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article imageRwanda remembered: A lesson in forgiveness and reconciliation

By Paul Bradbury     Apr 6, 2014 in World
Hvar - It is 20 years since the start of a genocide in Africa which claimed the lives of 800,000 people. Two decades later, a lesson in reconciliation.
As Rwanda prepares to mark the 20th anniversary a genocide which killed 800,000 victims in just 100 days on April 6, 2014, reconciliation efforts between Rwanda and France showed little sign of progress as the French government announced it was pulling out of Rwanda genocide commemorations scheduled for tomorrow.
The decision, sparked by comments by Rwandese President Paul Kagame, that the French participated in the events in the darkest episode of African history, is in stark contrast with a remarkable series of stories of forgiveness and reconciliation on a very personal level all over the small Central African country.
Highlighted in an excellent piece in the New York Times, Portraits of Reconciliation feature some remarkable stories of genocide perpetrators and victims not only finding forgiveness and reconciliation, but also strong friendship. For those who believe in the impossibility of reconciliation after brutal ethnic conflict, these stories are inspiring.
In August 1994, this Digital Journalist went to live in Africa for the first time, as an aid worker in Kigali. The genocide had finished two weeks before, and those initial weeks were the most harrowing - and rewarding - of a somewhat chequered career. There were tales of terror, torture, revenge, survival, where no conversation was normal.
Sharing a house with my American boss and his Rwandese girlfriend, Rose, I learned a lot more about the events in the previous months, and I think it is important to tell the incredible story of Rose and how she came to learn the fate of her family.
An extract from Lebanese Nuns Don't Ski.
"Rose is one of the most astonishing people I have ever met. One of the things that had always bugged me about my time in Rwanda was that I did not really understand what happened there, for the simple reason that I never talked to a local about their experiences. I couldn’t. I mentioned earlier asking one of my staff about his family and he replied that they had all been shot dead and he only survived by pretending to be dead, escaping with a bullet wound to the neck. I never asked again. A few years later, while visiting them in Sri Lanka, I mentioned all this to Jeff. He told me to talk to Rose. I said I couldn’t, it was too intrusive. He said that Rose was Rose and she would be fine about it. So I talked to Rose, and Rose was Rose, and more. It was the most remarkable conversation I have ever had, not just for its content, but also for its conclusion
At the end of March 1994, Jeff's contract with the aid agency finished. Things were tense in Kigali and there were several reports of isolated killings. Jeff suggested to Rose that they went to Uganda for a while and although her French and Kinyarwanda would not be understood there, she agreed. She didn't say goodbye to her parents. Soon after they arrived, Jeff was asked to go to Angola on a three-month contract. He went three weeks later, leaving Rose with money and friends. In between his accepting the contract and actually departing, the plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down as it approached Kigali airport
The killing had begun and over the next hundred days, up to a million people would be systematically killed, mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus. Rose was a Tutsi and she knew that none of her family would survive the slaughter. She was twenty-six, in a country where she did not speak the language. Alone. There was no news coming out of Rwanda, phone lines had been cut. The only things coming out of Rwanda were the dead bodies floating into Lake Victoria. Thousands of them. She went once to help with the clean-up operation, but only once. She couldn’t bear the prospect of seeing someone she knew being washed up. Years later we were in a restaurant in Sri Lanka, which had great seafood. I ordered prawns and urged her to do the same. She smiled:
“I can’t eat fish. Not after Lake Victoria. I feel like I might be eating my friends or family.”
Not knowing what to do, she approached the Tutsi army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, volunteering to fight against the slaughter. She was turned down as they were not recruiting women. She vowed never to go back to Rwanda, preferring to live on the street if necessary. Jeff, who had left for Angola, could not be contacted.
A few weeks later she received a phone call from her former employer. A former employer because she had left due to his sexual harassment. She was terrified that he had tracked her down to Kampala. He said that he had news of some of her family. She did not believe him, thinking it was just a ruse to get her to meet him. Eventually she relented and he told her that at least two sisters were alive and a brother-in-law was a minister in the new government. Transport was almost impossible but an army contact arranged a shared car. She spent her remaining money on clothes to give her surviving family - they would not have changed for weeks. She went first to her parents’ house. It had been levelled. Then she went to her sister’s house.
There were no words. There were no tears. There was just shock. Her sister and brother-in-law had been a teacher and a lawyer. Now they were just shadows of their former selves. They were so thin, their heads shaved because of lice, their young child suffering from malnutrition. They had known all along that Rose was okay because she had got out in time, but all this was new to her. Now she was not alone, she had some family. But they didn’t talk and even today, there is so much that has remained unsaid.
Details began to emerge. Her parents and younger sister went to take refuge in a church. Her paternal grandmother was a hundred years old and wanted to stay in her home, the house next door to Rose’s parents. Rose’s father could not leave her alone and so went back to see if she was okay. The militia caught up with him. They interrogated him and for every question they asked, they cut off another piece of his anatomy. Then they left him to bleed for a while. His hundred year-old mother brought water to tend his wounds, but the militia took her back to her own house and killed her. Rose knows all this because her sister, Irene, was sitting in a mango tree in the back garden with her brother, Deicore. They heard their father’s screams as he was being tortured. After the soldiers left, Deicore saw that there was no escape and, rather than hide, he walked into the street where they quickly finished him off.
