I met a genocide survivor in Rwanda… She is my role model and an epitome of resilience!

I went to Rwanda in December 2016 and the experience was adventurous, revealing and at the same time humbling. The biggest impact was to learn about the most recent genocide in world history and the resilience Rwanda has shown to overcome that dark past. I experienced an encounter with this resilience first hand.Rwandan genocide that happened in 1994 is still a very recent memory for most of the youth in their 30s and the older citizens. But the way they have coped is amazing. I met Sonia (name changed) when we were waiting for a public bus in Kigali (Rwandan capital) on Christmas day (25 December 2016).

Sonia greeted us with a good afternoon and with one of those beautiful smiles which reminds you that there is so much goodness left in this world.

We asked her if we were waiting at the right bus stop to go to the city centre. She said we are not, took my wife’s hand and started walking saying she will show where to wait for the bus . She walked with us for 10 mins when she had to go home in a different direction and far better things to do especially because it was Christmas !!! That’s when I asked her if she was going to celebrate Christmas with her family. And she says with a kind smile that she is an orphan and her entire family was killed during genocide. My eyes welled up … I couldn’t find the right words to respond to this … I wanted to ask so much but couldn’t. I did not want to rummage through her old gruesome memories especially on such an auspicious day.

Can you imagine a person who has been victim to such hatred and violence had so much love and kindness in her? She is my hero. And I am sure every second person you meet in Rwanda has similar stories and love to offer.

And I did take a mental note that day, that I need to find the reason behind such amazing Rwandan recovery from such a gruesome past.

A short summary on the genocide (you can skip this paragraph if you know about it already):
As of 1994 Rwanda had 3 major ethnic groups: the Hutu (comprising 85% of the population), Tutsi (15%) and Twa (1%). It all started with the assassination of the Hutu president on April 6, 1994. There were about a million killed, over 300 lives lost every hour for the 100 days of the genocide, and millions more displaced from their homes. The fact that most victims were killed by machetes gives you an idea of the gruesomeness of the genocide . Most of the killed and displaced included people from the Tutsi minority and moderate/ progressive Hutu and the perpetrators were hard-lined Hutu. There were multiple reasons that contributed to family members, neighbors and friends to kill each other. The causes of this tragedy is complex and has a long history and I wont try to cover that here. I have included some links in the comments section for reference to allow you to draw your own conclusions.

After the genocide, Rwanda had to find a way to move on despite potential murderers and victims families living beside each other. Forgiving and forgetting is a difficult thing when you have lost loved ones and with a memorial or burial ground at every corner you turn that reminds you of this past.

But the environment I saw in Rwanda was that of safety and peace. Crime is very low, the country is very clean and economic growth has exceeded 8% per annum in the last decade.

So what brought about this transformation?Here is my take on it:

  1. Judicial system: It has done its bit to bring some closure. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has handled over 70 cases. Rwanda’s courts have tried up to 20,000 individuals, and the country’s Gacaca courts have handled some 1.2 million additional cases. Gacaca (literally means grass roots) court is a system of community justice in villages presided over by community elders and attended all members of the community. It was a method of transitional justice designed to promote communal healing and rebuilding in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide.
  2. The government of President Paul Kagame: He runs a tight ship. Apparently he measures his success in not being recognized as a Tutsi leader but a Rwandan leader. Criminalization of certain kinds of discriminatory speech, reinforcing the notion that there are no Hutu or Tutsi, but rather a unified national identity – a Rwandan identity. If you ask a common man about Hutu-Tutsi relations in Rwanda today, he would immediately give the party line: “That is all behind us. Today, we are all Rwandans.”
  3. Guilt of UN and other nations in not taking any concrete measures to prevent or stop the Genocide: To compensate for the guilt there were countless contributions from countries and NGOs that helped rebuilt Rwanda.Even today foreign aid accounts for about half of the Rwandan budget.
  4. The church: there was a reconciliation program run through a partnership of the local Church and government.The program united perpetrators and victims, bringing them together to talk and listen to one another, and to learn how to seek and grant forgiveness. It was a gradual process but it provided a platform to openly debate and find closure.
  5. The Rwandan culture of unquestioned obedience has helped create a structure in the society. An example is the mandatory community service for every last saturday of each month that is
    followed religiously.

Having done the above research,some of the counter rationale for above points that makes me think that they are not sustainable and may not ensure peace in the long run:

  • Point 1:We know that revenge does not fill the void left by loved ones and not all perpetrators would be brought to justice.
  • Point 2:The current president will have to pave way for new leadership sooner or later.
  • Point 3:The sympathy from other nations and agencies will run low at some point and the aid money will stop.
  • Point 4:The church as we know can be as divisive as it can be a unifying power (Church’s role in the genocide is still being investigated). Although their program I believe is one of sustainable solutions in the long run since its paving way for open dialogue and debate instead of suppressing those emotions and frustrations.
  • Point 5: And we know for sure that this last factor is a double edged sword as some new tyrant leader can come and conquer minds on the basis of divisive politics and turn people against each other.

Makes me wonder is the peace just on the surface and if we scratch the surface …. what will we find? Hopefully I am wrong and the great Rwandan resilience and resolve holds strong just as in case of Sonia. She has become my role model in forgiving and forgetting the sins and sinners from the past for a brighter , better future!!!


3 thoughts on “I met a genocide survivor in Rwanda… She is my role model and an epitome of resilience!

    1. Thanks Deepa. She was a lovely person. You see the photograph of Sonia – and does she not look like the happiest person ever … takes a lot of guts and character to do that. 🙂


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