Post from Rwanda: ‘Don’t mention the war’

I came to Rwanda reluctant to write about the genocide. Everyone writes about the genocide, I thought. They visit the memorials. They lament at the inaction of the west to prevent the slaughter. They pause for reflection in churches and by rivers to consider the savaged bodies that piled up there and vow that it should never happen again. And they are right to do so. But did that mean that I had to add to the overwhelming word count in the blogosphere by throwing in my two cents? Does that mean that there isn’t more here to write about?

So I’ve been trying to find other things to write about Rwanda; how successfully the country is courting international investment, how consistently well the president is polling, how impossibly beautiful the landscape is. And I do plan to write about those things.

But 800 000 people were slaughtered in a hundred days. Many more died of illness and further violence in refugee camps in the months and years afterwards. In a country of around 11 million, the country was literally decimated. In addition to the body count, millions more sustained permanent, disfiguring and disabling injuries, both physical and psychological. A post-genocide study by UNICEF reported that five out of six children who had been in Rwanda during those hundred days witnessed bloodshed.

So to talk about Rwanda, you have to talk about the genocide. This country has been shaped, for better of worse, by the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children by their neighbours, classmates and colleagues; by the events that led up to it and by the events that have taken place since.

Besides the deeply personal and emotional effects of the genocide, the social and political effects were massive. As the country moved towards peace, Rwandans were asked to rebuild their communities with people they had tried to destroy or who had tried to destroy them. Within months of the RPF taking government, around a million Rwandans who had fled persecution in the years and decades leading up to the genocide returned to help rebuild their home. The demographics of the country shifted dramatically. In its fight for stability, the Rwandan government’s actions to help oust the Congolese dictator Mobuto next door changed the political landscape of the entire region; new pan-African alliances were formed, and a new sense of African self-reliance was born.

Perhaps there is something further to be said for talking about the genocide. I met a traveller who had taken a very different approach to talking about the genocide than my proper, British sensibilities allowed for. At the hotel bar, she would ask the bartenders, the staff who had knocked off for the day, the other customers: ‘How did you survive the genocide?’ And she reported that no-one refused the conversation.

Philip Gourevitch writes in his 1998 account of the genocide, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families:

it occurred to me that if others have so often made your life their business—made your life into a question, really, and made that question their business—then perhaps you will want to guard the memory of those times when you were freer to imagine yourself as the only times that are truly and inviolably your own.

So perhaps talking about the genocide is not about sticking your nose into people’s personal business; rather, it is a way of keeping your nose out.

Rwanda is not ‘over it’, so why should I be ‘over’ reading and writing about it? And perhaps, while it is certainly important to talk about Rwanda’s achievements and growth over the last sixteen years, while there definitely is more, it is important not to pretend that the genocide is a distant memory. Perhaps it is everyone’s responsibility to talk about the genocide, to ask about it and to write about it until we’re blue in the face, for the decades and generations it will take before Rwanda heals.

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