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.