“Never again”: A report from Rwanda

[Note from Kathie Malley-Morrison:  Today's post is part of an ongoing series by Andrew Potter, reporting from Rwanda where he is working on a documentary film about his experience.]

Writing on Rwandan brick wall: "Never Again"

Photo by Andrew Potter

I am experiencing this country with fresh eyes and an informed perspective.  I am encouraged by the balance that seems to have been achieved here.

Nathan and I have visited a number of local schools and are awed by the students’ intelligence and excellent grasp of the English language.

Two days ago we toured a genocide memorial at the site where over 10,000 Tutsis were massacred. This was a very visceral experience, one that was extremely difficult to digest. A description will have to suffice because photography was not permitted.

We entered a church, the same church where thousands of Tutsis had attempted to seek refuge. Walking into the church is like stepping onto a crime scene. Everything is freshly preserved. The pews of the church are piled with mounds of cloths from the dead.

In the underbelly of the church is a coffin holding the body of a Tutsi lady who was raped 15 times before she was brutally murdered. The ceiling is covered in bloodstains and bullet holes. It was an absolutely chilling scene.

I feel that this was incredibly important to witness first hand. It made me realize the severity of what Rwanda is currently attempting to overcome.

In being here I get the sense that people are doing the absolute best they can in the wake of an unspeakable past. In light of this I have shifted the focus of my documentary away from the genocide and reconciliation issues to simply documenting the school we are staying at and the everyday life of the people in this country.

There is a power, simplicity, and beauty in the way people have recovered and how they have achieved so much growth in the past 16 years.

Andrew Potter

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32 Responses to “Never again”: A report from Rwanda

  1. Erin says:

    The mere description of the church was extremely powerful; I cannot imagine how moving it would be to experience it in person. I admire the premise of the memorial- they decided to abstain from rebuilding the site, to beautify in some way and let the sheer horror of the atrocity speak for itself in its most raw, pure form. I have never heard of a memorial such as this, let alone one that has been preserved in such a way for the last 16 years. Also, I love how your description of the church is juxtaposed with the achievement of the educational system in Rwanda and the innate brightness of the children who were born into or just after the genocide.
    I look forward to seeing the documentary!

  2. Rachel Tochiki says:

    I cannot even imagine what it must have felt like to be there at the genocide memorial. It is amazing how people can work to recover from a dark past, and somehow make amends. Though I am somewhat ignorant to the events that happened in Rwanda, this notion of “never again” seems to be a recurring theme. How can the world be exposed to these types of brutalities, and have a consensus on the fact that this should never happen, and yet it happens over and over again in different places? It seems that having memorials like the one you visited, serve as a constant reminder to prevent it from happening again, but also to give respect to the people who have been lost.

    I will definitely look forward to your documentary, since I think it will be very interesting and informative to see.

    • Cheral Todd-Betancourt says:

      I think that when people say ‘never again’ and they build a site of remembrance a major part played in similar events not occurring again is the telling of the stories. The vocal element must be involved and spread. The children must know that this is what happens if we forget that other people are just that, people. We must share with them, when they are ready, the tragedy, the pain, and the loss, so that it will be easier for them to recognize the signs when they see them again.

      • kathiemm says:

        thanks, Cheral. I think you are right about the importance of the telling of the stories. One of our regular contributors, Alan O’Hare had a post about this topic that you might find interesting: http://engagingpeace.com/?p=3391 .
        Also, one of the goals of our blog is to share the stories of individuals who have shown moral engagement in the quest for peace.
        If you google engagingpeace.com stories, you will find links to many wonderful stories from people engaging in the pursuit of peace. One important story comes from one of this blog’s regular contributors, Dahlia wasfi. You can see the first “chapter” in her story at http://engagingpeace.com/?p=3446 .

        • Cheral Todd-Betancourt says:

          Thank you for letting me know about these links. Spreading the message of peace and forgiveness, while also sharing the stories of painful past offenses aids in the recovery process and helps to prevent future re-occurrences.

  3. Andrew Potter says:

    Hello. I very much appreciate the comments left above. I felt as though visiting this memorial was a very important experience. In the days after visiting this memorial we went to a similar one in the Southern part of the country. This one was even more astonishing. Bodies were exhumed from mass graves and preserved in lime. The bodies were laid out on platforms in abandoned school buildings behind a museum. The scent of the lime is seared into my memory. One may question the point of such a graphic display. In many ways it feels very wrong to gaze upon the dead. It is so direct and intense and there is nothing glamorous about it. The bodies are laid about, nameless and unaltered. These bodies are still fully clothed in many cases and one can see where the machetes struck their blows. I was impacted by the vastness, the number and the sheer scale of the killing that took place on this picturesque mountaintop- infants, small children, men and women. We were told that we would see 1,000 bodies preserved in lime. We were informed of 70,000 more were buried in a mass grave beneath us. It is difficult to comprehend the scale. I think that this experience emphasized the absolute enormity of the killings. You see 1,000 bodies laid out and are startled at how much this really is. Your mind jumps to the number 1,000,000 (the actual death toll) and suddenly a number becomes something a little more real.