Irene went back to the church, but could not tell her mother what was happening at home. There was not much time left for conversation anyway, as the militia came to attack the thousands of frightened and defenceless people seeking protection in this holy place. The priest opened the door and fled. All the old women were taken out, blindfolded and bound by hands and feet. Then they were taken by truck and thrown in the river, alive. They later arrived in Lake Victoria, dead. Rose knows this because she later met an old lady who had somehow survived. Her traumatic experience had sent her mad and she screamed at Rose:
“Your Mum was an idiot. She couldn’t even swim.” Bound by legs and arms, she didn’t have a chance.
The killers returned to the church where they completed the job with machetes. Irene suffered a severe machete blow to the head. She passed out. (At this point in the story, I am sat in Rose’s living room in Colombo, fighting back tears, when she suddenly bursts out laughing).
“You know what, Paul, when she came round, she looked up to the top of the church and she thought she could see Heaven. Then she looked around her and saw all the bodies and concluded that God had thrown her out of Heaven. There could be no other explanation.”
The only survivor from the church massacre, she went to the local convent for help, but the nuns shut their doors; Tutsis were a liability. She went to the forest and found temporary shelter with a friend of her father’s. But neighbours had suspicions that he was harbouring a Tutsi and so she had to flee. She hid in banana plantations for a week and then walked to Kigali. The RPF had taken control and it was now safe for Tutsis. She had survived.
Another sister, Claire, was heavily pregnant. They came and took her husband and son and killed them, but she was spared by a Hutu soldier. He told her that if the baby was a boy, he would kill them both, but that if it was a girl, he would take care of them, the implication being he would take her as his wife, having just killed her husband. He took her to the forest for safety. She gave birth - to a boy. Just then the RPF overran the forest and the Hutu soldier fled to Goma. She had survived.
Another sister, Immacule, was at home with her husband and children. He was on a hit list. Managing to escape through a neighbour’s garden, he jumped over a fence and found himself face to face with his potential killers. He was saved only because they did not know who he was. Giving them all the money they had, he fled to a nearby orphanage. By chance, so did his wife and children. They were holed up in terrible conditions for weeks, not knowing of the other’s existence. The RPF eventually liberated the area. They had survived.
A brother, Aimable, was trapped in his house and needed something for his small baby. As soon as he left the house to look for it, he was captured. He took his fate calmly, asking only that he might be allowed to smoke a last cigarette. They granted his wish and then hacked him to death. Another brother was reported killed in Gitarama to the south, but there are no details. That left only the final sister, Leah.
She lived some way from Kigali and they came for her husband. While she was pregnant and cowering in one room, they were dealing with her husband in the next room. She heard his screams as he was tortured. She heard how it was explained to his killer that if he cut out the heart while the man was still living, and then ate it, he would not be troubled by the dead man’s spirit. His killer slept soundly that night. She somehow managed to escape to Burundi. She had survived.
Jeff, meanwhile, had had no news whatsoever, except for periodic reports in Angola from the BBC. He was sent back to work in Rwanda via Burundi and eventually managed to get to the house of Rose’s parents. Seeing it destroyed, he went next door and found Rose’s sisters. They informed him that she had left to go back to Kampala twenty minutes previously. She was living with different people now and it took them a long time to find each other.
In June, 2001, the day before her wedding, Irene assembled her sisters together and took them to their father’s grave. There she told them, some seven years later, what her father had said just before he died:
“Tell whoever survives that I am dying with my mother. Death is not so bad.” They found his body eight months later. I remember the day well. Jeff came to the house and informed me quietly. I went out. This was no place for a foreigner who simply did not understand. They could only identify the body by the clothing - everything else was too disfigured. I asked Rose how she felt about finding the body:
“I felt good. You know, Paul, the nicest thing was that when I got my first pay packet, I bought my Dad a shirt. And that was the shirt he was wearing when he died.”
This was close to the end of the story. It had taken four hours, four of the most absorbing and compelling hours of my life. Throughout it all, I was close to tears, even though I had not suffered. Looking at me, with her braided hair, her big brown eyes and one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen, revealing a set of perfect white teeth, she finished with this thought, which for me was more breath-taking than everything I had just heard:
“You know, Paul, life is good, life is bad. People live, people die. Shit happens.”
I couldn’t respond to that. We sat down again in Nairobi to talk about the events one more time so that I could get the accurate facts. At the end she thanked me because for her it was a release to actually talk about it. As she sat in the yard, sunglasses on, hair tied back, engaging smile, Liam asleep on her lap, I asked her about hatred. Didn’t she feel hate towards the people who had killed her parents, grandmother and brothers?
“No. It wasn’t their fault. They were used by the authorities. I don’t blame the people who actually did it.” We talked about reconciliation and about Hutus. “You know, Paul, I don’t see a person as black or white, Hutu or Tutsi. I see them as a person. If I find a Hutu I like, and I have, they will be my friend.”
From that lonely person in Kampala at the start of the genocide, Rose has blossomed. Jeff and Rose married in California. They have two lovely boys. She showed me her house and her new life. It is impossible to detect signs of the tragedy that she has been through. For someone to have been through so much and to have come through the other side seemingly so unscathed and not bitter, is a shining example to us all."
In memory of all the victims of the genocide in Rwanda.
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