Resonance in Rwanda: Courageously facing the future

 Resonance in Rwanda

I have recently returned from Rwanda and from a course focused on transitional justice and truth commissions as a mechanism for dealing with the past. All things ‘dealing with the past’ are, therefore, on my mind. Readers will appreciate that my head is spinning with reactions and questions which I will share here over a number of posts. Please forgive me when I am over-simplistic and feel free to engage with the issues I discuss. There is always more to think about than my teeming mind can weave into one piece. Rwanda has kindled some thoughts and, with a little space from the study visit, it is time to share those thoughts.



Courageously facing the future

 ‘Standing in their gap’ was a phrase that we saw and heard in Rwanda. We saw it etched on the wall at Ntarama church where the children had been killed in the Sunday School and we heard it from Odette, the founder and leader of the largest Widows organization in Rwanda, AVEGA. Odette spoke of what it had been like as widows began to meet following the genocide. Often alone in the world they saw the number of children who were left without family and they decided that they could give something to those who had died and to those who were left – they could stand in their gap, providing family for the orphaned. Courageously they saw a way into the future in which they could stand in the memory of what had happened but build a future together with others who suffered too. 

The widows of AVEGA were not alone. All around us in Rwanda were people who courageously faced the future and drew on their pain to empower them for a future in which the things of the past would never happen again. Church leaders work alongside government to provide opportunities for remembering and depth to the idea of reconciliation and its reality in post-genocide Rwanda. The ordinary everyday people we met who looked after us in the guest house and drove us around the country also spoke of reconciliation. They smiled about the future while carrying the weight of the past. I will be eternally grateful to them all for their humanity, courage and openness in speaking of what it has been like and what they hope the future will be like. I salute their courage and commitment and their willingness to look to the future and to work for a better future. Their names will not be recorded in books of history but they are, all of them, history-makers.

Back in Northern Ireland I find it hard to settle back in to our politics and civic relationships. There are many people of courage here in Northern Ireland, people for whom it is an act of courage to get up in the morning as the memory of the past oppresses itself into their very soul as they open their eyes. They have found ways to live in today and they have found ways to look for a better future. But the frustration of a politics which cannot seem to grasp the future can be overwhelming. There was no self-indulgence in Rwanda among political leaders who applied themselves, without restraint, to the future and to resisting the past. They make the sacrifices that need to be made and they do not over-indulge the painful memories or politics of the past. In Northern Ireland we are still indulging the old rivalries, failing to complete on the things of the past and constrained in making the final steps of agreement that move us on into the real politics of the future. The result is that we turn on each other, finding ways in which to attack, often in very personal ways, those who are working into the future. 

A political framework for the future was provided to us by the Belfast Good Friday, St Andrews and Hillsborough Agreements. Management of the old rivalries is provided for through the Parades Commission and by the funding of many community projects aiming to bring new relationships into being. Those who live with the ongoing impacts of the violence that was visited on so many is provided for through the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the Victims and Survivors Service. The Equality and Human Rights Commissions hold the challenging brief of securing a society in which none is overlooked or marginalized. The Children’s Commissioner has in her care the generations growing up in a new Northern Ireland. Healthcare and education arrangements have changed and are still in need of the new politics which are concerned less with old rivalries and provisions. Prisons are involved in a change management programme, moving towards a service by which prisoners can be enabled to make changes to their lives. But every effort is subverted again and again by attachments to the old conflicts and wars, the old hatreds and worries about them and us. There is a self-indulgent edge to it all as civic relationships teeter on the edge of abrasive hatred, displayed in disputes about flags and parades and Maze/Long Kesh. When this self-indulgent politics allows public relationships to collapse into personal attacks and words of hatred which permit no redemption then it is time to stop.

It is time to stop arguing about the philosophies that surround dealing with the past. It is time to stop thinking about what ‘they’ will get or have got. It is time to stop eating dinner to talk around the issues and wonder about whether or not it is a good idea to do anything about the past. It is time to sit up and decide what can be done because if nothing is done then every change management programme, every sore from the past, every attempt at advocacy and every desire to build a society in which we all take a share in the future, will be subverted. Things will only change when we decide that it is time to do something rather than sitting back and allowing it to run its course, putting more people to death and binding more people to the past in the way in which we do our relationships, public and private. It is time for shared enterprise and not self-indulgence because the future is at stake and if we do not see that then the past will become the present all over again. We are now ‘standing in their gap’. We stand in the gap to honour those whom we grieve and those who carry the wounds of the past and we stand in the gap to make sure that what happened in the past will never happen again.


