Since I’m half way through this intense and amazing semester, it seems like some reflection on what I’ve learned so far is appropriate.
I was looking for a challenge and I found it.
I left wanting my worldview and cultural norms to be laid out and challenged in the face of an entirely new social context. In a country where women kneel to men and most Ugandans my age are Born Again Christians it’s safe to say my comfort zone has been thoroughly disintegrated.
The extent of human resiliency is unfathomable.
Living in a post-conflict society, and visiting Rwanda, I have had the privilege to meet amazing individuals and hear incredible stories of forgiveness and personal strength.
If you were looking for the patriarchy, I found it.
Every five-minute walk to and from class I find myself avoiding eye contact with each man I pass. I want to shout, “It’s not because you’re a local and I’m white, it’s because you’re a man and I’ve received enough looks and enough comments on a daily basis to avoid inviting any interaction whenever possible.” Maybe I should make a sign.
Being white in Gulu is awkward.
The color of my skin determines every social interaction. Most locals assume I’m a humanitarian aid worker. Gulu was once flooded with NGOs, some of whom did more harm than good, that have now left locals to pick up the pieces. As a result, there is a common distrust of aid workers who arrived and announced they were there to ‘save’ locals, attempted to implement programs without truly understanding the context, then left when Gulu wasn’t cool anymore. Knowing how to speak some Acholi and explaining I’m a student generally helps convince people I’m here to learn from them rather than ‘save’ them.
You don’t come to Uganda for the food.
I miss muffins, and flavor… but mostly muffins.
Forks, showers, chairs and washing machines are unnecessary.
…when you have hands, buckets, and the ground. However, consistent electricity and running water is really nice and I would like to always have it in my life please.
It’s really hard to do pure good.
Do you give international aid to a dictatorship? Do you supply food to a refugee camp when it creates dependency? Do you prosecute war criminals when it harms peace? The impacts of international intervention (humanitarian, military or judicial) are multifaceted and often difficult to fully comprehend.
I have a lot more to learn.
Last night, I was served chicken gizzard in honor of my return from a long trip. I tried to express my happiness that we were eating chicken but instead said, “I like to eat dog.” Oopse.
I then took advantage of a power outage to throw the stalks of cassava from my plate out the window to the dog. I’m not one to waste food, but this doesn’t qualify. I really miss grilled cheese.
Half way there.
Our two weeks in Rwanda were just as much marked with lessons of hope as moments of sadness. One of the most salient lessons came from a women’s cooperative comprised of widows of victims and wives of perpetrators.
After the genocide, the widows of victims were starving and traumatized. A preacher took them under his care and provided food, clothing, and religious teaching. The women recognized that they had to organize in order to survive. They began sharing what little they and farming together. These women had a deep distrust of the wives of the perpetrators who had killed their families.
However, the wives of perpetrators were also suffering. With their husbands in prison, they struggled to find food and other necessities. They lived with a deep shame over what had happened. One women shared that she would avoid walking on main roads to avoid meeting survivors. They could not imagine they would ever be forgiven.
The wives of perpetrators saw that the widows were surviving because they had come together. The wives approached the nun teaching the widows and also asked to be taught. The two groups of women were taught on separate days.
After some time, the wives of perpetrators asked to be taught on the same day as the widows. The widows initially refused but eventually agreed to meet. When the women finally came together, the widows saw the wives’ shame as they began to cry. The women began attending religious lessons together. Then they began sharing farming tools. Over a long period of time, they came to rely on and trust each other.
Today, the wives and widows work together to teach children about the genocide and speak to their husbands in prison. Their cooperation has led more husbands to confess and therefore contributed to truth telling. The women shared that reconciling has been the most difficult and most beneficial thing they’ve ever done. These older women also expressed their desire to travel to other parts of the world in conflict they hear about on the radio to help others reconcile. However, they content themselves with speaking to students, like us, who can take their message out into the world.
Before arriving, I was excited to use my French in Rwanda. Going into our last day here, even if it’s more understood then English, I don’t use it out of a fear of being seen as French. Learning about the Rwandan Genocide has included learning about French involvement.. not involvement.. facilitation of the genocide.
This realization has come in pieces and is yet to be complete. The Mitterrand government was close with Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose government planned and, upon his death, executed the genocide. Weapons were bought from French companies and Hutu militia groups were trained by French officers. As the genocide ensued, the French intervened with “Operation Turquoise” which was labeled as a humanitarian intervention. However, a zone was created where Hutu extremist politicians and military leaders fled. France harbors genocidaires, such as President Habyarimana’s wife, and continues to not recognize the Rwandan Genocide today.
