It was a morning like this one, exactly twenty-five years ago. We woke up and went about our daily routines as usual without suspecting that nearly twelve hours later, the Rwandan presidential plane was going to be shot down, an affair unresolved to this day, and that the country was going to be plunged into a horrendous tragedy that would take millions away from us and leave millions more orphaned, widowed, child-less, family-less and too many to count country-less. May our loved ones continue to Rest in Eternal Peace and may the surviving families and friends find closure and renewed strength to carry on.
In the last few months as we approached this sad milestone, I’ve found myself thrown back and forcefully immersed in those foregone days when our lives changed forever. Trying to be as brave as my compatriots who suffered more losses than I can ever imagine, I made a silly promise to myself: this year, I will not allow the blues to trap me in its grips. I must fight back the tears and sadness, so I can better prepare myself to what lies ahead: working hard to break away from the ills of the last twenty-five years as I embrace the next twenty-five years of my life.
From the onset, I must confess that I have no words of wisdom to share as to how to do that. I don’t even know if I will manage it or if it’s a lure that I tell myself so I can go through the coming months? Or maybe it’s my way of asking my foreign friends to let me take refuge with them so that I can draw energy from your calm fortitude and your lucidity before the uncontrollable flow of memories clogs our mind and blur our speeches.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are here and now and can share the present and the past alike.
I was barely twenty-one when the 1990 war started and 25 when the Genocide unravelled. I am fifty now, which means my life is evenly separated in two equal folds: 25 years before and 25 years after the Genocide.
I am of the long lost generation of youngsters who grew-up under the illusion that, like our elders, we would live ‘a normal life’ (whatever that meant in those days), but instead the war took that away from us and the Genocide killed all hope that normalcy would ever be part of our lingo again. Instead of a carefree world, 1994 was to be the year we inherited the heaviest of inheritances: a broken country full of graves.
Don’t run away from me now and don’t turn the page in fear that I am about to pull you back to those events of twenty-five years ago. No, not right now anyway, not today. The journey I want to embark you on is a journey of reflection on the Legacy of the twenty-five years that followed 1994, a Legacy we’re bound to pass on, whether we are conscious of it or not, to the younger generation and generations to come.
Each Rwandan you know will tell you that recovery – for the lack of a better word – was, and still is, the longest, most painful and most undesirable path a man could ever walk. And a woman and a child of course. And even that is an understatement, for no words in the dictionary can rightly depict it. Imagine twenty-five years of trying to make sense of the senseless, to define the undefinable, to give a name to the unspeakable and to learn to accept the unbearable truth that life will never be the same again. A long solitary walk in the middle of a busy and oblivious crowd.
While our younger selves benefited from the wisdom that our parents were passed on by generations before, the 1994 part of our lives onwards came completely undone, with no known recipe and seldom anyone to hand us ready-made self-help answers to our tumultuous inner queries. So, each one of the millions of us self-schooled in this inopportune university of life. We were the teachers and students all at the same time and with no curricula. Doubtful if there was any help out there, we became therapists and patients as we learned to cure ourselves from whatever trauma we had without any Vade Mecum to refer to. We failed and failed again till we could stand on our own, and with the grace of God, a day passed, and another one, and before we knew it, 9 000 days and nights had gone by.
I never say it enough, but I am so proud of my fellow Rwandans, all of us, for it was not easy. I know it’s still hard for too many, especially as we start a new mourning period and as some families don’t know yet what happened to their loved ones. And I can’t pretend that my words will ease the plight of brothers and sisters scattered in foreign land, far away from home, and the torture of justice delayed for many others. Nonetheless, time has proven us that we are made of steel when we feared we were casted in clay.
As I applaud my brothers and sisters, I must however be honest and acknowledge that one of the greatest difficulties of this journey was the fact that we were never able to unite as a nation so we could pull each other out of this bottomless hole that history had opened under our feet.
The last 25 years were not one single path but millions of parallel journeys, all equally lonely and unequal, as we walked towards survivorship of such a inhumane tragedy.
Together, we were not, though together we could have been be. What should have been a collective endeavour was not. Where we should have counted on millions of other versions of ourselves to take us through this, we did not. Our healing circles were small, intimate and full of unspoken truths. Unfortunately, the undone recipe-less journey did not prepare us to adequately support one another. We tried, as much as we could, but it was never enough.
By saying this, I am not casting any stone on anyone, nor is it an admission of defeat. Neither am I blaming anyone for the scattered journeys. In my times of deepest grief, I locked myself in, and was of no help to others while I struggled to rebuild my bruised self. So, who would I be if i shunned others for living through it as I did?
