Last year around this time I left the country. It was my first time out of Rwanda since I had arrived in October. A few friends and I went to Uganda to celebrate our birthdays and our newly lifted ban from leaving our sites. I wanted to see more of East Africa, but if I had to be totally honest, I was scared about being around for Memorial. It all felt too close and too new. I was told plenty of stories about how awful it could get. So, I made a personal vow to stay around and see it for myself this year. Frankly, I think I’m adjusted to the shock factor of the Genocide at this point because the only thing that really seemed to bother me was the psychology behind the Rwandan week of mourning… Not the woman that ran down the street, screaming hysterically yesterday… Not the music videos featuring images of the dead playing on every television all day long. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…
Whenever I need to deal with trauma I find things to do. I focus on learning another language, or I pick up knot tying, or I try to adopt some new kind of activity that takes my mind off of the things I don’t want to remember. But in Rwanda they force you to remember. They force you to relive the unthinkable every year for multiple days on end. Everything closes, village meetings are mandatory, and abstaining from any part of Memorial is seen as Genocide denial. That means they can throw you in prison for supporting Genocide dogma just because you’re not taking part. The psychology of the country, the general lack of empathy and inability to relate to others, becomes a lot clearer when I think about a nation of people who have no control over dealing with the traumatic aspect of their lives.
To put it in perspective, a friend once asked me if I celebrated Veteran’s Day.
Him: So then you hate the military.
Me: What? No! I wouldn’t even know how to go about it. I don’t really know that many people in the military.
Him: There are ceremonies and parades in most cities, but you aren’t required to attend.
Me: Well, that doesn’t mean I hate military just because I don’t go to Veteran’s Day parades.
In Rwanda, [we] do not forget. [Our] ghosts are an intrinsic part of us that [we] will never release, or be at peace with. Because of that, in Rwanda, [we] do not forgive. For all the talk of reconciliation, the reality is that one does not ever accept the kind of atrocity that occurred in 1994. It would require being more than human to be able to turn to the man who murdered your family, or the person who turned away when you were screaming for help, and say: “It’s all right, I forgive you.”
I think it is equally as true that you never forget the face of the person who ruined your life as it is that you never forget the face of the person who was your last hope. That’s why being Umuzungu during Memorial is so difficult. You are that last hope that turned their back. You are the supposed friend who stood at the sidelines and watched. You are another tally in the column of The Unforgivables. I know there was nothing I could have done for a genocidal country when I was 8 years old, but that doesn’t make a difference to anyone here. I’m a representation of the most atrocious form of criminal neglect that ever existed. My life now belongs to trying to ensure that future generations don’t have to carry that weight.
I can deconstruct all of this. I will never be able to erase these years or these experiences from my mind and I only had to witness the remnants. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to experience Genocide in its entirety, and to have to relive it every year because of orders from on high. I know you can’t just forget something to find peace with it, but you don’t have to wear that scar all the time as a constant reminder either. I don’t think either extreme will work to resolve that issue. Sometimes you just need to be patient. Sometimes you just need to live and see how events unfold and where life takes you. Sometimes you can’t just will things to work or to be better. I think people will ultimately learn to put themselves back together, given enough time. That doesn’t need any intervention. That just needs understanding, some humanity, and some nurturing of your newest generations.