Skeletons of past still haunt Rwanda as it tries to move on

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: REUTE

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.

             J-L K.
Procurement Consultant
Gsm:    (250) (0) 78-847-0205 (Mtn Rwanda)
Gsm:    (250) (0) 75-079-9819 (Rwandatel)
Home:  (250) (0) 25-510-4140
    P.O. Box 3867
  Kigali - RWANDA
    East AFRICA
Blog: http://cepgl.blogspot.com
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