On April 7th, 2014, Rwandans commemorated the 20th anniversary of one of the worst massacres in history.
Seven years ago, I had written a paper on design as an aid for reconciliation and memorialization. Here is a revised and updated excerpt from that 190-pages long report .
Part 1: To Remember, or Not to Remember?
I am young, I am twenty years old;
yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear,
and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow.
I see how peoples are set against one another,
and in silence, unknowingly,
foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.
– Paul Baumer in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, 1929
Every year, in April, the rains fall heavy on Rwanda. The earth turns green. New life begins. It is the growing season. Twenty years ago, in April, along with the rains, came, not life, but death. The earth turned red – soaked with the blood of over a million Tutsis and Hutus.
Every year, the rains ebb in July – as did the genocide in 1994. Over ten percent of the population had been decimated by then – their bloated bodies floated down the freshly replenished Kagera river, and all the way to Lake Victoria. It was the most efficient mass killing since Hiroshima. In Hiroshima, they used bombs. In Rwanda, they used machetes.
Now, every year in April, along with the rains, comes “Kwibuka” (Rwandan for “Remember”) – a government driven effort to remember, reflect, reconcile and unite; an effort to restore dignity to the men, women and children who died; unborn babies, too, ripped out of wombs and smashed with unimaginable brutality. It is an effort to reflect on the neatly organized rows of fractured skulls, femurs, ribs and every other bony part that has been collectively memorialized.
But for those who survive, along with the rains, come a flood of memories – “of despair, death, fear and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow.”
Anger and bewilderment still hangs over Rwanda – just like those dark, rumbling clouds before the rains. The call for remembrance, reflection, reconciliation and unity is hard to heed. For many Rwandans, the rains haven’t come. Spring hasn’t come. Life hasn’t begun.
Marie-Jeanne was only 16 years old when the genocide started. Her entire family was slaughtered. For her, and many like her, the genocide never really ended. The stench of semen is still alive through her daughter, 20 year-old Kirezi, who is one of the 20,000 children born out of rape. It is still alive in her daily dose of anti-retorviral drugs, which, control her worst symptoms of HIV/AIDS – an illness contracted by nearly 2/3rds of the estimated 500,000 women who were brutally and repeatedly raped during the genocide.
Every year, as April approaches, Marie-Jeanne’s heart goes numb. She doesn’t want “Kwibuka”. All she wants to do is forget.
The genocide hasn’t ended either for those parents who will never see their children, and, the children who will never see their parents. But they are not eager to forget. They are actively looking for their families’ remains and the chance to give their dear ones a decent burial.
Niyonsenga Erick Rafiki was 4 years old when his father was killed. His memories of his father, he says, have grown hazy with time. But he, too, is eager to find out more about his father along with finding his father’s body. He has an unusual set of accomplices – his father’s killers. The genocide weighs heavy on the genocidaires. They are just as confused as the survivors. They don’t understand why they betrayed those who gave them their trust, and, butchered who they, too, loved. Helping in the search for their victim’s bodies is the only hope they have for repentance, healing and reconciliation.