Resonance in Rwanda: Remembering who we are.

Resonance in Rwanda

I have recently returned from Rwanda and from a course focused on transitional justice and truth commissions as a mechanism for dealing with the past. All things ‘dealing with the past’ are, therefore, on my mind. Readers will appreciate that my head is spinning with reactions and questions which I will share here over a number of posts. Please forgive me when I am over-simplistic and feel free to engage with the issues I discuss. There is always more to think about than my teeming mind can weave into one piece. Rwanda has kindled some thoughts and, with a little space from the study visit, it is time to share those thoughts.

Remembering who we are

Rwandans have a very clear view of themselves as Rwandans. Their one flag demonstrates a unified sense of who Rwandans are today – not Hutu, not Tutsi, Rwandan. The strength of the narrative depends on a conviction that a better future is possible if Rwandans grasp that future with both hands. They are not refusing to countenance the past but they know that without this unified narrative the future is bleak. The narrative also depends on the belief that the Rwandan people are not all bad. Responsibility for the past is accepted but with the balance of belief that there were many who influenced and let down the Rwandan people and they too have responsibility. In the beginning it was the colonial powers and then it was the international community. I have come to the conviction that when coming out of conflict people do the very best that they can do and it will, inevitably, be flawed. It becomes all the more important then, to build in times to consider how well things are going and what needs to change. Otherwise there is the very real danger of setting the same relational dynamics in place that brought the differences to violence in the first place.

If the truth about the past is slippy and elusive then a common narrative of the past is even more elusive. A narrative of the past needs to be composed on truth. It is possible to establish factual truth to form a core to any narrative. Factual truth consists, for example,  of information about how many people were killed, their age or gender;  the places where killings took place, including information about areas where killings occurred more often; the number of foreign nationals that were killed; the number of incidents that took place outside the Northern State. Much of this information is already gathered.

Other truth can be drawn from completed investigations and inquiries. Here begins some difficulty in the narrative. Some inquiry reports have not been made public although information from them leaks out in other ways through the legal system. The level of editing applied to this information whets the appetite for more and stimulates speculation about what information is being held back

Narrative truth must form part of any final or agreed narrative of the past. This is the most complex area of all for it needs to reflect the diversity of experiences among victims and survivors, governments, armies, paramilitaries, security services, educators, police and fire officers, ambulance attendants, undertakers, business owners, the children of the traumatized, and so the list goes on. The gathering of information for this part of the narrative will illuminate differences between rural and urban communities, how different groups see what happened, the different impacts that the Troubles had and beliefs about why things happened, to name but a few.

Constructing a narrative of the past in which each can see themselves and which is, at the same time, truthful, is a very complex matter indeed. The complexity is further complicated when narratives of the past compete with one another and may even be described as the site of conflict today. No one wants to concede anything from their narrative. To do so would be to raise the white flag. Things are difficult enough for political leaders without them being seen to have given in. The danger should not be underestimated.

Is it possible to resolve the difficulties?

One possible way of resolving the difficulty is by compiling a very simple narrative of the past which no one can argue with. It might only include factual truth together with a statement such as:

We wish we hadn’t had to live through the years of trouble and conflict.

That is quite different, of course, from saying that it should never have happened. For some that would be a step too far. Whether such a simple narrative would have any real value beyond having an agreed narrative is a matter for debate. It would not reflect the diversity of experience and victims and survivors would be unlikely to feel heard. Nor would a simple narrative reflect the complexity of what happened and the questions people have about the purpose of some acts of violence, if purpose it can be called. At the very least, it seems to me, a narrative of the past should allow victims to be heard and enable people, still divided from one another, to begin to hear how each view what happened.

