RWANDA: Genocide survivors ready to forgive but not to forget

Friday, September 21, 2007

On their way to an afternoon excursion to Lake Gwesero, outside the Rwandan capital, Kigali, members of the Nshuti social club, set up just three months ago, sing raucous local songs.

They merrily tease those whose voices fail to impress and shout out requests for their favourite songs. As they approach the lake, the clamour inside the cramped bus quietens as the members come face to face with a stark reminder of Rwanda’s troubled history.

A sign by the side of the road identifies this area as the only place in Rwanda where no one was murdered during the nation’s 1994 genocide, which pitted ethnic Hutus against ethnic Tutsis.

According to government estimates, some 800,000 people lost their lives, often brutally, in 100 days of frenzied killing, mostly by Hutu extremist militias known as Interahamwe, but also by ordinary Rwandans including women and children.

Following the genocide, Rwandans had to learn how to forgive and overcome a history of division along ethnic lines. Many forgave by placing blame not on individuals, but on the previous Hutu-dominated administration.

"In past years, the government taught us to hate one another, to kill one another," club president Mustafa Uwihorewe told IRIN. "Now, they are trying to educate us. We are one people. We were fighting for nothing."

The Nshuti social club, whose members gather weekly to play sports and work on small development projects together, is evidence of some changes in Rwandan society years after the genocide. Members include both ethnic Hutus and Tutsis, though, like many Rwandans, they do not openly identify themselves by ethnicity any more.

Sensitive issues

Some members of the club identify themselves as genocide survivors; some do not say at all what they were doing during the genocide. Very few will talk of specific memories from 1994.

"Everybody is educated about brotherhood now," Uwihorewe said. "Nobody can tell who is Hutu or Tutsi. The former regime was profiting from that division."

Today, Rwandan society is trying combat divisiveness. There are education initiatives, clubs for dialogue and a court system known as 'gacaca' set up to prosecute some of those involved in the genocide.

On a less formal level, there are organisations like Nshuti, which believe having fun is a great way to overcome a long history of mistrust. Survivors like Josephine Uzayisengo promote another way forward - intermarriage.

"Nowadays people are intermarrying and producing children with no tribe," she Said. "This is what we have to do to prevent what happened, from happening again."

Intermarriage always occurred in Rwandan society, but it did not have the effect of producing a united people. Instead, children of an intermarried couple took on the mantle of a single tribe.

The issue is an extremely sensitive one which the media cannot easily explore in a direct way. There is still a deep suspicion of the media following the genocide - where the media played an active role. Such sensitive issues can really only be broached - and are - in fictional settings such as soap operas, where comedy can make the topic more palatable.

Albert Nzamukwereka, programme director and grassroots coordinator of La Benevolencia, an international NGO that produces a soap opera called Musekeweya - meaning Sunset in Kinyarwanda - said because of past problems, it was important for people to feel like Rwandans.

"We have developed a story line about two villages which represent the different thnic groups. We do not say it specifically in the soap, but from the story line, everyone can guess," he explained.

He added. "One of the main stories is a love story between a girl and a boy - two families from different villages. That story is very popular. We think when those two get married it will be a national wedding. Every week we get thousands of letters from people who love the soap."

Forgiveness or exhaustion?

However, independent observers say all is not as rosy as it may seem.

Some in Kigali say Rwandans’ forgiveness for what happened during the genocide is rooted more in exhaustion following decades of war, than any real understanding.

In April 2007 media advocacy group Reporters without Borders condemned the one-year prison sentence given to a newspaper journalist who wrote an article suggesting that ethnic tensions still exist. Rwandan courts accused her of "creating division".

Indeed, say many, it is simply better not to mention ethnicity at all.

Nshuti club members say neighbouring nations including Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are still troubled by ethnic friction, can learn from Rwanda. "They could come here and learn from us," says Uzayisengo.

Though Rwandans say they do not wish to be known as a nation scarred by tragedy, they also believe that what happened must be remembered, in order to prevent it from happening again.

"How can we forget what happened to our brothers and sisters during the genocide?" asks Consolee Katsenjerwa who lost most of her family. "We have to forgive, but we cannot forget."

Source: IRIN