As I look out my window at the red brick walls that separate me from the world, the first being the wall between my house and the one behind it, the next being the wall surrounding the main house, behind which my and my neighbor’s houses are located, the last being the wall surrounding the entire compound, I wonder whether this tradition of living behind walls dates back prior to the genocide, or whether it is a remnant of it. Certainly, if someone really wanted to get to me, no amount of brick and mortar would stop them. Even the bars on my windows and doors, the locks on the exterior doors and with the extra padlocks that are anchored in heavy metal loops embedded into the door frames, the locks on the three sets of hollow wooden interior doors that one would have to breach to reach me in my bedroom, if he didn’t just cut the bars on my window, would not stop anyone who was intent on erasing me and my people from face of the planet.
We are now in the 100 day period during which, in 1994, over 1 million Tutsi were killed by Hutu soldiers, while the West stood by and did nothing. Every year, the first week that coincides with the beginning of the genocide is set aside for memorials throughout the country. Social events are prohibited and laughter is not allowed while people take time to remember their loved ones, teach their children about family and community, and unite together to remind them selves that never again will hate rule the land. The memorials do not stop after the first week. For the next 100 days, different towns and organizations will set aside time for Kwibuka (rememberance), often choosing to hold their local events on dates that coincide with days when the hands of death reached into their particular communities to destroy all who were most near and dear to them.
In 1994, Huye, the town where I now live, was called Butare, was considered to be the intellectual and cultural hub of the nation because the University of Rwanda was located here. For decades, Hutus and Tutsis had lived and studied here together. The prefect (chief office of the prefecture) of Butare was the only Tutsi prefect in the country at the time. When the slaughter began in the north, hundreds of Tutsi fled to Butare trusting that they would be safe here. And, for a brief moment in time, they were. Welcomed by their kinsmen, who also believed that no harm could come to this place — the sacred place that nourished and protected Rwanda’s collective wisdom — they waited together for the reign of terror elsewhere in Rwanda to end instead of heading south to seek refuge in Burundi.
Two weeks later, Hutu soldiers were airlifted from the north and rage began to burn through town and it neighboring communities, driving murder and rape deep into the cultural heart of the nation. The Tutsi prefect was murdered and replaced by a Hutu military administrator who subsequently orchestrated some of the worst massacres of the genocide. The safe haven became a trap from which there was no escape. When the slaughter ended, 75 days later, the death toll in Butare was 220,000, the highest of any prefecture in Rwanda, and represented more than one fifth of the total number of souls lost throughout the country during the 100 days of hate.
This is the weekend when the killings began in Butare, 24 years ago, and memorial ceremonies are being held in the town and the university over the weekend. I am not attending. I am ashamed of the choices that my people made while blood ran freely in the streets of this town, while women were raped, children wept in terror, and men tried to protect their loved ones. I believe that some abazungu (foreigners) attend the memorial ceremonies, perhaps to show sympathy, perhaps to assuage their conscience, perhaps to renew their commitment to never make the same mistakes that we made then, perhaps to show unity. Maybe I am a coward. But, for me, showing up now does not change the fact that I did not show up then, that we, as a nation, did not show up when it really mattered. To insert myself into the intimacy of the shared remembrance of a story that is not mine feels both intrusive and selfish.
Today, Sunday, is the first day in weeks that I have seen the sun. The skies were grey with rain when I left for my vacation, prior to the beginning of the national 100 day memorial period, and they were still weeping when I returned. As I lay in bed last night, listening to the rain patter on the tin roof of my house, I wondered if those who died here near me were smothered in pools of cold, red mud like that which grasps my shoes with unrelenting sticky fingers whenever I leave the cement safety of my courtyard, while tears of sorrow from the heavens above washed their faces clean, or whether they took their final breaths in the soft green folds of new life that would have been blossoming in their fields, just as it is now outside the brick walls of my compound, while the brilliant sun of African swaddled them in a mantle of soothing warmth.
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