In Rwanda we heard a strong, coherent and unified narrative of the past. I would judge it to be a new narrative, constructed to enable Rwandans to move past the genocide and begin rebuilding, to start thinking through how to ensure that genocide never happens again. I would describe the new narrative as being based on a mechanism by which Rwandans understand themselves to have been responsible but in the context of a history in which they say it was the colonial powers that constructed the notion of ethnicity, classified the groups, symbolized difference and thereby set up the circumstances in which genocide would occur. The question is whether a new narrative will sustain Rwandan society into the future or whether excluded voices will become dangerous again. Only time will tell but in the meantime it has been important to find a way to move forward and maybe that is the best we can do at any given point in time.


Who we have been in the past is not who we have to be in the future. But it is important to remember that for some people the past is always the present.


Resonance in Rwanda: How are we remembering?



Resonance in Rwanda

I have recently returned from Rwanda and from a course focused on transitional justice and truth commissions as a mechanism for dealing with the past. All things ‘dealing with the past’ are, therefore, on my mind. Readers will appreciate that my head is spinning with reactions and questions which I will share here over a number of posts. Please forgive me when I am over-simplistic and feel free to engage with the issues I discuss. There is always more to think about than my teeming mind can weave into one piece. Rwanda has kindled some thoughts and, with a little space from the study visit, it is time to share those thoughts.

How are we remembering?
In my previous post I wrote briefly about memorials and bones in Rwanda. The Department for Memory and the Prevention of Genocide are responsible for the official memorial sites where massacres took place – schools, churches, stadia, valleys and hillsides, together with the Kigali Memorial Centre where the bones of 250 000 dead rest. One site is at Ntarama church where 5000 women, men and children were killed. Today the bones of 60 000 dead rest there. In the dry dust of the Rwandan sunshine Ntarama is still.
The Department is part of a government and country focussed on reconciliation. As Rwandans admit, the genocide was so terrible that the focus must be on a different future – reconciliation. Our guide at Ntarama said, “We force ourselves to forget for the sake of the future.” It is almost inconceivable to imagine it is possible, but it is true. Hope is as tangible as the dust in the air.
The various memorials reminded me of the many roadsides, street corners and lonely hedgerows across Northern Ireland adorned with flowers or murals in memory of the lost. From Teebane Crossroads to New Lodge families want to stand near to the place where their loved ones were last alive. There are many more formal memorials in churches, community halls, organisation headquarters and village squares, to name a few. The book Lost Lives, the CAIN website and many more lists of names, incidents and stories add to the edifice of memorials.
Rwanda provides its citizens an annual week of mourning but even then there is an axis to the future, while not forgetting the past. During the week people wear purple, shops close in the afternoons, vigils are held and a slogan, such as Never Again, is adopted. There are lectures, seminars and church services dealing with reconciliation, helping to focus minds on the tragedy of the past and possibilities that lie in the future. There is no forgetting, how could there be? The words of Donata, aged 11, are recorded in the children’s section at the Kigali Memorial Centre:
Sometimes I get terribly sad because I can’t imagine what my life will be like. I’ll never get to see my parents again, and yet I’ll see the people who killed them, and those people’s children, for the rest of my life. I can’t bear the thought of it.
There is no forgetting, but there is a clear eye to a future in which what happened in the past does not happen again.
I found myself admiring this quality of hope and the focus on the future. I appreciated the idea of giving time to remember. I got a sense that this formally set aside time for remembering addressed the fear that the past could be repeated. They need the time to remember and they need the axis to the future and the focus on reconciliation. Rwandans do not forsake a deep and painful sense of loss and waste of life, but they circle memory with hope to ensure that their loved ones are honoured by the way Rwandans live today.
I thought too about how difficult and how important it is to have that week every year and I found myself wondering what it would be like for Northern Ireland to set aside a specific time for remembering and thinking into a future that would not cause the pain and loss that our troubled past has caused. Then I remembered that that we have an annual Day of Reflection when groups and individuals across the country choose how they will remember. One glaring difference in Rwanda is that there is a lead from the government in the national week of mourning and across civil society there is participation. In Northern Ireland there is no such leadership. We are reminded about the Day of Reflection by the NGO that had the idea in the first place – Healing through Remembering. Is this good enough? I think not.
It is not good enough because those who remember every day, whether they want to or not, need to know they live in a society that is prepared to stand with them. What happened needs to be remembered so that it never happens again, so that generations being born can know that such things can happen on your own doorstep. If we do not remember then there is room for complacency to take the place of an active commitment to the future. It may be that, unlike Rwanda, we cannot educate for the future and remember on the same day but we have another annual opportunity in Community Relations Week. It provides time and space to reflect on what impact the past has had, how it happened and what can be done so that it never happens again.

