Commemorating the Rwandan genocide

by Katie Carlson (GEI Program Manager, Rwanda)
As a Canadian working and living full-time in this beautiful and inspiring country I have come to call my second home, this April marked the first time I have been in Rwanda during the genocide commemorations. As the date of April 6th approached, the official beginning of the commemorations and the ‘100 days of genocide’ that concludes on July 4th, I was unsure of how to show my respect for those who lost their lives in the genocide, and for my many Rwandan friends who have become like family to me. Every single one of them has had their life irrevocably touched by the atrocities that occurred here in 1994. Being so far removed from that reality growing up halfway around the world, how could I possibly offer any solace or comfort to those who had survived the ordeal and were left to remember the painful past every April? I finally decided that I would participate in the official commemoration ceremony held at Amahoro National Stadium on April 7th. I felt that if I was going to live in this country and make a life here for myself, I needed to honour the reality of so many Rwandans, the very same people who have worked so hard to make this country the safe, clean and welcoming place it is today and which I have, as a result, been lucky enough to now call home.

I have to admit, I was wholly unprepared for what I would experience on that day.

I arrived mid-afternoon and met a friend there who was also hoping to pay her respects in some way, and we took our seats in a half-empty stadium. As the day wore on and we wondered when the actual ceremony would begin, the stadium began to fill up, and candles were passed around to everyone present. As dusk fell, Rwandan youth took to the field in the centre of the stadium and arranged themselves in the shape of the eternal flame of hope, the national symbol of the genocide commemorations. Finally, President Paul Kagame entered the stadium, leading a large crowd of people in the long march that had begun at the Parliament building; Kagame lit the first candle of one of the youth standing on the field, and the flame was passed around. From that point on, an endless succession of singers and speakers took to a large stage to the right of where the President held his seat among the crowd in the stands. Night fell, and the candlelight gave the space a haunted feeling. The mood was somber, and my friend and I started to discuss when we would leave the ceremony; by that time we had already been sitting for nearly six hours. As the ceremony wore on, however, I came to realize the true impact of what we were witnessing, as one by one, people seated around us began to suffer from severe emotional breakdowns, right there in the middle of the crowd. Through the songs about genocide and forgiveness, shrill cries of grief and hysteria broke out in isolated pockets all across the stadium, as those in the stands could hold back their sorrow no longer. Some became incoherent with grief, sobbing uncontrollably and crying out words that reflected a post-traumatic psychological flashback to their lived experiences in 1994. Each one had to be carried from the stadium by a group of 6-7 men. It was beyond heartbreaking to witness and the memory still haunts me to this day.

The trauma and grief of those around me threw into sharp relief the reality of the Rwanda I know and love today. For all of the amazing developments this country is internationally celebrated for, Rwandans remember life before Kagame. The anguish of those 100 days of brutal terror still resonates in the hearts and minds of those who witnessed the horror and lived to remember. It is truly a miracle to me that the country has come so far in such a short time, when I stop for a moment to consider the starting point for many. The same men and women who could not cope with the overwhelming sense of loss, fear and grief that evening and had to be carried away from the stadium that night are the same men and women who live and work alongside me in this country every day, the same men and women who smile at me warmly when I enter their shops or offices, and who demonstrate a limitless kindness and sense of hospitality at every interaction. After some time, when I was able to process what I had witnessed, I realized that my love and deep admiration for this country has grown even stronger from that experience. Rwanda is a place of light, a place of joy, a symbol of resilience, of strength and courage in the face of the most shocking and soul-shredding events one could ever imagine. I am beyond inspired, beyond impressed by this nation, every day when I walk out onto the streets of Kigali, I realize where Rwanda could easily have ended up and the path the country has chosen to walk instead. Starting from a point of total social, political and economic collapse in 1994, the incredible gains made in healthcare, education, infrastructure and political stability in just 19 short years are absolutely astounding, especially when considering the state of some of the country’s closest neighbours in the region and across the continent.

But this did not just happen on its own. The unmistakable sense of national pride that Rwandans display is truly impressive and the powerful leadership and commitment to peace and development shown by President Kagame and his government is the engine that moves this country forward. Every citizen of Rwanda can be immensely proud of their country as one of the greatest development success stories in the world today, indisputably against all conceivable odds. And how is this even possible? Because Rwandans chose love over fear, hope over despair, forgiveness and reconciliation over revenge and violence, and progress and development over corruption and futility. That is precisely why I love Rwanda so much, and why I speak with such passion and conviction when I encourage everyone I meet to visit this fascinating place and witness it firsthand, even if there is only ever one place they will see in their lives outside of their home country, it should be Rwanda – because make no mistake, Rwanda will change your life.