EALA lights candle at genocide vigil

Sometime early this year the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) passed a resolution that established a committee to study the extent of genocide ideology and genocide denial in the community of East Africans for whom they represent.

Sometime early this year the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) passed a resolution that established a committee to study the extent of genocide ideology and genocide denial in the community of East Africans for whom they represent. The committee was also tasked with examining the impact of the two crimes as threats to security in the region, and to make recommendations for their mitigation.

Last week, the committee started this work here in Kigali. The task they have before them is a significant development for the future of our region. For one thing, the fact that they chose to start their consultations in Rwanda is a small but significant gesture that demonstrates possession of the requisite sensibilities for tackling the subject matter.

 

This is no ordinary task. Genocide attacks basic notions of humanity, shakes the human conscience, and raises questions about the very nature of human beings;that is, thinking about genocide requires the cynicism to reach down into the hollow depth of inhumanity on the one hand and, on the other, somehow convincing yourself that humans are capable of climbing their way back to a life of empathy and conscience – it’s genocide and its opposite.

 

Dealing with genocide requires a sensitivity to degrees of human empathy. Consider the decision by the EALA to conduct research on genocide ideology and genocide denial. This alone demonstrates a degree of empathy and solidarity to those who have been victims of genocide, in this case survivors in particular and Rwandans in general.

 

But there is another layer. Actions that would follow such a study also provide evidence for concern towards the same people. Yet still, there’s another more elevated sense of human empathy and conscience. It’s the more significant aspect. It is about identifying with the pain felt by Rwandans to the level that mutual empathy is felt in such a way that collective ownership of the tragedy is awaken among East Africans. Indeed, significance is in the recognition that mutual solidarity undergirded by the cultivation of an empathic culture is the necessary and possibly sufficient condition for averting future genocidal catastrophe in this region.

Truth be told. For long, Rwandans felt a sense of indifference from our brothers and sisters on the continent, and in this region, in regards to the tragedy that befell us 22 years ago. On the question of stopping genocide, for instance, those from lands far away insist that the reason they didn’t intervene to save people is because Rwanda was too remote a place and that they simply “didn’t know.”

We don’t believe them. However much they repeat the same thing, we are not buying it. We think that they are simply trying to justify their indifference; we are convinced that they refused to intervene because they don’t think Rwandans matter that much to be worthy of saving. We know that deep down they have contempt for us as a people because they continue to believe that we live in a world where a hierarchy of human beings exists, where some have a right to live and others of the lowest rung may live or die depending on decisions that can be determined on a case-by-case basis. Ask Burundians.

That’s why it confounds us when it comes to our brothers and sisters. We share waterways with them. They saw the bodies floating on lakes. They chose to give up fish. We think they could have done more.

We think that our house burnt as they watched. That a child was burnt alive inside that house and our neighbours watched the horror with indifference. We thought were in good terms; our children played together and we visited one another during holidays. We ask ourselves: Why had our neighbours chosen to act as bystanders to our suffering, why hadn’t they showed solidarity with us in times of misfortune?

Against all odds, we put out the fire. We buried our loved ones. A vigil was held. Our neighbours were nowhere to be seen, conspicuously missing. Others who also missed the vigil would come to the house to pay their respects. Every knock on the door we thought our neighbours had finally come. But alas!
Even those from lands far away showed up. But it wasn’t the ones we expected: those who helped to set the house on fire and we think should be remorseful. They are yet to show up. We think their culpability is what is keeping them away; they don’t want to return to the scene where they were accessories to arson, especially not now because their fingerprints are still dotted over the crime scene.

Its 22 years since the tragedy. Someone knocks. It’s the neighbours. All of a sudden sense of ambivalence takes over: Where do we start? What took them so long? What are they going to say? Who should speak first? Let them start.

“We apologise that we never came for the burial, that we were absent during the vigil and that we took so long to come. The depth of the horror shook us, too. We didn’t know what to do; we didn’t know what to say; we didn’t know how to comfort you, to be there for you in your hour of need. We felt lost.

“You were always in our thoughts and prayers. Your pain is our pain. We want you to know that we are in this together; we are reaching out to you so that we may heal together, not just as neighbours but as a family. We care. We know that what happened to you can happen to us. We should have done better.”

Bonds that bind us together are interwoven by empathy.

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