Rwanda – from obsession to forgiveness

Posted: May 2, 2011 in Comment
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Seventeen years ago this month the systematic and calculated massacre of an estimated one million Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s took place in Rwanda, in a matter of only 100 days.

In the rural unassuming village of Nyarubuye, 18-year-old Festinah Mukampore lost 17 members of her family, this is her story. For as long as Mukampore could remember there had always been murmurs about the ‘differences’ between the Hutus and the Tutsis even though they had inter-married, befriended each other and socialised together for years. Because of this interaction Mukampore and her peers never thought anything would come of these ‘imaginary’ hostilities. The events of April 6, 1994 changed their thinking and took away their innocence forever.

“The first rumours started coming in that the president had been killed in an air crash, an accident they said. Only later would we receive the accurate information that his plane had been deliberately shot out of the sky,” she says and adds that by that time they were in a battle for their own personal survival and had no time to dwell on the passing of anyone else, even their own president.

Mukampore was visiting relatives in the neighbouring lakeside town of Kibuye a few days after the crash when the country exploded into neighbour-on-neighbour violence. “At first my aunt didn’t think her neighbours would attack us. We’ve known them all our lives, she said to me and my three cousins. She even joked at one time about my oldest cousin marrying the boy from down the street, but on that day everything changed,” Mukampore recalls.

As she casts her mind back to the horrific events of that time all those years ago, an involuntary shudder runs through her body. She pauses for what seems like ages and then in a rambling almost inaudible monotone she narrates the events of the next 90 days as if they had taken place yesterday.

“The first sign that things were serious was when a brick came flying through the kitchen window, quickly followed by a crudely made Molotov cocktail – a flaming diesel-soaked cloth attached to a log of wood, and on looking outside we realised all the wishful thinking in the world was not going to make the violence go away,” Mukampore reminisces.

“We used to go to church with the people we saw baying for our blood on the streets. Some had been our teachers, shop assistants from the store down the street, petrol attendants at the local petrol station and even the woman who would babysit for my aunty whenever she had to work late,” she says.

After realising the seriousness of the situation Mukampore, her cousins and aunt managed to sneak out of the house and the first place they thought of going to was the local church.

“We thought no one would dare come attack us at the church because it is a holy place,” she says. How wrong they were. When the killers, known as ‘Interahamwe’ (those who attack together), ambushed the church, the men who had barricaded themselves against the church doors put up a fierce fight but without any real weapons – as they had not been prepared for the attack – they were fighting a losing battle.

“When that day’s slaughter was over there were so many bodies lying on top of each other that it was impossible to tell who was alive, injured or dead,” Mukampore says, her voice quivering.

Mukampore remembers seeing people she had grown up with or their relatives attacking them in the church.
“How do you hack to death a person who has played with your children or borrowed sugar from you, how,” she asks incredulously. When the attack began Mutampore and two other women had managed to escape from the church in the confusion and they hid in a bush behind the compound until they felt it was safe to seek help at the priest’s house behind the church.

Even though we had been injured during the attack we realised that we were the lucky ones as the eerie silence coming from the church’s interior confirmed that those inside had fared much worse. “The killers seemed to have moved on thinking that everyone in the church had died and we took the opportunity to make a mad dash for the priest’s front door.” As they neared the house they could hear people speaking in hushed tones from within and were apprehensive about entering, not knowing what they would find inside. However, the thought of remaining outside and possibly being finished off by the thugs was not an option either.

“After we knocked the priest’s brother, Aristide came to the door and my heart sank as I wasn’t sure how we would be received even though he did know me. The priest was from the Hutu tribe but we had been sure that being a man of God he would protect us no matter what tribe we were from. However, I didn’t know how his brother would treat us.” After feeding and allowing Mutampore and the others to rest Aristide, who seemed to have been drinking for a prolonged period, explained that the only way he could protect them is if they gave him and his friends, who he said passed through the compound periodically, sex in exchange for their lives.  And so began their cat and mouse game of hiding in the cramped bathroom with three other women by day and performing whatever ‘duties’ demanded of them by night.

Mutampore had difficulty recounting the next two or so months of her life, only saying that she managed to stay alive in body even though her spirit died that first night. For almost ten years after the genocide she dedicated her life to finding out what had happened to her attackers. She was obsessed with her quest and put every ounce of her energy and every single Ifaranga (the Rwandan Franc) into her search.

“I wanted to track every single one of them down and make them pay for what they had done to me and my family,” she says, a glint of something close to madness in her eyes. “I dreamt of what I would do to them when I finally located them, and the punishments I imagined were certainly not pretty.”

Year after year she traversed the great lakes region, going from Uganda in the east to the Democratic Republic of Congo, just across Lake Kivu, to the west. She poured her heart, soul and life’s savings into her obsession, not really thinking what would happen if she ever caught up with any of her tormenters or if she finally got the justice she craved. It took an innocent question from her nine-year-old son to finally jolt her back to reality.

