Have Rwanda’s Tears Really Subsided Since the Genocide?


By Hendrik Ehlers I first heard of Rwanda in 2004, when our NGO started de-mining operations in that country, and what I heard was utterly discouraging: complicated, very expensive, slow, muddy, no electricity, oppression, poverty, military-run and lacking just about all necessities. Life in the capital Kigali was supposed to be so disheartening, I successfully avoided going there to look myself. So when I was recently invited along to a Swedish-sponsored youth drama workshop in Kigali, I expected to be disappointed. That is, until I met a wonderful group of some 20 artists, writers, musicians and facilitators from over 12 African countries in what was to be a mind-altering experience. For one, it as an eye-opener for me to realize that there are other worthy humanitarian activities than mine-clearing. ‘Edutainment’ takes on a new sense here, as it finds its place as trauma-counselling for an entire nation. Rwanda is a gloriously beautiful country – the locals call it “God’s Masterpiece.” At first, I could not confirm that, as from the air all one sees are mist and clouds, interspersed with rampant greens and laced with orangey mud. … And rivers. … Endless rivers. On the ground it looks like a mixture of Brazil and Switzerland. Later I was corrected – obviously, it is Sweden that looks like Rwanda. The people, in spite of their history of tribulation, are of all shades, shapes, Christian and Islamic, all living side by side in friendly community in a climate which defies picking the appropriate outfit. The weather changes from rain to sunshine to rain and back again in a matter of minutes. The variety of goods and colourful food is fantastic, and people dress without fashion rules, apart from the fact that the favourite colour of construction workers seems to be pink. Pink, I wondered? There were moments when we found the slowness, the disinterested behaviour and the absent looks of some Rwandans rather intolerable. But then we started to understand the lack of understanding, the staring empty eyes, the weird looks and the occasional mental absence. And we learned that anything goes – with patience and an open smile. Rwanda is known for its gorillas and its genocide. Of the little we really know of it, most of it seems impossible to understand – a small country somewhere in Africa where some time ago some uncivilized tribal groups hacked each other to death in very large numbers. So, what’s new? In the modern world there is nothing special about it. See World War II: 40 million dead, 25 million of them civilians and 6 million of these Germans of Jewish belief. That, you can call numbers, and that in the “first” world. But Rwanda? So, it was quite easy to decide upfront to handle my ignorance by simply not talking about it. I thought this was a really diplomatic and tactful approach, mainly because I was sure the Rwandans would not like to be reminded of their tragedy and also they would not like to spoil a simple tourist’s day. Wrong. Very, very wrong. There is not one real conversation without mentioning the genocide, and in a very few days this rather unique and incredible event opened up a multitude of aspects and angles I never was aware of. One reason could be that we were in a very intellectual and academic group, which believes that theatre – and especially children theatre – is essential for peace-building and reconciliation. The other one is that the people here are still totally traumatized. I mean: as in totally traumatized. For those readers who forgot the “facts” as I did: In order to rule, the colonial powers (first Germany, then Belgium) systematically divided one nation of Nilotes and Bantu into opposing groups simply by treating them differently and allowing only specific functions and employment to certain groups. There are various “ethnic” groups, but the ones of interest here are the Hutu and the Tutsi. As there are no general physical or cultural features to differentiate between them, a discriminating ID system was introduced. That is an important misconception to know and it explains why during the first days I was trying to physically recognize the different groups in vain. Many people died because of that error as their personal body features were mistakenly understood as proprietary to one of the groups. Many of the discriminated Tutsi went into exile and the then-history was falsified, making them as having been foreigners already before. The brutal propaganda mechanisms and media built up the diversion and hatred (and special military killer units) until, upon orders in 1994, a sudden and cold-bloodedly planned outbreak of torturous mass-murdering commenced. It was not based on mutual animosity, but preyed on brain-washed Hutus following “orders” to exterminate the Tutsi – including Hutus opposing this plan. Therefore the term genocide is correct. The official media referred to Tutsis as “snakes” (inzoka) or “cockroaches” (inyenzi), which makes these words touchy to use till date. In brief, it was the “short” Hutu killing the “tall” Tutsi, whereas many of the Hutu were tall themselves and got killed in error. Due to ID controls imposed countrywide at renegade-run roadblocks, this did not spare any short Tutsis. It sounds almost funny – almost, until you have seen the photographs and heard the testimonies of the killers and survivors. The international community closed their ears and eyes to the mounting evidence of the slaughter. The UN contingents, paralyzed by indecision, could have stopped the onslaught, but instead only evacuated diplomats, foreigners and refugees, including some of the murderers themselves. Relief organizations focused on refugee camps outside the country and the conflagration continued unchecked inside Rwanda. In some cases, the killing went on in the refugee camps outside. Without an ID there was no way of telling who was who. The effect on a country of 8 million inhabitants, a genocide of such savagery – armed with nothing more than machetes, clubs, hacks and saws – was devastating. One million people hacked and clubbed and tortured and crucified to death, many of them in front – or often even under forced participation – of their own children. People paid fortunes for a bullet to get shot instead. Unknown large numbers were horribly mutilated, an estimated 500ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 women raped, 800ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 children orphaned in the space of three months and, of those, 85ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 children