“I’ve heard of what happened in Rwanda. Who killed who? Is it like the Sunnis and Shiites?” he asked.
I stared at him in disbelief, surprised that anyone would ask this question. I had gone to my professor’s office to discuss a class project and the discussion turned, invariably, to my home country. When I arrived on campus that fall, there had only ever been two other students from Africa: one from Togo, the other from Zimbabwe. My professor, like many Americans, had heard about the genocide in Rwanda, albeit vaguely.
My peers often linked the genocide to the movie Hotel Rwanda, asking if the movie and reality bore any similarities. The older generation recalled gruesome images on the news, seen between channel shuffles, more interested in another African country making headlines at the time. It was Spring 1994, the year of Mandela’s ascendance to power.
It was therefore an opportunity for many to finally meet someone from the “genocide-torn” country and hear first-hand about the atrocities so lightly covered by the media, and life in Rwanda in the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy.
Though well-meaning in his curiosity, my professor’s question was rather unsettling. There has rarely, if ever, been any ambiguity about other genocides committed elsewhere in the world. When the Holocaust is mentioned, it is common knowledge, the Jews were the victims. Ditto with the Armenian Genocide. In these instances, perpetrators and victims are identified and their roles never swapped and interchanged.
This indistinctness between victims and perpetrators is dangerous and distorts history. It absolves the culprits of their crimes and revictimize the true victims. It negates the countless narratives of those who survived sheer horror and are still, to this day, mending what is left of their past lives. It dismisses the sacrifice of courageous young men and women who selflessly responded to the cry of help of a bleeding nation. It takes no account of those who laid bare their lives to save that of their fellow Rwandans. It robs our country of its story; however painful its past may be.
Nevertheless, amid all the outside confusion and misperception, we honor the valiant few, whose noble sacrifice have led us to where we are now. Today, we celebrate you, brave men and women in uniform, who risked it all to liberate our country and restore its dignity. We salute you, valorous people, that pressed on a perilous hundred-day journey and freed those whose fate had been sealed in death. Only when their wailing stopped, did you hear the clamor of victory.
Twenty-three years on, Rwanda’s journey and rise from ashes have been one of hard-work, resilience but mostly hope. Hope in the future of our country and the resilience of its children. Hope in our ability to come together and build our nation. Hope in our exceptional leader, who continuously gives of himself and places the country above all else. And hope in the same God, who redeemed us from the deadly pit and has kept us since.
Yet still, our predominant feeling is that of gratitude. We have been given much. And it is my hope that we give much in return.
Happy Liberation Day Rwanda!
The writer is an analyst in the Actuarial and Underwriting Department of an insurance company.