One morning as she poured over her near empty bank statement, her son Blessings queried; “Mum, where are you going next on your travels.” Glancing at the evidence of her dwindling finances in her hands she answered absent-mindedly. “I should be returning to the refugee camp in Goma (DRC) in the next few days.”

“And mum, when you do find these men, what are you going to do to them,” piped her angel-faced son, the result of the protection she had received from Aristide and ‘his friends’ exactly 10 years before. “I’ll make sure they get the justice they deserve,” she replied, not really knowing how she would go about doing that.

“And after you make sure what will you do with your life then, since you don’t have a job or a hobby and this is all you do. Will you finally become a real mummy and get a job and stay home,” he enquired innocently. The questions took her aback as she realised that she had sacrificed her life, money and time with her precious son to pursue her obsession. “I never really stopped to think what my obsession was doing to my son. Even though he was a product of the genocide he is innocent and deserves so much more from this life.

“I broke down and from that day onwards I vowed to work towards forgiveness and reconciliation for those who had wronged me and all the other betrayed Tutsis.” Mutampore swore that she would not waste another dime or minute in pursuit of the past. “No matter how painful letting go of this obsession was, I decided I would overcome it and in the past seven years, I think I have succeeded in achieving that,” she says, the first trace of a smile on her lips.  She now lives in Canada with 16 year-old Blessings but visits Rwanda and other parts of Africa on a regular basis.

On April 7, Mutampore and her son were amongst 200 Rwandan genocide survivors gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the genocide.

The commemoration was preceded by a moment of silence to remember the victims and personal testimonies from the survivors about their experiences during and after the genocide. “Seventeen years now just seems like yesterday to us,” said Alain Ntwali, president of the Canadian Association of Rwandan Survivors. To us, genocide wasn’t a historic accident, but a plan that was hatched to eliminate the Tutsis.

“For a period of just 100 days, we observed the failure of humanity to intervene as one million lives were lost,” he said. As part of the commemoration the association organised a series of public conferences to explore various issues ranging from remembrance, preserving of memory, restoring dignity to survivors and dealing with genocide.

They said the anniversary provided an opportunity to reflect on the goal of preventing genocide and to use the lessons learned to work toward a day when it will become a nightmare of the past.

“This is a moment for us as a government to renew our commitment to supporting and providing hope to genocide survivors,” said Edda Mukabagwiza, High Commissioner of Rwanda to Canada.  “We are standing here to proclaim that the fight against the consequences of the genocide continues especially amongst genocide deniers.”

Meanwhile in 2004, Canadian Parliament declared April 7 a day of remembrance of the victims of the 1994 Genocide. Four years later, also on April 7, they adopted a resolution to designate the date as a Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide.

Former Liberal Cabinet Minister Irwin Cotler, who moved the original motion issued a statement urging that the words “never again” must not only be an empty slogan, but must always be a remembrance to act – a responsibility to prevent and protect.

“Today, we remember the unspeakable horror of the Rwandan genocide, where one million Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis and Hutus, were murdered in less than 100 days,” Cotler said in a statement. “No one can say that we did not know. We knew, but we did not act. And so, as the UN Security Council and the international community dithered and delayed, Rwandans died.”

Cotler says the greatest tragedy is not only how many Rwandans were murdered, but how so few intervened to save them, ignoring the compelling lesson of history that the Rwandan genocide occurred not simply because of the machinery of death but because of state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and genocide – and because of indifference and inaction in the face of this incitement and atrocity.

Meanwhile this year’s commemoration of the genocide was observed with a series of events organised during the week of 4 April 2011 at United Nations Headquarters and at UN Information Centres around the world, under the theme: “Rebuilding Rwanda: Reconciliation and Education”.

The Permanent Representative of the Republic of Rwanda to the UN, Ambassador Eug�ne-Richard GASANA said during the commemorations that; “Only the most depraved of humanity would disagree with the right to remember the victims and the responsibility to protect targeted populations from future genocide. But how do we translate sincere sentiment into a fortress against the ever present threat of extermination? Remembering and learning from the past, educating in the present, and advocating for the future will gain results that have eluded us so far.

Therefore, armed with the lessons of the past, it is now our responsibility to shatter the great conspiracy of silence and to break down the walls of indifference and inaction – to stand against hatred and divisionism so that evil will not triumph again, despite the wisdom gained after reflecting on the systems and circumstances that lead to the loss of those whose memory we honor today.”

During the commemorations in his country Rwandan president Paul Kagame said, “No country knows better than my own the costs of the international community failing to intervene to prevent a state killing its own people”.

He added that “Rwanda therefore commends the UN Security Council for its lessons learned from Rwanda and fully supports resolutions adopted to protect civilians in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. Indeed, as it is known, indifference and inaction are never on the side of the victim but always on the side of the oppressor.”

On Libya, President Kagame said that: “Given the overriding mandate of Operation Odyssey Dawn to protect Libyan civilians from state-sponsored attacks, Rwanda can only stand in support of it. Our responsibility to protect is unquestionable – this is the right thing to do, and this view is backed with the authority of having witnessed and suffered the terrible consequences of international inaction”.


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