Here in Rwanda we have had the opportunity to encounter all sides of the 1994 Genocide. From host family members with relatives that were lost to coming face to face with killers, our study of the Genocide has been extremely multifaceted.
It’s hard to walk down the street here and look at people, wondering “Who are you? Are you a survivor? Are you a killer? Were you here?” While made up stereotypes exist, it is nearly impossible to clearly look at someone and know if they are Hutu or Tutsi. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the conflicting groups in Rwanda were not legitimate ethnic groups. Prior to colonization, Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa were economic groups and a person was categorized according to how they made their living. When the Belgians took German East Africa from Germany post-WWI, they decided to make them ethnic groups. Because everyone looks the same they had to issue identity cards. If you had more then ten cows you were a Tutsi. Less than ten, Hutu. If you had none you were Twa, and “similar to monkeys”. That fact right there is what proves that the differences were invented.
Because of this, identities are not clear in Rwanda today. Asking is taboo. You wait for people to offer information about their Genocide story. What I have found difficult while talking to victims is knowing what to say. What do you say when someone tells you they lost their entire family in the genocide? How can you properly empathize or should you even try? I am not very good with words so this is so hard for me.
Last week we visited TIG, a community service group mostly for genocide perpetrators. If they came forward and confessed and asked for forgiveness, they had the potential to get lighter prison sentences and finish the full sentence doing community work like construction or infrastructure work. We met some of these people. They are old men now and it’s difficult to connect their faces with atrocities described in our readings and what we’ve seen at the memorials. Even more difficult to shake their hands. When asked why they did it, they blamed the government. Yes, the government orchestrated the genocide, but people still resisted. This answer did not feel complete to me. You don’t kill people so intimately, so closely, just because your government says so.
This is what leads me to the rescuers. We met two Hutu men that saved many many lives during the genocide. One almost lost his own in the process. A woman was sent to divide a large group of orphans into Tutsi and Hutu groups. She tricked the children into revealing their groups and when she finished the lists the man told the children to steal it when she was asleep. For three or four nights the children stole it and the rescuer destroyed it. Soldiers came to kill him for “making their work difficult” but because one of the soldiers knew him and did not want to kill him, he fooled the rest into thinking he had finished him off. The man lived to tell us his incredible story. And after the genocide the man gave the soldier a cow, an incredible sign of friendship in Rwandan culture.
It is so interesting to be able to hear these stories and meet these people. I am so thankful to be able to hear them and study here in Rwanda. It gives a perspective that not many people get and I recognize and appreciate that so much. I leave Rwanda tomorrow for Uganda, but I’m so happy to be able to come back in three weeks for my volunteer project.