The other day, we met with genocide perpetrators who had confessed and served their time. One claimed that he would not speak with anyone from Belgium or France, since both nations refuse to recognize their role in the tragedy. Whether this is a deflection of blame or rightful sentiment is up for debate.
It’s knowledge like this that emphasizes the distinction between people and their government. What is the French narrative? How much control or knowledge did french citizens have over their government’s decisions? What heinous crimes does American intervention facilitate, only we are too uninformed to see it?
At Murambi, a marker stands were a French flag once flew on the same hill were 50,000 Tutsis were massacred. There is documentation of french troops playing volleyball over a mass grave, in an attempt to hide it.
This past Thursday, we visited the Murambi Genocide Memorial.
In 1994, Tutsis were told to take refuge on an isolated hill where a school was being constructed. All means of escape were blocked and the water turned off. After several days of starvation, the government attacked at 3am. 50,000 Tutsis were killed. Today, there is a museum outlining the genocide as well as the still unfinished school buildings. Each classroom is full of preserved bodies pulled from the mass graves. The bodies are white skeletons wreaking with the smell of preservatives. Some still have hair and clothing. This is, of course, a very shocking form of memorial, one that would not be found in the U.S.
While in Rwanda, we first visited the two churches filled with the victims’ clothing to symbolize the lives lost, their mass graves nearby. Then, we visited the main Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is more of a typical museum, similar to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Finally, we visited Murambi and shuffled through classrooms of skeletons.
These various and extreme versions of memorializing raises questions. What is effective? For me, the Kigali Genocide Memorial was full of pictures and stories. I was most moved by the Children’s Exhibit which featured images of children, a description of their likes and personality, as well as how they died. Some others were overwhelmed by piles of bones in the mass graves or the skeletons in the classroom at other sites. Logically, you would think that skeletons are most shocking but my humanity couldn’t relate to these shriveled shapes. It was the faces and stories in the constructed and planned museum, rather than the untouched genocide sites, that touched my heart.
Is it dignified? At Murambi, I asked our guide if the identities of the bodies were known. He said the vast majority were not. It’s hard for me to believe that in today’s age no one has bothered to identify victims of a genocide that occurred in the 90s. Is it respectful to choose the most contorted bodies to display in a classroom for years to come? I understand the purpose is to shock future generations from ever repeating the past but why do these particular individuals not deserve a proper burial? Also, you might be interested to know that Rwandan school children are taken to these sites. They seen the blood stained walls, the bones, the bodies.
In this way, Rwanda’s uniquely horrific past has led to an incredibly raw attempt to capture the full horror of it’s history.
The Rwandan countryside has forever changed my connotations with “sub-Sahara.”
Rwandan genocide memorials.
1. Nyamata, 5,000 refuge seekers were killed in this former church. 2. Gisozi Genocide memorial site, 250,000 buried here. We also visited Nyamata, a former church where approximately 10,000 were killed.
There is still blood on the walls.
Yesterday, we visited the home of former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. On April 6th 1994, his plane was shot down as he returned from signing a ceasefire agreement between Hutu and Tutsi militants. The plane crashed in his own backyard, everyone on board died including the president of Burundi. The Rwandan Genocide immediately ensued, resulting in the deaths of just under a million people in 100 days. Twenty years later, Rwanda is still reeling from having lost 20% of its population in a few short months.
Several days ago, I spoke to Rwandans at a refugee settlement in western Uganda. Their raw emotions were almost overwhelming. The international community has decided that Rwanda is safe and therefore no Rwandan citizens are entitled to refugee status. This means that these individuals don’t receive land or provisions provided to other refugees in the settlement. However, those that I spoke to felt threatened by the current Rwandan government and angry with the United Stated for supporting it. Everyone either had family who had died in the conflict or were currently in jail. Of course, I have no idea where these individuals fall on the spectrum between victims and perpetrators. They’re equally likely to have been genocidairs as victims of mass violence. Either way, this experience definitely highlighted the remaining effects as well as level of complexity in the conflict.
This week we’ll be learning about the Rwandan Genocide and comparing that conflict to the Lord Resistance Army’s insurgency in northern Uganda. Our week will include lectures and memorial visits. This is particularly interesting considering that the Ugandan government has chosen not to memorialize it’s own twenty year conflict in any way. At the end of the day, is it better to remember humanity’s most horrific events or to forget?