April 7 marked to official launch of a hundred days of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. I spent two days at a conference titled “Growing up with the irreparable”, which features panels of academics and survivors. The stories of survivors are certainly what affected me the most.
Those who survived say that it is impossible to put words on their experience. However, I found the way they described the horrors of the genocide extremely powerful. Each of them has their own way of describing it and I want to transcribe them here in order to emphasize our responsibility to prevent future genocide.
Testimony 1: Atanasie
We don’t know how to explain the pain we live with and carry. There are no words to describe the genocide against the Batutsis. I carry the seal. The word “irreparable” is like a rope that has been broken into several pieces and cannot be repaired. There is no service for that. The shock exists, persists and will always persist. At every shock, I fall to the ground. The month of April destroys me. It would be better if there were no month of April.
God has given me the chance to survive so I must try to live like others. I try to live like others but it is difficult to feel like the Atanasie I was before the genocide. There are two people in me: the Atanasie before the genocide, who is strong, and the Atanasie after the genocide, who has been ripped apart. I try to live with both. I must reconcile the past, the present and the future.
Testimony 2 (13 years old in 1994)
I’m not a survivor because I lived abroad at the time but in a way I am a survivor because my mother’s entire family has been killed. For me the irreparable is the people I have lost…I should not even use the word “lost” because they have been exterminated.
I do not want to accept that there is something broken in me. I’m part of the second generation and I want to believe in reparation. I feel divided between what my parents had to endure since the 1960s and the new generation today. I carry the wounds but I want to make the transition between my parents’ live story and the new Rwanda.
In the diaspora, we are divided. I grew up with Tutsis and the division is still there. In the diaspora, we have a tendency to put the Good on one side and the Bad on the other side. I want to go further and have reconciliation. I think reconciliation can happen in my generation but you cannot force my mother to accept reconciliation, especially since a lot of the killers have no regrets. Reconciliation is personal. I feel that I can do it.
Testimony 3 (28 years old in 1994)
For me, being a survivor is emptiness, absence. I have no images, no picture. This is the irreparable. All I have left of my father is loincloth. When April comes, I wash it, iron it and put it away.
Anxiety is my companion. I wake up in the middle of the night to make sure that my child is still breathing. This is the irreparable
We are violent towards ourselves in order to repress our sentiments, in order not to expose ourselves, in order not to bare ourselves and cry. We don’t want to get these feelings out. This is the irreparable.
I could not act. This is the irreparable
The irreparable is living with the smell of rotting human bodies for the past 20 years.
The irreparable is having to live with the culpability of having survived when others have not. I feel guilty that the last words I said to my father were not more tender. I wish I could have found something nicer to say.
Sometimes I hear “How come you were not killed in 1994.” As if would be more convenient if I had. Hearing this from Tutsis make me want to go on. I have a responsibility towards my family and towards the survivors.
Testimony 4 (8 years old in 1994)
April is the season of sadness, the season of memory, the season of courage.
The irreparable are the smells, the scenes, the words that come back unannounced, for no reason.
I remember the sound of the plane crashing. We thought it was a grenade and went into hiding.
I remember the first person I saw being killed, the first person I saw being raped. I remember seeing by mother among dead bodies searching for my father’s body.
I remember the words of those who committed these acts. They seemed relieved to live in a world where Tutsis would no longer exist. Even those who did not kill were relieved. This is the essence of genocide.
The irreparable is not being able to say the words “dad.” The sad truth is: when we are survivors we wish we could be like everybody else.
I wish we had been given as space to speak clearly about what we went through. When we speak about the genocide, it’s like speaking about a complex subject. But for us, it is qui simple to explain. We just want to be given a space to tell about our truth.
Your challenge now is to take up a pen and to write your story as you know it and feel it. To repair the irreparable we must change our way to think and speak. Nobody can take our truth from us unless we tell them.
The irreparable is definitive. It’s not like a fracture one can weld. I have a scar where the machete struck. This wound accompanies me. When I see it, I’m immediately back where I was on that day. I lived in Bisero where only 800 out of 60 000 Tutsis survived. My father survived but today he can barely speak. The day I saw my father again after being separated, I did not recognize him and I promised myself that I would live. We tried to reconstruct ourselves. I carried my father’s misery, his pain, his despair. He used to be a dignified, upright man but I became like his mother. I carried him on my back or held him by the hand, and tried to be strong in front of him.
Living became our vengeance. Studying became my vengeance. I move to Canada and earned several degrees. I wish you the best and most beautiful vengeance. They failed. Live continues. We are the proof. This is the challenge: to raise you head and stand upright.
Those who lived in the diaspora at the time also carry the irreparable. My Rwandan friends in Rwanda and where I lived, kept counting the dead while my entire family here was safe. I felt guilty that I cannot find the words to comfort them. It was like a reproach “Your parents are doing well”
What I want to transmit to my children is that we did not respond to hate by hate. Instead we continued to live and are proud of who we are.
Testimony 8: Eugène (26 years old at the time)
The irreparable is having to knead my pain every morning with tears that are struggling to fall. It is also the smell of rotting carcasses that impregnate my clothes.
The genocide for me are these moments of complete absurdity where one ceases to be human. One just becomes the product of a slaughter.
I debated for a long time whether I had the right to live because all my friend had been exterminated, all my family had been exterminated. I didn’t think I had the right until the day I realized that by refusing to live I agreed with the murderers. I agreed with the murdered who assassinated my family. I had to stand up again. We must accept that life continues. That it does not stop because one génocidaire decided that it had to.
“Forgiveness” is not part of my vocabulary. I will forgive if someone asks me for forgiveness but I cannot forgive in the void.
The members of United Nations have to change to way they protect humanity, if this is indeed their mission. If they intervene, if they act or if they simply give up and we will say “We let evil triumph –“
Testimony 9: Arlette
The plane crashed in the night and the next day we had become snakes, insects to eliminate. When you wake up in the morning and you’re looking for the next person to kill, you are no longer human – you’re an animal. Usually when somebody dies, you are sad and you cry. But death had become so trivial that we would see a person die and it had become something normal. We could not cry because we did not have the right to. We though “I’ll be next”
My biggest fear is how to tell that story to my son. How do I transmit it so as to keep the memory alive but without transmitting the hate?
I think there’s no reconciliation because we do not have to reconcile. There are two communities who live in separate corners but there is mistrust, great, great mistrust.