    In saying these things and reflecting somberly on the experience of witnessing these memorials I want to emphasize that pain and mourning are not the main themes or emotions pervading the country. In fact just the opposite is the case. I feel as though Rwanda has a healthy attitude moving forward. They are not trying to forget the past. They are very open and clear about what took place. They want to remember but mostly they want to move on. In any case it is important to witness first hand, to hear their words from their mouths. There is an enormous amount of hope.

    • Alicia Tomasello says:

      Wow, thank you for the post and the reply in the comment section. I read this post and then had to do some more research to understand the enormity of one million people in 100 days. One website broke it down to this: 10,000 murdered every day, 400 every hour, 7 every minute. My mind cannot comprehend one million in 100 days, but I certainly can understand 10,000 in one day. (http://www.orwelltoday.com/rwandamurambi.shtml) The youth today, myself included at 32, does not have a clear picture of what happened in Rwanda 94′. The level of hatred in a people that could do this is only exacerbated by the enormity of a population willing to follow.

      • kathiemm says:

        Thank you, Alicia, for telling us all about the steps you took to learn more about the Rwandan genocide after reading Andrew’s post. And thanks so much for sharing that link. You are correct that most young people in the U.S. today have learned very little about the Rwandan genocide–and I think it is important that they obtain appropriate information about the many instances of “man’s inhumanity to man” that have been the scourge of this earth–as well as efforts at reconciliation, which is certainly an ongoing process in Rwanda.

      • Desiree Pena says:

        Who could even fathem 10,000 murdered in one day, 400 every hour, and 7 every minute. Yes how very devastating such senseless attacks driven by power and manipulation. But from an article I read this was a problem a long time building when the two societies when the Beligians classified the “Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus” (BBC, 2008, para 14). Resentment then built up to the genocide, it is truly amazing what brutality hatred can brew.

        BBCnews.com. (2008). Rwanda: How the genocide happened. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1288230.stm

  4. Namira Bachrie says:

    As I was trying to picture your description of the church, so many thoughts and perspectives came to my mind. I could never have imagined how horrible the situation was back in 1994. Having said that, I was very amazed when you mentioned how the students were able to grasp English language and how eagerly people want to move on from such brutal experience. I think it could really inspire other people to actually learn how people (in Rwanda) could appreciate their history (the genocide), and in spite of how bad it was, they could still get the positive side of it and actually have hopes. And I also agree that such memorial you went to could remind other people how bad the outcome of a war and hopefully could prevent such war and brutality in the future.

    Please let me know when you are finished with your documentary, I really hope I could see it :) :)

    • Amanda Owens says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Namira! It is amazing how far the country has come in such a short time. The fact that the people of Rwanda want to move on toward a better future is inspiring! Maintaining and understanding the truth about the past, accepting it, and still having hope about the future tells a lot about who the Rwandan people truly are. It is truly incredible to see how far they have come. I for one expect to see even more inspiring things in the future!

    • kathiemm says:

      Thank you for your comments, Namira. It is so easy to focus on the horror of the genocide, and forget the many instances of courage that also took place in Rwanda, and their current efforts to move ahead in a non-violent way and sustain hope for a more peaceful future.

  5. Desiree Pena says:

    This is amazing, I had no idea of the situation in Rwandan it is haunting and such a devastating ordeal. So sad that the one place that the Tutsis, felt they could seek refuge was the one place that they lost their lives. Praying for peace and restoration.

  6. Randy says:

    I know that it takes some extreme things to happen in order for some people to see their true need. America’s wake up call was the Civil War!

  7. kathiemm says:

    hi, randy. can you expand a bit on your ideas about the Civil War being America’s wake up call?

  8. Tammy Harris says:

    I cannot even begin to imagine what these people went through. Even though no pictures were allowed, one can imagine just how gruesome this act was. The way you described the church in detail can leave a person to visualize what it must have looked like.

  9. Sade Ashanti says:

    It is interesting how the media sheds more light on how the Tutsis were the only victims in Rwanda, perhaps because of lack of media coverage. Before my research, I was a believer that the Tutsis were helpless victims, but that wasn’t the case. I learned about the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which was a movement led by Tutsi exiles who fought against and were accused of murdering the Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana (Umutesi, 2006). Furthermore, I found an article that made this interesting statement: “The Hutu remembered past years of oppressive Tutsi rule, and many of them not only resented but also feared the minority” (United Human Rights Council, 2012). Therefore, we can see how social perception comes into play. The Hutus acquired hateful and fearful attitudes toward the Tutsis based off of their past experiences with their oppressive rulership. Perhaps the Hutus felt they needed to murder the Tutsis because of their perception about them. Granted, murdering people who you dislike should not be the answer, but maybe they felt it was justifiable since they felt their lives may have been threatened. Unfortunately, thousands of Hutus AND Tutsis were murdered during this genocide partly because of acquired perceptions about the other.

