Do you know what you were doing between April and July, 1994?
I was in the last stages of pregnancy, winding down at work and then going on maternity leave before my due date at the end of July. It was an unusually hot English summer. I had so much time on my hands that I even got a bit bored. I went swimming most mornings and enjoyed some sunny walks up and down the canal. I sunbathed and caught up with friends. I attended antenatal classes and read as much as I could about labour. I spent ages compiling a tape of relaxing piano music, which I planned to listen to in the hospital. I packed and repacked my bags. I researched buggies and babygrows.
Meanwhile, in Rwanda, a genocide was taking place. In one hundred days, over 800,000 people were brutally murdered by their neighbours, friends and even their families. Machetes. Knives. Spears. Guns. Grenades. Hands. There was nowhere to hide. The United Nations delayed taking action and ultimately maintained a passive role throughout. Many Western countries were more actively involved, creating the conditions that ultimately led to the genocide and later, supplying weapons to those who were killing. The world turned away.
Did I know about this at the time? I’m ashamed to say that I can’t even remember: I had also turned away. But in later years, I turned to look. I watched films and documentaries: Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs, Shake Hands with the Devil. I read books: A Sunday by the pool in Kigali, Over a thousand hills I walk with you. I began to grasp more of the complexities of what had happened and to feel a sense of responsibility.
Then, last year, Paul’s school decided to visit Rwanda. (You can read more about this in my blog post Sisterhood). The trip was such a success that it was repeated this year: this time I went too. We stayed in Kigali for just under a week. Our first day was spent visiting a museum and two terrible, unforgettable genocide sites: churches where thousands were massacred as they tried to seek sanctuary. As the week went on, the focus shifted to learning about how Rwanda has rebuilt and recovered. We visited numerous inspiring projects including maternity clinics, sports projects, women’s co-operatives and a vast refugee camp. We drove through stunning countryside, surrounded by banana plantations, rice paddies and sunflowers. The message everywhere was that Rwanda is beautiful, safe, happy, clean, welcoming and caring.
Yet I could not help wondering about the trauma. Had it really gone, or was there a collective denial, conscious or otherwise? How does a community ever recover from violent fractures? How do people learn to trust again? What do they do with their pain and anger? Is it better to remember or better to forget? If you have read The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, these questions will be familiar to you, along with the idea that amnesia can be a blessing.
Now back home again, these questions remain unanswered. I feel that in one short week, we have seen both the worst and the best that humanity can do. I am still pondering it all and making sense of our visit.
Meanwhile, after sifting through hundreds of photographs, here is a small selection showing some of the colours of Rwanda, the “Land of a thousand hills”.