Tomorrow, April 7th, is Genocide against the Tutsi Memorial Day.
Nine years ago, I participated in the Reflections on Rwanda program to study this genocide, especially through encountering rescuers and survivors and listening to their stories.
Some of my family and friends were not sure why I wanted to go on a genocide study a trip.
I even met a professor (of Genocide Studies, no less) who described travelling to the sites of historical genocides as voyeurism.
But as I think back to this trip and review my notes from the time, I am reminded that one of the reasons it is worthwhile to contend with such devastating stories is because the survivors appreciate it so much.
It was the second day of our trip when we made an early departure to Nyarubuye, a district in the province of Kibungo near the border of Tanzania. After a four-hour drive, we arrived to the Nyarubuye church, which had been the site of a terrible massacre with very few survivors.
Before being greeted by a survivor named Ferdinand, we were guided through the ruined rectory of the church that had since become a memorial. We saw large sticks that were used to torture women and girls while raping them. We saw clothing that been collected from the victims scattered in and around the church during the massacre. We saw sharp tools that were used to torture and kill. There were rows of violently destroyed skulls and piles of bones.
We entered the church and sat on the pews to hear Ferdinand’s story. The very first thing he insisted is that we should not feel bad that he is recounting his traumatic experiences to us, but to remember that this is medicine for him. He wanted, first of all, to thank us for coming to hear his story and to urge us to share his story and the history of the genocide with our friends and families.
Similarly, at Bisesero, we listened to a survivor named Damascene share his story. He told us that bad leaders manipulated the population to believe the genocidal ideology of ethnic cleansing. He pointed to us and said solemnly, “It was people who were young like you who they incited to kill.”
With so few survivors, Damascene told us that he was convinced that God saved the few people to be ambassadors tasked with preserving the memory and testimony of the genocide. Accordingly, he urged us to help combat genocide denial and to spread the lessons we learned throughout our trip. “Genocide can happen anywhere,” he said. “So it is essential to learn from one another and to resolve to constantly affirm the message ‘Never Again.'”
A third example of a survivor who valued that we had come to listen was Yannick, whose story you can read here. Yannick described Rwanda as a school where people can come and learn important lessons.
When I asked Yannick whether or not he forgave the killers, he said that hating the killers was killing him and so he made a choice to forgive and has to consciously continue to affirm that decision in order to continue healing. Then he added, “I realized that you can’t put the country together with hatred.”
And so, if you are ever unsure about the value of listening to the stories of genocide from survivors, I encourage you to consider my testimony of hearing multiple survivors insist, “Your listening is medicine for me.”
Photo: Me next to Ferdinand in May 2012 along with our guide and some of the other trip participants