    Umutesi, M.B. (2006). Is Reconciliation Between Hutus and Tutsis Possible? Journal of International Affairs, 60(1), 157-171.

    http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm

    • kathiemm says:

      thank you for your thoughtful comment, Sade, and for that very valuable link.
      I hope our readers will click on it and expand further their understanding of the devastating events in Rwanda.

  10. Tammy Harris says:

    Sade, thank you for sharing this article. I would agree that these past experiences affects the social perception. It is sad that this factor may have contributed to the unfortunate series of events leading up to the genocide.

  11. kathiemm says:

    Hi, Tammy. I am so glad you took advantage of the link Sade provided and found more information. Social perceptions and the media are obviously important contributors to the willingness of groups to contribute to or simply just tolerate deadly aggression.

  12. Carrie Brown says:

    I could not begin to imagine what one must have felt being in that church and seeing those things. I think that when one builds a memorial it helps to get over the grieving process and to build a solid foundation for healing. People tend to live through the memories and stories of what have happened in order to be able to see what others have experienced but also as an awareness so that if things begin to happen again they know what to look for.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks for the comment, Carrie. The issue of memorials is an interesting one because typically in our country memorials have been dedicated to the victims of war, those who fought and died. There is an important movement in the US today for a peace memorial, to honor “the activities of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have publicly opposed military solutions (including invasion, occupation, production of weapons of mass destruction, use of weapons, and threats of war).” You can read more about this effort at
      http://www.uspeacememorial.org/Registry.htm

    • Eric Thompson says:

      I cannot imagine what it felt like to experience these memorials. However from experience in my childhood the emotional toll of seeing even one human life taken, and the violence portayed by the remains can be vivid and moving. With even one death, theres pain, tragedy and suffering. The Rwanda genocide was much larger than just the number of deaths. It was a moving, brutal event that will forever be remembered by the people of Rwanda, in both their heart’s and their mind’s. The strength of the Rwanda people will come from the memory of those that were lost. Their memories and stories will live on within the generations and strengthen each generation to come. By overcoming the mass genocide the survivors of Rwanda prove to their furture generations that they are strong, and that they will continue to grow and acheive great things.

      • kathiemm says:

        Thank you Eric for a comment that, like the Rwanda post itself, is very powerful. The efforts of Rwandans to recover from the genocide are a notable evidence of the human capacity to turn from violence rather than repeat it endlessly.

  13. David Nelson says:

    I think Andrew did a great job of pointing out the importance of the day-to-day life. Some of the largest problems that befell the country were because of grand schemes and ideas. Tribes, segregation, poverty, and ignorance all played their parts in the events that took place. There is no ignoring this fact, for us or them. So, to focus more on the simple events that occur within the day is a great way to point out the similarities of the people. Though the two groups had slightly different features and unjust backgrounds, they were very similar in culture and belief. And I am sure that these cultural and belief-oriented values present themselves continuously throughout their lives. Perhaps if everyone involved were able to understand the vast similarities that they share form day to day to day, they would then be forgiving for the minor, yet long-winded differences that have plagued them.

    • Nancylynne Camp says:

      @David Nelson

      Very well put David, one would hope that moving forward the differences that once separated the people of that nation would somehow become a bridge that could get them into a more stable footing as a nation and as a people. although i think for any real change to take more stable footing, they themselves must be the ones to overcome any obstacles they have left. after reading on the events after the 1994 event, it amazes me how fast and far the people of that country have come. hopefully the youth of the country take the torch and run with it and create a better home for themselves and the ones to come after.

    • Cheral Todd-Betancourt says:

      I think that the fact that these two cultures had lived side-by-side for so many years, and that they had intermingled, some even marrying from the other culture, is what makes this event even more shocking and disheartening for others looking in. If two cultures with similar beliefs, living in such close proximity, can turn on each other, then it is possible for this to happen anywhere. The world should be aware of this tragedy, the affect on the country, the people, and future, because without that widespread awareness, it could happen again.

      • kathiemm says:

        Thanks for your reply to David’s comment, Cheral. Tragically, I think there are very similar conflicts going on right now between cultures with similar beliefs living in close proximity to each other. Can you think of some of the others? Might they have something to learn from the post-genocide period in Rwanda?

  14. Carrie Brown says:

    David, you make a good point here. It is important to focus on the day to day things to see how each group is different yet similar in some things as well. I think that ones background has a huge part in what they do in the future and how they treat other ethnic groups. I have found that when you grow up around prejudice for one group of people then as you get older that prejudice is going to continue to grow until the issue is confronted head on. If people could learn to put the past in the past and realize that we are all similar in many different ways but everyone has good and all of us can learn something from one another. If we would just be forgiving and show compassion it would make things go a lot further in today’s society.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks for your comment, Carrie. I think you make a very good point about the origins of prejudice. If not only one’s family bute also one’s whole community is prejudiced against another group, it is likely that one will adopt that same prejudice and that it will strengthen in time. That is one of the reasons I believe a college education is so important; it can be an opportunity to meet and interact with people from very different communities (even thru distance learning), including people about whom one holds a prejudice, and learn that some of one’s assumptions are absolutely wrong. Compassion is a great trait, especially when one can engage in it with people beyond one’s own narrow community.

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