Why would we want to do any of this in a more coordinated and formal way?

Firstly, it seems to me not quite right to leave victims and survivors to remember alone. How must that feel?
Secondly, when I saw how hopeful Rwandans are and how bold and brave they are for a new society, I imagine that a touch of Rwandan courage and formality might transform cynicism and despair. It would energise the whole society for the shared enterprise of building a better and more reconciled future.
Thirdly, I believe we need to remember and we need to educate so that, as far as is humanly possible, we resist what happened in the past ever happening again. Without formal opportunities it is all too easy to slip into the habits of doing nothing and saying nothing until we find it is happening all over again. We not only need to remember, we need to be deliberate about it.

We need to dignify the past with our remembering and dignify the future with our hope.


Resonance in Rwanda: What do you want with truth?

Resonance in Rwanda

I have recently returned from Rwanda and am now attending a course focused on transitional justice and truth commissions as a mechanism for dealing with the past. All things ‘dealing with the past’ are, therefore, on my mind. Readers will appreciate that my head is spinning with reactions and questions which I will share here over a number of posts. Please forgive me when I am over-simplistic and feel free to engage with the issues I discuss. There is always more to think about than my teeming mind can weave into one piece. Rwanda has kindled some thoughts and, with a little space from the study visit, it is time to share those thoughts.

What do you want with the truth?

In Rwanda there are undeniable truths. The unimaginable reality of genocide speaks its truth in bald statistics. Approximately 1 million people were killed over 100 days. Almost 80% of the Tutsi population was wiped out together with countless Hutus who tried to save their lives or stood out against what was happening. Staggering numbers of widows and orphans are left to cope. Yet in Rwanda there is hope. One man we met said, “we speak of hope, standing on bones.” Bones are gathered into Memorial sites, sometimes laid bare as a stark reminder of what happened and sometimes buried. Bones, bones, bones. Speaking of hope, standing on bones.
The public narrative is one of hope. A new Rwanda is being built by a society directed towards reconciliation. In quiet, intimate conversations the narrative is that the genocide benefitted no one. Rwandans dare to speak of hope for they face the truth that what happened was so horrific that everything possible must be done, no matter how painful, in order that it will not happen again.
In Northern Ireland we continue to painstakingly and ineffectively excavate the bones of truths and hopelessness is increasing.
On September 27th 2013 some of the “shoot to kill” families, as they have become known, went to court in the hope that the inquests into the deaths of their loved ones would be progressed. The outstanding inquests concern the deaths of five Republican men and a Nationalist teenager in 1982.
The deaths became the subject matter of an Inquiry that resulted in the never published Stalker/Sampson report. On September 27th those present at the preliminary inquest hearing, including members of the shoot to kill families, heard that it may take the PSNI to 2016 to deal with the background material which would allow the inquests to proceed.
It is important to recall that the shootings took place in 1982 and that this is 2013. In all those years the families have not seen due process and they have not heard the truth that they needed to hear. They have grieved the loss of their loved ones whose lives were concluded swiftly while the process of verbalising the truth has been repeatedly stalled. Following last weeks’ proceedings solicitors for the shoot to kill families conclude regretfully that:

… the PSNI approach to this series of Inquests is motivated by an over arching policy of obstructionism to delay the inevitable damning facts of the policy of shoot to kill being laid out for public consideration. It is a shocking indictment that this policy of delay has been such that the parents of Seamus Grew have both passed away in recent months without hearing the inquests into the murder of their son.

