You can’t 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, vibrations, and 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 countless open arms, predicting, somehow, what I was about to find a few days later: the many branches and groups that, in the end, are only one—the Rwandan people
I came with many prejudices. I put them all to rest. The most difficult one was, probably, the belief that I could not look directly into the eyes of those who had gone through so much suffering, so much struggle. For the first couple of days, I consciously avoided the topic. I didn’t want to bring it up, thinking it would be very difficult for them to face it again. What a coward I was. What an illusion. They were about to commemorate 20 years since 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 we humans 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. They have proved it.
When you mention ‘Rwanda,’ for many uninformed individuals like me, the image that automatically comes to mind is, aside from hunger, that of strong, tall men with machetes in their hands ready to slaughter. For us, Rwanda is basically synonymous with the extremes that humans can fall into, the worst image of Africa salted with European complicity. A place to avoid if you’re thinking of traveling. That was the image I had, which obviously, once again, 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 actually the West who created the problem, but that’s another story. My point is that if Rwanda has achieved something, it is that it has come full circle; it is an example to be followed by the rest of the 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, raped your sister, assassinated 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 Rwandan. ‘Ndi Umunyarwanda.’ I am Rwandan. Period.
And what about justice? What about paying back your debts? Not an easy matter in a country where thousands of ordinary 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 teach us yet another big lesson. The death penalty was rejected. The “Gacaca” traditional system was modernized, understood 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 Rwandan 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 Rwandans 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 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.