Valuing life over death

Rwandans commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day and their own 1994 massacre.

The clothes of tens of thousands of the massacred Rwandans are preserved as testimony (photo credit: DANA SOMBERG)
The clothes of tens of thousands of the massacred Rwandans are preserved as testimony
(photo credit: DANA SOMBERG)
Imagine if, after the horrors of WWII, the Jews and the Nazis and those who stood by and did nothing, would have continued to live together and rebuild their country.
Freddy Mutanguha Jr. lost his entire family in the genocide in Rwanda. Today he runs the country’s museum in memory of the millions of martyrs. He explains that this is the status quo in Rwanda, the light in which “we have to understand our crazy situation. Every person you randomly turn to on the street will have a horror story to tell, and everyone has lost someone. We see you [the Jews] as our soul mates. Not only because of the atrocities, but also because of the reconstruction and success.”
The morning is gray in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. They call it the land of a thousand hills for a reason. Every hill is crowded with houses, the spaces between them filled with banana trees, corn and tea fields. Everything is green and shiny from the rain that falls once a day at the same time in the afternoon.
Despite all the harsh news that a continent like Africa produces, the ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day is the opening item on all the news broadcasts and newspapers.
At the museum commemorating the Rwandan genocide, groups of reporters gather in wait for the Israeli ambassador to Rwanda, Belaynesh Zevadia (who also serves as ambassador to Ethiopia and Burundi) and the German ambassador to Rwanda, Peter Fahrenholtz, who organized the ceremony together.
Meanwhile, Montagoh Jr. signs his book containing testimonies from survivors.
He will host the ceremony and tells the foreign journalists his personal story. Although he is already experienced in telling it, the probing of old wounds brings up new demons every time. “I lost my whole family. I ran away and hid in the woods with a member of the Hutu tribe who risked his life to hide me. His house was next to ours, and I heard the family shouting when they were slaughtered them with machetes. I think about it until today.”
Although the Israeli Foreign Ministry holds important ceremonies worldwide to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, most notably the ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, where US President Barack Obama speaks, it is clear that in Rwanda this day is of crucial importance to local inhabitants.
THE LOCATION of the event gives one the chills: A mass grave containing some 250,000 victims has been transformed into a museum immersed in a beautiful garden. Two hundred people are present in the small Rwandan museum, among them ambassadors and diplomatic staff, but the majority are young people, survivors who have lost their entire families.
They sit in the courtyard of the museum and listen to kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, followed by a lecture by Yad Vashem representative Dr. Rachel Prais, and speeches, and think about the wounds they have that are still bleeding.
Honore Geshra watches his friend Mutanguha Jr. lead the ceremony. Both are survivors of the genocide and run the museum in memory of the victims as part of their healing process.
“A genocide is a genocide, Jews or Tutsi,” says Geshra. “Even after the Holocaust, they said “no more” and now it happened again. To us. To me. I lost all my immediate family and my extended family. I was lucky that one person remained, only one survivor, my mother, with whom I have lived until now. I’m sitting here at the ceremony and can remember every detail of that day, it was a sunny day like today. We were asked to stay in our homes and have ready the documents proving that we were Tutsi."
"I left and was hiding with our neighbors who were from the Hutu tribe. They were afraid they would also be killed because they sheltered me; I was hiding under their bed. Then I hid in the woods until it was over. But it did not happen just in one day. The Hutu incited against us. Isolated us. They called us names like cockroaches and rats. It began with name calling and progressed to incitement."
Israeli Ambassador Zevadia speaks of the special meaning associated with the place at which the Holocaust Remembrance ceremony is being held. “Let’s think about forgiveness and positive thinking,” he adds. “We have to remember never to forget. The relationship between Israel and Rwanda is strong, and it will only grow stronger.”
German Ambassador Fahrenholtz is clear that “Germany is ashamed of what it did. A nation that does not examines its past will remain without a future. There must be no anti-Semitism or racism in Germany, Europe or anywhere else. We must keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and fight the denial of the Holocaust or of any other genocide. After 1945 we said ‘no more,’ and here it happened in Rwanda and elsewhere in the world.”
Rwandan Minister for Cooperation Jean Damascene Bizimana points out that the “1994 massacre happened 50 years after the United Nations said no more. The world today still does not fully understand how to prevent something like that from happening. It happened here when the UN forces left Rwanda and returned home; even in the Congo there are UN forces and killings continue, and there are further examples from around the world. I want to thank some of the European countries that prosecute those responsible for the massacre of our people. We need to think about how to prevent something like that from happening again, and we must value life over death.
EVEN THOUGH it has been more than 20 years since the genocide, it is present in every corner of the country and especially in the people who live there.
When you leave Kigali city center, a relatively modern business center, you are exposed to the more rural parts, and more tangible evidence of the slaughter.
In the eastern part of the capital is a church that houses the hardest evidence of the genocide. Locals calls it the Rwandan Auschwitz. Its roof is riddled with bullets, and the clothes the victims left behind have been preserved: tens of thousands of pieces of clothing. In the basement are endless shelves of skulls and other bones. In another part of the church is the coffin of a woman that the Hutu tribe made into a sex slave and tortured.
This woman was just one of nearly half a million who suffered serious sexual assaults. Those who survived still deal with the trauma today.
Yet, despite all the horrors, the Rwandan people are attempting to move forward. Justice Minister and Attorney- General Busingye Johnston met recently with Israel’s Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein when he visited the country. “We talked about the economy and fighting corruption. Our relationship is strong,” Johnston says. The Gacaca process (a system of transitional justice to promote healing and rebuilding) just ended recently. Community courts have seen 1.9 million cases. “We had no choice,” says the minister, “if we did not turn to the courts of the community in which we sit together and work through issues, just the legal problems of the proceedings would take us a 100 years. We want to build a future and not get stuck in the past.”
What about justice? “This justice was done in order to march forward. People forgive each other and realize we have no choice but to continue together. We were always Rwandans. Currently there are a lot of mutual requests for forgiveness.
This week, a man went to a woman and told her that he was the one who had severed her hand years previously. She did not believe him, and was in shock that he had kept this secret for years, as they were neighbors. He told her that he could not sleep, and couldn’t stop thinking of her, and that if she wanted him to go to jail he was ready to do so.
The woman thought about it and said she forgave him. And that’s just one story out of the hundreds of thousands.
ALTHOUGH THE spirit of internal reconciliation exists, encouraged by the Justice Ministry, the fact is that the world stood by in silence during the Rwandan genocide and it is difficult for them to forgive this.
“How do you forgive the world? Send it a letter? Turn to the UN?” The minister asks with a sad smile, “The world is a tough place. The world was here in 1994, and instead of preventing the genocide it ignored us. We have learned the lesson. If we wait for the world to prevent catastrophes we will wait much longer.”
At present the biggest challenge facing the justice minister is to go after those who stood behind the genocide in terms of planning and financing.
Out of 92 defendants, only 49 were convicted by the International Court. “The cooperation we have had from European countries is very slow. We will continue to pursue the guilty and to demand and negotiate until they are prosecuted. We know who they are, where they hide, and their alternate identity. We will not give up.”
Rwanda doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. The country sees itself in many ways as the “Israel of the African continent.” This is a small country in a huge continent, with no natural resources, and it is trying to work a miracle in a short time.
“We have a new generation. With new thinking. This is a result of intermarriage between the tribes. We say over and over again that Rwandans have a future in the country. As the Holocaust was to you, the year 1994 set Rwanda at a crossroads, whether to become extinct or gather the courage and build a new country, we decided to live.”
Translated by Maya Pelleg. This article originally appeared in Ma’ariv Sof Shavua.