The families have the right to know what happened on that day and to have all processes concluded, even if their expectations are not met.
In International Law the right to truth is linked to ‘the disappeared’ and increasingly to the rights to remedy, information and due process. In this it is the duty of the State to preserve all documentation relating to the deaths. While the right to truth is not explicitly spelled out in International Law it flows from a variety of treaties and conventions.
This case opens up a further challenge in Northern Ireland – the challenge of discovering the truth of what happened to those loved ones who were not killed by, or in circumstances involving, the State and for whom there is little recourse beyond the conventional investigative systems. Another stalling of an inquest or case in which the State is likely to be implicated brings no sense of loss to those victims and survivors who are frustrated and increasingly tired of ‘good’ law. That frustration was evidenced in the Newsletter Morning View, September 17th 2013:

This is the hallmark of a civilised society: rigorous adherence to the rule of law such that even those who are very probably guilty of offences are acquitted because this cannot be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
Watching thoroughly bad men walk free in those circumstances is galling in the extreme.
But it is not merely galling, but positively nauseating, when such people sue the authorities for their supposed suffering at the hands of the state when in fact the state has treated them with utter fairness despite their brutality.
Any move to end damages being paid to those who are likely to be guilty, but who cannot be proven to be so, by making them prove their innocence, is welcome. It is a minor step towards rebalancing things back towards the victim.

The problem with this view is that it is only a short step away from a long and cherished history in law which upholds innocence until guilt is proven. Nevertheless, it is clear that a rebalancing is called for and it can be found in and around the matter of truth.
In Northern Ireland when we talk about truth commissions we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking this is something new when the reality is that there are already many truth-seeking mechanisms, inquests among them. Add to that the standard investigative processes, the HET now so deeply disputed, and the Police Ombudsman’s Office. We forget that we already have a commission which allows truth to be told without recourse to normal judicial processes.
The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains was established by treaty between the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland in April 1999 with the necessary laws being put in place the following month. The standards under which the Commission operates smack of the archetypal and dreaded truth commission – “Any evidence obtained (directly or indirectly) by the a Commission is in admissible in evidence in any criminal proceedings.” There are many truth processes already underway in Northern Ireland. But clearly they are far from adequate. Slow and unwieldy truth processes are delivering little and are mistrusted across the community.
Those who traditionally stood against any idea of wrongdoing by the State or its instruments are quietly saying, with increasing persistence, that if someone inside the army or police did wrong then they should be brought to book. There is a chink of light in the impasse, and it has everything to do with truth. It is a window of opportunity ready to be opened by political leaders if they have eyes to see. But there is also the challenge of putting an effective mechanism in place to obtain truth, in whatever form truth is understood, and to do so before ageing relatives and the passing of time mitigate against any possibility of peace of mind and security of heart for those who are left waiting.
Many believe they already know the truth even though processes are not complete. For example, in a post on the Relatives for Justice website regarding the preliminary inquest hearing for the shoot to kill cases the writer expresses what he believes to be true about the six people killed in 1982:

All were unarmed and deliberately killed and then the circumstances of their killings fabricated by the RUC to somehow ‘justify’ the shootings.

He may well be right, as so many will probably turn out to be. But until the processes are complete not everyone is convinced and it is only possible to say that this version of what happened could be right, wrong or incomplete. As we wait for the truth what many believe to be truth takes on a life of it’s own. As Mark Twain put it:

A lie can be half way around the world while truth is putting on its shoes.

Our public narrative is becoming increasingly hopeless. We still have to face the truth about what happened and the truth is that unless we do something soon, unless we find the leadership capacity to bring the past to a conclusion, and unless we are willing of strive for truth and justice delivered efficiently, then we are likely to be standing on the bare bones of our history without hope and for a very long time to come.
There are many public narratives. For some the narrative is that we have come a long way, and we have. For others the public narrative is that things are only getting worse. In the quiet intimacy of conversation there is more than a hint of a narrative which tells us that what we are doing is, quite simply, not good enough. For victims and survivors and those who were close to the conflict, what we are engaged in when it comes to the truth is just not good enough and it mitigates against hope.
Standing on the bones of our history, contested and all as that history is, if there is no hope then we will perish on the rock of pretence. Some among us will perish in despair which could be avoided. Victims and survivors say they want truth. Some in society believe it is right to seek and tell and truth. Others in society have the view that no one will benefit from the truth. Whatever any of us think we are obliged to listen to victims and survivors who have the right to truth if that is what they want. The rest of us, and our political leaders in particular, owe them the respect of listening and responding without delay.