A Remembrance Day to remember

“As I’ve said to you several times, there are spaces at entrances 4, 5, 6”, repeated the exasperated policeman good naturedly. His colleague had said the exact same thing about entrance 10, as he expressed his regret for lack of space.

“As I’ve said to you several times, there are spaces at entrances 4, 5, 6”, repeated the exasperated policeman good naturedly. His colleague had said the exact same thing about entrance 10, as he expressed his regret for lack of space.

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Vincent Gasana

I was at Amahoro stadium, the first time I was marking April remembrance week in Rwanda. Though very helpful, I wondered whether the police were thinking of any number, and sending us there, just for a bit of respite from the expectant eyes pleading to be admitted into the stadium.

On to 6, thoughts of giving up beginning to insinuate themselves into my head. No spaces at 6. 5? Yes, apologies to the policeman.

More queuing, some jostling.  ‘’You’ll all get in”, the policeman assured us. His assurances had the opposite effect to the one intended. A bit of shoving as his back was turned momentarily, and I was ejected out of the queue.

I got an “I’m disappointed in you” look as he turned. A few new arrivals and I were directed to the back of the queue, but, soon, we were all ushered in.

From the darkness into the light, as we entered the floodlit stadium, full to over its 30,000 capacity. I should have started queuing even earlier, novice mistake, but, I was in, and glad I had persevered.

Besides, it could have been worse. April is in the rainy season, and the clouds looked ominously dark and heavy, but, not a drop fell. With no competition from the normally starry sky, candles clutched in young hands all around the stadium, twinkled, a stand in for the cloud engulfed stars.

An almost automatic change in mood as one enters the stadium. There is a peace, and solemnity, quiet, even with the mournful Rwandan music emanating from the floodlight bathed stadium. I look around; all are lost in their own thoughts.

We remember. Each individual thought, adding up to a collective memory.

Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem for the fallen comes to mind: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”.

A comforting thought intervenes: On 7th April 1994, hundreds had fled to this stadium, hoping to be protected by the UN force. To their horror and despair, the then Rwandan Army and Interahamwe militia begin to disarm the Bangladeshi contingent of UN soldiers.

Fortuitously, members of RPA (Rwanda Patriotic Army) battalion of fighters who had been stationed in Kigali, as part of the Arusha peach accord, are on hand.

They stand firm, and the murderers leave to find defenceless victims. But for those RPA fighters, tonight we would be remembering hundreds more massacred in this very stadium.

The event in the stadium was a culmination of a day of remembrance that had begun at the Kigali genocide memorial site for the national event, and at Umudugudu, or local administrative areas for me as for hundreds of thousands of others around the nation.

Thanks to the magic of the recorded image, it was possible to incorporate into my recollections what I had missed while queuing. The lighting of candles, President Kagame paternally passing the flame to each young person.

Supporting him was the First Lady, and African Union Commission chief, Moussa Faki. They had all walked to the stadium, as part of the now well established Walk to Remember.

Initiated in 2009 by a youth group, Peace and Love Proclaimers (PLP), Walk to Remember was conceived as a way to raise young people’s awareness of genocide ideology.

Outside the stadium, many were doing what teenagers do at any large gathering, meeting friends, talking earnestly about trivia. Some accompanied their younger siblings.

There is excitement in the air, but, their age belies their understanding of why they are there. In the queue, I start a conversation with a young man who disappears before I ask his name.

But I had had time to learn he had not missed a remembrance vigil at the stadium for the past eighteen years, judging by his youthfulness, probably most of his entire life.

Why I asked, was he still coming if had been so many times? “Remembrance is for always”, he shot back, barely concealing his contempt for the idiocy of the question.

Over in the distance, all too soon for me, the President was shaking hands, I imagine wishing people good night. I exited the stadium. Outside, I passed a little boy, ten or eleven, in the middle of the crowd, looking lost. I looked back. He was still glued on the spot.

I turned back, and asked with whom he had come. His brothers, they had gone home, he said accusingly. They were most likely looking for him. I took his hand, and headed back up the stairs. I explained the predicament to a policeman.

He took the child’s hand from mine. I wished him good night, and left, wondering how he would get the boy home.

A remembrance day, years from now, the boy will relate to his son or daughter, the night he spent hours in a police car as they looked for his house in Kicukiro. A remembrance day to remember, for him as for me.
 
The writer is a broadcast journalist and programme maker.

 

 

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