- Posted April 1, 2014 by
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Twenty years after the genocide, an American aid worker reflects on her time in Rwanda
- zdan, CNN iReport producer
By LeAnn Hager
LeAnn works for US-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.
She was CRS’ Country Representative in Rwanda between 2012 and 2014. She now heads up the CRS team in Central African Republic, where inter-community killings that are threatening to tear the country apart remind some of what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago.
When I first arrived in Rwanda’s capital Kigali I deliberately did not visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial for several months. I wasn’t sure what to expect - but I did know I did not want that experience to influence how I approached my colleagues and the country as a whole. I remember 1994 well - I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa and the genocide, right on the heels of Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa, was big news across the continent.
Eighteen years on, as I was moving to Rwanda to become the Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services, it was still the first thing to spring to mind. That’s probably true for most people – when they hear Rwanda, they think of the genocide. To be honest, I had not given Rwanda much thought in the years in-between, so I asked colleagues and friends who had lived there for advice. They spoke highly of the country and her people. I began to look at it as another adventure on this continent that I love – though I had visions of the film Hotel Rwanda resounding in my mind. I did know that CRS had been active in reconciliation efforts between victims and perpetrators of the genocide.
When you get to Rwanda, you are hit by the incongruity that strikes so many – how could such a horrible thing have happened in such a beautiful country? The nickname Land of a Thousand Hills is not an exaggeration. Rwanda’s countryside is dotted with what appears to be literally a thousand hills that are a mixture of mountains, volcanoes and hillocks. The beauty seems reflected in the people; Rwandans are incredibly friendly and hospitable, but just as you cannot see the other side of a mountain, you cannot always tell what is going on behind those dark eyes.
Rwandans obey their country’s many rules. I love that plastic bags are forbidden (to cut down on pollution) and indeed taken from you when you arrive at the airport! For anyone who has spent time in Africa, it’s incredible to see people actually wearing helmets on motorcycles, drivers and passengers alike, both in Kigali and out in the countryside.
National pride and a commitment to the idea that Rwandans should lead the development of their country are strong. From them came the concept of umuganda or community service. During the last Saturday of each month citizens do some type of community work in their neighborhood – maybe picking up garbage or cutting back the grass. If they do not show up they’re handed down a fine determined by the neighborhood leader.
Living and working in Kigali, I saw many of the amazing sites that Rwanda has to offer. A decadent weekend in Gisenyi, taking in the beautiful sunsets over Lake Kivu; a trip to Kibeho hoping to meet the woman the Virgin Mary came to in an apparition; the majestic cathedral of Butare; Rwesero and the unexpected treat of dining on the charming Muhazi Lake. I’m told that the most amazing experience is gorilla trekking and communing with a family of gorillas for an hour as you sit with them on a mountainside with bated breath.
But amidst the beautiful parks and tea plantations are the somber genocide memorials. These sites are found in virtually every community. They serve as a daily reminder that we should never forget the atrocities that took place. At the same time they also allow for personal reflection on the evil humans are capable of, and, on the other hand, their resilience too.
Four months after my arrival, I was ready to see that for myself at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. I was glad I had waited. Visiting the Memorial is not an easy experience. You walk alongside slabs of cement: a mass grave where over 250,000 people killed in Kigali are buried. At the end of one of the cement tombs is a wall with names – an attempt to identify some of the souls lost during the tragic 100 days of the genocide. You almost weep when you realize they will never identify them all.
One room inside the memorial has photographs of people whose lives were senselessly ended. Another tells the tale of other genocides or “cleansing” events in history throughout the world, reminding us that the international community has not been diligent about the oft-quoted pledge, “Never again.” Just before exiting the memorial building is the most difficult room to walk through. Dedicated to children who were killed – you see their names, what they enjoyed doing and who was their best friend -- it is impossible to experience it without developing a tear in your heart. In all my visits to the memorial I was never able to actually read all the remembrances to these children. Though I have always considered myself a pretty tough and realistic humanitarian worker – you see a lot of things in my line of work – I had never seen anything like this.
Another memorial - the Murambi Genocide Memorial, high in the hills of southern Rwanda - is one of the most graphic displays of the brutality of the genocide. It pays homage to the thousands killed as they took shelter in a technical college under construction. After seeing the understated information, photos and videos on the walls of the main memorial section, you continue on to the outbuildings. Here are the bodies of people killed on the site, now encased in lime, frozen in the instant that they died. A single visit ensures that the memorial realizes it purpose – you will never forget.
It’s an experience that makes you wonder how any society can come back together after something that tears so deeply. But I know from what I had seen, and from CRS’ work, that it is possible. Together with the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, CRS started peace and reconciliation programs in 1998 to provide genocide survivors and perpetrators a safe forum in which to talk openly about the past - their actions, their losses, their guilt. Rooted in incredible personal strength and their faith, many of them have since been able to seek and grant forgiveness and now live peacefully side by side. Witnessing these scenes is almost surreal, but deeply moving and humbling. Could I ever forgive? Could I ever confess and ask for forgiveness? But I have seen it happen many times.
Looking at Rwandans today with a certainty that such an atrocity can never happen again, you wonder ‘how did this ever happen in the first place?’ The phrase “Never again” takes on new meaning, particularly when considering the response of the international community. Are we really a community in which most of us watch this suffering and death from the sidelines?
In March of this year, I was asked by CRS to head our program in Central African Republic. The lessons from Rwanda still echoing in my head, I was compelled to say “yes” to a country being torn apart by inter-communal fighting, just as Rwanda had been. My time in Rwanda has shown me the limitations of what the international community will do in situations like this, but also taught me lessons and given me hope. Peace is possible. Reconciliation is possible. I pray that we can realize the same here in CAR. And we can, with a little influence and a lot of political will