The Resilience of Hope

I passed the cream-coloured boundary wall the next morning, its smooth surface was now pock-marked with a spray of holes, each with an increasing space from the next, a pattern as if chiselled by a modern artist, but these made by the shrapnel of hate not art. A dozen policemen, each in a black uniform and carrying an automatic weapon, checked bags and checked the undersides of cars with rods with mirrors on them.

(Continued from last week’s post A Festering Malice: the Grenade Attack.)

My colleagues were all in the main building, their faces solemn, not the usual perfect, Colgate smiles I was so used to. Nervous energy was in the air and chatter increased in volume; an old, haunting fear had returned.

Freddy stood up and asked for us to be calm and brave. “Don’t worry, they will kill me before they kill you,” he said. I was unsure of whom he meant by ‘they’. He made a speech, Ignace was mourned and Jeff who had driven the injured men to hospital, was praised for his untiring action. The only good news that morning was that the second police officer, Jacques, was recovering.

James Smith the CEO of the Aegis Trust said they would provide Ignace’s widow and his three children with financial assistance. Soon questions and comments started to bubble up spontaneously.

“We are tour guides and we tell people Rwanda has learnt from the past. How do we tell this beautiful lie now?”
“What happened last night was no surprise. This is a fight, a fight against a hateful ideology – it will take years.”
“We already know there has been a steady stream of attacks on genocide survivors, last night was a manifestation of what we already know.”

Honore’s words were the most passionate – “I don’t want to be brave,” he said with big eyes. “I know what it looks like when someone’s head falls off their shoulders. I don’t want to be brave. I want to be secure.”

***

‘A Hateful Ideology’

Who could have done such a thing?

For many years after the 1994 genocide, it was an open secret that there were people called ‘Negationists’ who denied the genocide ever happened. For over a decade, there was no single narrative of the genocide in Rwanda. Schools’ textbooks were blank; it was too sensitive, too raw to even mention.  But silence rarely solves anything, and such a void gave space for revisionist, false histories. These maintained that the number of deaths had been overstated,  or that a genocide never took place. These lies, shrouded in pseudo-intellectual beliefs went further – that the Tutsis had no right to the land of Rwanda and, the most dangerous belief of all, the one that instilled fear in to the majority Hutus, was that the Tutsis had a cunning plan to kill the Hutus. Echoes of Nuremburg.

After 1994, genocide ideology became outlawed, but despite commissions and investigations, such toxic thoughts swirl on in undercurrents that sometimes manifest in cases of violence. A foreigner like me in Rwanda will never be party to the private fireside chats or loose bar talks where such comments may air themselves.

In this Rwanda is not alone, bigotry is not the monopoly of any group of people – it’s  a failing of the human condition, not just the Rwandan one. The after-tremors of the genocide still rumble on. Even today, Rwanda is not out of the woods yet.

Security at the centre was increased. Visitors were scanned unfortunately, we observed, by hand-held metal detectors, which with their black handles and flat metal wand resembled machetes. But what could we do in that situation? It brought us security.

We prepared a media release, the story broke and a BBC radio reporter interviewed James who, with his compassionate and eloquent manner, explained such acts reinforced the need to learn and remember the past. An inspiring man who gave up his career as a doctor, James set up the UK’s first Holocaust Museum and via the Aegis Trust has saved many more lives in his new vocation. (In one example, he saved thousands of lives in Darfur – he had equipped a refugee camp with a satellite phone and with minutes left before a militia attack, James alerted the authorities and the international media, and the militia turned their jeeps around. )

As James spoke, through the window, down the long road in the valley of Gisozi, I could see a sea of visitors, like ant-trails spilling down spurs of distant hills, from roads and bridges. They filed solemnly through the gates and found places to sit, anywhere, on steps, on the edges of the fountain, on flower borders and on the stony gravel of the car park. And there they just sat and mourned in silence. It was a spontaneous show of solidarity that showed their courage and the resilience of hope. It seemed to wash away the gloom that had wracked our minds that morning. 2,000 people came that day in the space of two hours; it was one of the most moving, goose-bumping experiences of my life to even sit next to them. It was as if they were saying, if you touch one of us you touch us all; you cannot kill us twice.

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***

My colleagues, most of them survivors of 1994, seemed to settle right back in to work much quicker than me, they started their guided tours and work with a renewed vigour – I suppose they had seen too much in their young lives to be worried. In contrast, I felt vulnerable for some days – any loud sound in the office; a builder’s hammer or the thrash of a lorry dumping its load would quicken my pulse. It was strange, we Londoners tend to be quite aware of security risks. A lone package on a bus gets nervy glances; our train announcements ask us to report anything suspicious (quite what that means I am not sure). But this felt more immediate, that slight tingle in the spine, the awareness of a subtle hidden shadow close by in our midst.

The significance of the work of the Genocide Memorial, became so much sharper in my mind. It wasn’t just about commemoration or remembrance, but for creating a better future. Every word and artefact in its museum, took on a heightened gravitas, with a incredibly relevant narrative, after the grenade attack. That evening in the peaceful Forest of Remembrance, at the bottom of the valley, it was as if the evening breeze seemed to whisper that vital message through their leaves and branches.

***

This is part of a serialised blog post called Letters from the Heart of Africa. Background and a table of contents can be found here

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