On the last Saturday of each month, all Rwandese participate in umuganda, a national day of community service. As no businesses were open, we decided to use the morning to relax and decompress from all the work of the week before.
Our spring fundraiser from Project Rwanda left us with enough money to charter a minibus if we wanted to take additional trips around the countryside. Helen and Chris mentioned that some of last year’s students had gone to the genocide memorials at Ntarama and Nyamata, and many of us decided to go there, too. We knew it wouldn’t be an easy experience, but we felt it was an important trip to take.
The memorials at Ntarama and Nyamata are different than the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Smaller, certainly; as we filed into the churches, I tried to imagine thousands of people crammed into those spaces and almost couldn’t picture it. At both sites, our guides told us about the victims who’d hoped to find shelter in these places of worship, and about the militia and government troops who forced their way in with bullets and grenades on the fifteenth and sixteenth of April, 1994. Both sites displayed some of the personal effects of the victims: a student’s workbook, a rosary, an identity card.
Our guides also explained how the Tutsis had been forced to relocate to the area, how their identity cards were used to further set them apart, how they were called cockroaches and snakes and how school curriculums stressed Hutu supremacy. “This is exactly how they did it in the Holocaust,” I thought, and that thought stayed with me. There is a chilling structure to all genocides, where atrocities are turned into standardized procedures. As we visited the churches, I was struck by the similarities in the stories we heard, as though someone had set down rules for how to carry out these massacres.
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, many people treated it for a time as another outbreak of violence in the region, another chapter of an inexplicable and centuries-old feud. The systematic destruction of an entire people is not, cannot be, a spontaneous act. People must be taught that their neighbors are subhuman and dangerous. Victims must be separated from the rest of the population. Army units and militias must be trained to carry out campaigns of extermination. All of these are warning signs, and all of them are stages at which the international community can intervene.
After the Holocaust, we said, “Never again.” After the Rwandan genocide, we said, “Never again.” But there have been genocides since Rwanda, most notably in Darfur, and rather than commit to those words, we hesitate to even use the word genocide. What message are we sending? If the stages of genocide are recognizable and preventable, what is our responsibility to halt the process? Why do we say “never again” when we have done nothing to prevent it from happening, or stop it when we recognize what has happened?
“Never again” should be more than just a phrase. It should be a commitment.
Our trip put us in a sober mood for the farewell dinner at the Peace Land Hotel, but being in the presence of our Rwandese colleagues—and, I hope, friends—reminded me again of the hopes they have for their country, and their determination to see those hopes made reality. The Vice-Rector, Dean of Arts and Humanities, Academic Registrar, Vice-Dean, Head of Department, and more than a few members of the faculty showed up to wish us farewell. They presented us with beautiful carvings and an instrument that we all wrote our names on the back of, as a sign of the partnership between CUNY and KIE. I know my colleagues at CUNY look forward to the continuation of that partnership, and the graciousness and hospitality of our hosts at KIE makes me hope that this, too, represents an opportunity for all of us to build towards a brighter future.