It is equally hard for me to see how old friends have become such strangers to one another, although experts will one day tell us that this is an unavoidable by-product of such polarizing events. When the tragedy hit, we cried together, grieved together and mourned together, but as the days and years went by, as more deaths piled up and more injustices were committed, we gradually pulled apart. I can’t recall if it started in the immediate aftermath of the Genocide or if it took a longer time. Nor can I recall if it came naturally or it was fed to us by others.
What I know is that somewhere, somehow, we started being afraid of each other, as though some around us became assimilated to the source of our losses, as though we feared that some people would want to hurt us again, not physically, but emotionally. So we went on and built immaterial walls around ourselves, invisible to the eyes of others but all too real, made of sharp-edged crystal stones and glass barbwire, meant to cut anyone who dared to approach us with bad intentions.
I know these walls are real because I bumped into them so many times and I stumbled onto to the stones laying on the ground, even when I tried to walk away and break free of my own walls.
Here I am, twenty-five years on, admitting that I am trapped in between my walls and the walls built by others. Call it irony for I like to believe that I am the freest of spirits.
Why am I speaking now and what am I saying? I am saying that twenty-five years walled apart from each other is too long in a life time.
Fear itself is something one can overcome if we try, but our millions of journeys never converged to a common space where we could talk to those we call “the others”.
Our silent stories were not completely a loss for everyone. Our blank walls have become a fertile breeding ground for the too many fear-mongers who readily filled the void left by yesterdays’ bullies. A Devil not unlike the Devils who roamed our streets some thirty years ago except that they are smarter and sleeker – or so they think – as they came up with new vocabularies or resort to subtle innuendos to ensure they can catch our ears without the world noticing anything. Back to one.
How and when did our fears lead to miscommunications and misunderstanding, misunderstandings led to rejections and rejection opened the door to those haters and fear-mongers?
I don’t know. But there again, it’s all too real – just go through any social media newsfeed or listen to the speeches of the day, you will be edified. It is so real and so consequential, it is hurting too many of my friends and I don’t know what else to say except ‘komera’ (be strong) and ‘bihorere’ (pay no mind to them). But deep inside me, I am revolted to see that our own compatriots resort to every means possible to try and control our minds and curtail our conversations, and unfortunately they succeed at trapping others in the walls of their own contradictions and self-hatred.
I see the strongest of us reduced to a constant state of fear, fear of being questioned, fear of asking questions, fear of being judged for their choice of friends. And the fear of all fears, the fear to be born on the wrong side of our chameleonic identity crisis. Random and collective guilt and victim-ness, insensitively dismissing each other’s grief, disrespecting the loss of the other’s loved one and harming the spirits of those gone too soon have become the most permanent and despicable features of the post genocide era.
Twenty-five years ago, whenever you’d say you are from Rwanda, you would be flooded with unpleasant questions about your ethnicity, a short-cut to trying to assume what you stood for without bothering to ask you.
Our immaterial walls were effective in stopping the queries, but it was a double-edged sword as we now know it: by erecting hermetic walls around us, we prevented those who meant no harm, to get to know us better and help us or at least understand us.
Somewhere over the years, in the absence of tales of our individual untold stories, the world found comfort or refuge in this appealing ‘single story’ or fairy tale of a country that was able to rebuild itself and strive despite its past.
The uneasy questions “why”, “how could” slowly faded away, as though an answer was found somewhere along our reclaimed streets and flower gardens. The “Oh My God, I am horrified” turned into “Oh My God, what an amazing people” in the span of 25 years.
It’s not a blame, how could the world know our stories if we don’t tell them?
My pledge for the next twenty-five years is therefore to do all I can to break pass the walls and get those multiple single stories out there.
Because today, 25 years after the Genocide, we are faced with a bigger threat than fear or hate. Maya Angelou said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. I beg to differ, there is a greater agony: the agony of forgetting the story inside of you.
Today, as we face the test of time, our memories are starting to fail us. We remember our loved ones, the details of their abrupt ending, but we are starting to forget the lives they had, the lives we had together.
If there is anything we learnt, is that time is the only thing that isn’t granted to any of us. We are reminded every day of our own mortality. There isn’t a day that passes by without a loved one leaving us, a witness of who we were and who we dreamed of becoming, and with them, we lose a little bit more of ourselves.
This year, as we commemorate the 25th remembrance of the Rwandan Genocide, let’s celebrate the memories of their lives and open our hearts to the millions of stories out there waiting to be told.
Turi kumwe! We are together!