|NO HOLY SANCTUARY: Human skulls are seen, in this 2004 photograph, |
on the floor of the Ntarama Church in Rwanda. Thousands of people,
who had sought refuge inside the church,
were slaughtered during the genocide Picture: REUTERS
|Mac Maharaj: In Confidence|
They want us to know what happened while
the world sat on its hands — and we should listen
While Nelson Mandela was being sworn in as
the first democratically elected president of
South Africa on May 10 1994,
Rwanda was engulfed in a massacre that
claimed one million lives in 100 days.
For the past 15 years, our two countries
have been grappling with issues of reconciliation and reconstruction.
Twenty-five Australian and five South African students
went on a study trip to Rwanda last month,
on the anniversary of the end of the genocide.
They were accompanied by Professor Simon Adams,
deputy head of Monash University's South African campus.
I was struck to hear about how Rwandans are dealing
with the task of remembering and reconciling with their terrible past.
It is important that South Africans, especially
our future leaders, should absorb the experiences
of other African countries.
Commenting on the study trip, Adams said:
"The 4th of July was the 15th anniversary of
the end of the Rwandan genocide.
I spent the day driving with a group
of university students from Africa and Australia.
"We passed countless villages, each with
their own genocide memorial and mass grave.
Each small community was gathering
to commemorate the gruesome anniversary.
"As we drove past village after village,
mass grave after mass grave,
one mourning ceremony after another,
the scale and horror of the genocide began to sink in."
Many who have been to the
tiny republic of Rwanda wax lyrical about
its incomparable beauty,
its verdant rolling hills suffused with
the bright colours of nature,
its clear skies and streams gurgling with life-giving water.
Alas, according to Adams, every vista is scarred
by memories of a brutal past,
in which the clanging of machetes and
anguished cries of pain pierced the air.
Fifteen years ago, the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Kivu,
a favourite tourist destination,
was being used for an entirely different task.
It was a dumping ground for corpses,
or a place to drown and "finish off"
the inyenzi (cockroaches),
a word used to describe the victims of
the local Interahamwe.
As Keith Richburg so evocatively remembered in
his book Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa,
bodies floated past lakeside resorts or sank
to rest under the glimmering surface of Lake Kivu.
And then there was the local Ntarama church,
where thousands were murdered,
when perpetrators of the genocide violated
the ancient precept of holy sanctuary.
Fifteen years later, the bodies have been removed,
but skulls and bones are still stacked in
a memorial outside the church door.
As Rwanda struggles with reconciliation and rebuilding,
the horror of the past contaminates
every attempt to embrace the present.
Perhaps this helps to explain why
Rwandans feel an overwhelming need to testify.
They want us to know what happened while
the world sat on its hands.
They want to share the memory of what they endured.
The visiting student group spoke to many
genocide survivors and attended a remarkable
gacaca (on the grass) court,
where genocide perpetrators face survivors,
who are held accountable for their crimes.
According to Adams, Rwanda still haunts him.
He can't forget the dusty smell of the church at Ntarama,
with its skulls and the bloody rags of
genocide victims — or the blood smears in
the church at Nyamata,
where infants were smashed against the walls.
How could Rwanda have sunk to the depths
of hell in 1994?
How could the world have done nothing?
This question continues to gnaw
at the souls of many who care.
The Rwandan massacre had its genesis in tribalism,
regional interests and international interests.
South Africa is an international symbol of reconciliation.
But we have seen how easily deprived communities
turn to xenophobia.
We know how deeply entrenched joblessness is
and we are aware of the formidable challenge
of homelessness that faces our society.
From time to time, we have observed the ease
with which some leaders unthinkingly invoke race,
colour, gender, tribe and ethnicity.
Are they aware of the seemingly unstoppable
nature of mass violence inflamed by passions,
prejudice and rumour?
Nation-building has to grapple with
these realities — and an awareness of
just how high the stakes are must
take root at local level.
I am reminded of Mandela's words: "We call on
all South Africans ... to find within their communities,
localities or towns a concrete opportunity
to reach out and make national reconciliation real.
Make national reconciliation work in your life."
Let "Never Again" be our watchwords for vigilance.
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