In the month of April 1994, a nightmare was unleashed in the country of Rwanda.
I remember that time, vaguely. I was living in Seattle, and some of the news stories that flowed out from Rwanda were horrible and unbelievable. But, I also remember not being able to understand it, and resigning myself that there was nothing I could do, a decision that has haunted me ever since.
So, for my own reconciliation process, I’ve come to Rwanda to face a past that I was unwilling to address at the time.
The moment you enter Rwanda you immediately feel like you are in a different country; the country is jam-packed with large hills and fertile valleys of stunning green tea plantations. Well-kept farmhouses line the roadway in the countryside; the country has a clean orderliness to it.
The Germans and then Belgians were intrigued with this orderliness when they colonized Rwanda in 20th century. One aspect of this was the difference between groups of inhabitants already living there.
These differences were exploited over time for political gain and power. This led to a deep resentment over time by the majority Hutu who were often ruled by a minority Tutsi. Misguided efforts to try and right the imbalance only enflamed the situation even more. Years of resentment covered the hearts of people, setting up the unthinkable genocide that started on April 6, 1994. So as the U.S. watched "Forest Gump" on the big screen in the dark movie theaters, Rwanda slipped into darkness where they killed between 800,000 and 1 million people over approximately 100 days. Using guns to machetes, the Interahamwe (Rwandan right wing militia) and the army methodically killed Tutsis and moderate Hutus across the country.
People turned against family and neighbors, and even members of their own church as they obeyed the orders being given to kill the enemy. The radio airways were filled with propaganda to kill. So swift and so brutal, that to try and comprehend what happen is an enormous, emotional and heavy task.
As I walk down the streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, I kept finding myself calculating how old this person would have been in 1994. My mind is peppered with questions like: were they here then, what did they see, what did they do? All across the country there are memorials to the genocide, marking mass graves where atrocities unfolded.
I decide to visit one of the starkest memorials outside the small town of Gikongoro, called Murambi. What once was a school became a killing factory. Several classrooms are now filled with the dead bodies from some of the 27,000 exhumed from the mass graves that littered the schoolyard. As I walk through the rooms and find myself surrounded by such pain, my heart sinks with tears. A horrific and chilling reminder that such events must never be allowed to happen again.
I step outside and stare into the green countryside trying to gain some emotional footing to move forward through the rest of the site. It is hard to breathe. Before leaving, I kneel down next to a mass grave for a moment of silence. As I walk back to town, I am immersed with the undeniable feeling that we failed as a humanity. The memorial begs the question, how can we learn from such a horrible moment in time?
One of the most striking impressions is Rwanda’s commitment to deal with the past and to passion to move forward.
Without a doubt it is one of the safest-feeling countries I have visited. It is also hands down the cleanest. The last Saturday of every month, from 8 a.m. to noon all businesses are closed, and the whole country takes the morning to clean the public spaces where they live. This seems to help create a sense of national pride and identity. Local neighborhood courts called Gacaca have been empowered by the government. Here the prisoners are put on trial who are accused of participating in the genocide.
A dark cloud still lingers, the past is still very young in Rwanda.
Before leaving, I sit down with Uwera, a young staff member and optimistic woman who has worked for current President Kagame six years. We meet to talk about the future of Rwanda.
"We hit bottom low with the genocide," says Uwera, it "can not be anywhere else but up from here.
"The world is surprised by our resilience. If people don’t think this is strength, then I don’t know what strength is. Our future is bright, there’s light at the end of the tunnel."