was at a hospital. When the killings started, the Interahamwe (Hutu Militia) came and killed their teachers. They rounded up the nursing students and placed them in a room, planning to murder them as well…but then the Hutus were called to another place where fighting was going on. The students cried and prayed, knowing that the promise of death would happen when they Hutus returned. Amazingly, their lives ended up being spared. While the fighting was going on, several Hutus were severely injured and were taken back to the hospital for treatment. The nursing students lives were saved because some of the Hutus realized if they killed all the nurses, there would be no one to help the injured. L says that they treated injured Hutu and Tutsis equally, because that is how they had been taught as nursing students. Sadly, some of the recovering Tutsi patients would “disappear” in the night, being taken out of the hospital and murdered.
Recently, I talked to L about one of our post-cesarean section patients. One of my students had “rounded” on her and presented her history, physical and client teaching. The 28 year-old mother’s surgery had taken place the day before and she was doing well. I asked my student why did she have the first cesarean (in a country with about a 47% c/birth rate). I assumed it was going to be another sketchy reason, but was soon to learn that she had too much scarring. “Scarring?? Like from the first cesarean?” “No,” I was told, “in her pelvis.” Oh, my goodness, was she sexually assaulted, raped?” I tentatively asked. “Maybe, but she was shot. Shot during the war, down there,” the student explained. With stupefied silence, the other students and I did the math. She was 8 years old during the war. A little girl shot in the vagina. My stomach turned. I looked at my students and whispered, “I am so sorry.”
It has been 20 years and the stories come out when you don’t expect it. The thousands of Rwandan children, born after rape are about 19 years old right now. There are no special social services for them. Many are haunted by the stories of their origins. In a patrilineal society, they are the children of violent beginnings. Many of them grew up in single-parent households, their mothers were widowed during Genocide. For some of the mothers the child is a constant reminder of the trauma they suffered. Many of the women were systematically raped and tortured and deliberately infected with HIV. L has stories…too many.
One student had to miss some clinical time. The reason: Rwanda is widening a particular road, and near the road is one of many mass graves. People who have family buried there were mandated to come help dig up the bones. They had to clean the dirt and clothing from the bones and set them in the sun to dry for a couple of days. Then the bones were re-buried. Picture that as a reason for an “excused absence.”
When my sister Kelley was here last month we went to the National Genocide Museum. The room where the children’s stories and photos were displayed made me the saddest. We took Beau and Mei with us. The museum also shares information about other genocides, WWII, Armenia…
I wrote this post a long time ago but thought it was too depressing to share. Plus, my thoughts and words are inadequate to describe the little that I know and hear. But then, this happened…My friend S is a physician here in Rwanda. Her father was an Auschwitz survivor. They are Jewish, but one should not assume that…as the Gypsies, Russian POWs, some Christians, Germans, mentally and physically handicapped were all victims of Nazi cruelty. Recently at a party, S mentioned that she went to mass and CCD every week for several years of her childhood. When she asked her father, why she a Jew was having to learn so much about Catholicism, her father told her it was just in-case it should ever happen again, that she be able to disguise herself as a Christian. Her father felt even living in America, that one could never know how a world could spiral down revealing the worst aspect of human nature.
Thus I share this post with you to remember the dead and living whose lives have been altered by genocide.