Article on the trip to the Great Lakes region, to Rwanda, on the 20th anniversary of the Genocide.
You cannot help it. From the very moment you land in Kigali, you have that feeling that you are stepping into an enigmatic place, full of energy, of vibrations, of unbalanced power. I will never forget the sight from that window of the plane, with the sunset shining on the surface of the river that welcomed me, with its uncountable opened arms, predicting, somehow, what I was about to find a few days later: the many branches and groups that, at the end, are only one, the Rwandese people.
I came full of prejudices. I put them all to rest. The most difficult was, probably, to think that I could not look directly in the eyes of those who had gone through that much suffering, that much struggle. The first couple of days, I consciously avoided the topic. I didn´t want to raise it as I thought that it would be very difficult for them to face it again. What a coward. What an illusion. They were about to commemorate 20 years of the genocide. How could they even think of avoiding it? The motto said it all: “kwibuka20”, meaning, “remember, unite, renew”. Nobody talks of forgetting or leaving the past behind (which, ironically, is probably the only word that most of us know in Swahili, “Hakunamatata”). No. They face it. They talk about it. They recognize that they have killed each other and that it is not going to be easy to live together again. But they insist: “unite, renew”. It seems impossible to me. But it is not. They have done it. The have proved it.
When you mention “Rwanda”, for many uninformed individuals like me, the image that automatically comes to mind is that of a strong and tall black man with a knife in his hands ready to cut heads. For us, Rwanda is basically a synonym of hate, of the degradation of the human race, of the worst image of Africa. A place to avoid in case you´re thinking of travelling. That is the image that I had; but obviously, again, I was wrong. If I discovered something about Rwanda during those days, it was that everything was completely the opposite of what I had imagined. Not to mention that it was the West who created the problem. That aside, my point is if Rwanda has achieved something, it is that it has come full circle; it is an example to be followed by the rest of world. We must look at how these people have come together after such atrocities. I say it again: I would never have anticipated something like this. Could you try? Think about it, think of your relatives; and now think that somebody has killed your mother, has raped your sister, has buried your child. Would you let the perpetrator go just like that? Never. Never, ever. But they knew there was no other way. They had to go through it and start living together, peacefully, as they used to do many, many years ago. And they built the new Rwanda. A new Rwanda where your ethnic group was no longer indicated on your ID. You are Rwandese. “Ndi Umunyarwanda.” I am Rwandese. Period.
And what about justice? What about paying back your debts? Not an easy matter in a country where thousands of common people had participated in the massacre. What to do then? They had to find a way to not only find justice but also reconciliation, as they had to live together again. African traditions returned again to teach us a big lesson. The death penalty was rejected. The “Gacaca” traditional system was modernized and thought to be the best way –I cannot think of a better one- to administer the trials: knowing the truth, assessing criminal responsibility, and finally facilitating the requests for pardon. The community decides the verdict. Wise enough. It worked out. Granted with difficulties and imperfections, of course, but it worked out.
That was my only constant feeling during my trip while looking at them. How in the world did these people manage to live together when years ago they were killing each other? Is it simply a miracle? I do not think so. It is a lesson. A big lesson from the Rwandese people to all of us. A reason to believe again in human beings.
And here we are. It has been 20 years. And, even now some people insist on defining the differences between them, between us. To me, it seems more reasonable, as the Rwandese taught us, to point out what we have in common, which is much more, and which is the only way that can lead us to a peaceful coexistence. I must say, then: thank you, Rwanda. Thanks for your lessons and for your example. I won´t forget it, and I hope that all of us will one day be united and renewed as you are now.