suddenly becoming heads of their families simply by being the oldest survivors. We are not talking statistics here, we are talking about people, human beings. Rotting corpses stinking everywhere. Rwanda was dead I heard and read numerous tales of what had happened, but the most drastic one is of the very friendly German owner of the Kigali abattoir and meat market, who also confirmed that the number of landmine-maimed cattle brought to his abattoir has reduced drastically over the past few years: “I have been a butcher and a teacher of butchering all my life. I have built slaughter houses all over the world. I know what blood and killing is like. It is my living – people must eat. I have lived in Kigali for 17 years. I also have been working in Chicago, which has by far the biggest slaughter house in the world. I was here during the genocide. It was as if it had rained blood. The Kigali slaughter house was twice the size of the Chicago slaughter house, and it was not cattle, they were humans. My wife was here, too. She went mad. She will never come back. She is too afraid it could happen again. But in our heads, we have to push it away, you know. We have to push it away, you know. You know…..” It is merely one decade ago, and it is a miracle to see so many smiling faces everywhere. The trauma is so massive – there is neither enough psychologists on earth to consolidate and/or counsel the survivors nor enough prison space to lock up and/or counsel the killers and informants. In Rwanda, the genocide is inside everybody, and it is everywhere. The interesting thing is the unique way Rwanda is dealing with the trauma and jurisdiction. There is a government policy controlling media and art to avoid a repetition of segregation. That goes so far that theatre plays on the event may not say things like: “Once there was a Hutu and his neighbour, who was a Tutsi.” Officially speaking, one may only say: “Once there were two Rwandans who were neighbours.” The other fact is that Rwandan schools do not teach history. The generation of teachers simply does not know how to explain to the orphans what happened to their families. As this description of the genocide is taken from personal conversations and from the official version, as impressively displaced in the Kigali Genocide Memorial, there is some doubt on the absolute historical correctness of the above. But here it is not war which justifies the methods – here it is peace and reconciliation. I trust the reason is large enough. Reconciliation theatre, art, literature, etc. are of highest priority on the government’s agenda, especially the ones easing and positively channelling abused women and the traumatized generation of adolescents slowly starting to take the country over now. But the truly astonishing aspect follows now: What happened with the murderers, torturers, rapists, informants and those who let it happen? Meaning: what happened to the majority of Rwandan citizens? One has to understand that there was little resistance from ordinary people against mobs. Who would believe that the neighbour knocking at the door would not pick up his kids after playing as usual, but instead came to hack them to death with his machete? Who would believe that a priest would order bulldozers against his own church to crush his own community sheltering inside, killing them by the hundreds? The ones that escaped are sought, judged and jailed by the international court in Arusha and The Hague. Some of the perpetrators fled – one got himself a job as chief accountant with Save-the-Children in Luanda. But he was discovered, and dealt with. As for those who remained or were caught inside Rwanda, they are being dealt with in a peculiar way: They are turned over to their communal (traditional) courts, where many of them are sentenced to death. But there is a rising voice to abolish capital punishment, as it is come to be understood as anti-reconciliatory. Those not sentenced to death were initially kept in prison camps where they serve out sentences of forced labour. They are easy to recognize as they wear pink clothes. Many of them are allowed to go home in the evening or on weekends, but they are not allowed to take their pink clothes off in public. The duration of the sentence and its specifics are determined by rural community courts, meaning the villagers themselves, led by their communal/traditional leaders. The offenders have to admit in detail their atrocities, their killing, raping and deadly information, and the community decides on their fate. Painstakingly detailed admission of actions and total admission of guilt is the only way out. The chain gangs are used on communal projects like construction of roads and government buildings and, once projects are concluded, they are free to go and be normal members of society again. Rwanda is a most progressive nation. Revenge was recognized to be no answer. It is also generally understood that many of the atrocities were committed under group pressure and that those people also need a helping hand to live with their guilt. Wow! I apologize if my tale of the events has errors but, although it is such a little while ago, it seems that nobody really knows what exactly happened. There are many contradicting versions and one group that remains to be hated and feared by all are the people high up in the then-government, church, military and media who instigated, planned, prepared and ordered the genocide. But the main thing is that everybody is committed to never let it happen again. And there is a detail that gives extensive reason for hope: There were so many orphans that they were adopted all through the society, whether they were surviving families or opposed tribes, religions and communities. Today, there is such a mix that after 100 years the only feature of the Rwandan citizens will once again be that they are Rwandan – and not in one way or the other – just that. Next time we will bring umbrellas and go see the gorillas, the volcanoes and the giant moss. We will also bring an extra load of patience – it takes everybody’s life so much gentler. Rwanda today is a very friendly and very clean country, full of wonders with totally peaceful and very helpful people. It is really worth a visit. Thanks to the good governance under the current President, the crime rate is almost zero, the success rate of the police on the few crimes is 100% within 24 hours, and a lot of people say it is the safest country on the planet. They also say that the landscapes are more beautiful than those of Switzerland. Rwanda is alive again – though with some shades of pink.