Gisozi Genocide Memorial and Culture Shock

I knew when I accepted my invitation to the Peace Corps, there would be really difficult aspects of my service. In America when most people think of Rwanda, their minds automatically jump to the genocide. Other common problems often associated with Africa in general are the AIDS epidemic, high infant mortality rates, etc. This week several of these tough realities really sunk in and were hard to handle. Even though I anticipated coming across these hardships, actually seeing them in person feels like a kick in the gut.
For example, a Volunteer from the previous training group here that we met recently asked one Trainee how the baby was at her host family because the host mom was pregnant when their group trained here last year. The Trainee was puzzled because her youngest host sibling is four years old, and as it turns out, her host mom lost her baby not long after it was born.
Then on Saturday, a neighborhood child was playing by the road in front of my house when she was struck by a motorcycle. She later died of her injuries. None of us are sure whether the moto driver will ever be held responsible for the accident.
I also found out this week that my youngest host sister was taken in by my host parents after her parents died of AIDS when she was two and her grandparents were murdered during the genocide.
This week we visited the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali as a training class. Nothing can really prepare you for the heartache you will experience at the Memorial . The Memorial is the resting place of over 250,000 people killed in Kigali during the genocide. There are several mass graves on site, and the Peace Corps presented a wreath of orange roses with a banner reading, “We will never forget,” and each trainee laid a rose on the grave.
Next we toured the museum, which was heart wrenching. The displays and videos detailed the history leading up to the genocide and then the events during the genocide. There were many pictures of bodies covering the streets, corpses laying one on top of the other, and survivors of attacks left with terrible wounds. Some brave survivors spoke on camera about their experiences and the family members they lost. It was heart breaking to listen to people remember their last memories with their parents, saying goodbye before they were murdered, watching siblings die.
Upstairs at the museum, there is another exhibit dedicated to the thousands of children who were denied their right to grow up. There were photographs of children posted on the walls with a brief biography provided by their surviving family members. Then their cause of death was listed: grenade thrown into the family’s shower, macheted in mother’s arms, burned alive in a church. I fought back tears the entire time I was in this exhibit because it was too horrible to fathom.
While half the museum is dedicated to memorializing the genocide, the last exhibit seeks to be a teaching tool to prevent future genocides. This section had rooms dedicated to each of the other well-known genocides in recent history: the holocaust, the killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, the murder of the Herero by the Germans in Namibia, the Balkan Crisis, and the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I’ve never seen a memorial that paid tribute to other tragedies before. Gisozi really seeks to be not only a place of remembrance but also of learning.
Our visit was thought provoking in many regards. First, I realized how eerie it is to live in our village where there are so few signs of the genocide. Maybe to those who lived through the genocide, its scars are more visible, but to us outsiders, we can often completely ignore the fact that 1 million people were murdered by their neighbors in every town across the country. No one here talks about the genocide at all, and saying the word genocide is almost a taboo word.
It must be so hard to bottle up those emotions. There must be thousands of cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder here that are undocumented and untreated. After the war, there was never any mental health treatment in Rwanda, so no one has really had any way to deal with their trauma.
Gisozi also placed significant blame on the international community for turning its back on Rwanda. There were UN troops stationed in Rwanda when the conflict began, but Kofi Anon refused to allow them to intervene. Instead the roughly 5,000 troops were sent to evacuate foreigners from the country. It is speculated that the crisis could have been averted had those 5,000 troops intervened early instead of stepping back and watching the genocide unfold. I find it amazing that the international community allowed this to happen after so much awareness had been brought to genocide after previous conflicts. It is also amazing that even after the Rwandan Genocide, other crises are still allowed to occur such as the conflict in Sudan.
On a more positive lesson from Gisozi, I left the memorial with a greater appreciation for how far Rwanda has come in the last 18 years. It is truly miraculous that Rwanda has made the progress it has after such experiencing such total devastation. Every person here has a family member who was affected one way or another by the genocide, and after the war it is estimated two-thirds of Rwandans were refugees in neighboring countries or were otherwise displaced internally. Rwanda is far from perfect, but the fact that there is peace and political stability is pretty amazing.
Looking to the future, Rwanda was just last week elected to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in the UN, which is a huge accomplishment for this tiny, forgotten country. I will be interested to see how Rwanda acts as a council member. I wonder what course of action they would promote should another crisis arise during Rwanda’s term. Taking the lessons learned here, would Rwanda be more proactive and advocate for early international intervention?
I apologize for such a dark and depressing post, but these are the things that have been weighing heavily on my mind the past week. This was my first real taste of culture shock since being here. I know that all the things I mentioned will continue to be issues that plague me throughout my time in country, but I also know that culture shock is a normal response to moving to a new country and is just something that has to be dealt with. Although I will never be able to understand the Genocide, part of being a Volunteer is finding ways to cope with difficulties, which I am slowly doing.
On the horizon for this week, we have our mid-training language test on Friday, in which we sit in a room with a tester and have a conversation for 15 minutes. I’m kind of nervous, but luckily this test is only diagnostic and practice. The real test comes at the end of training, and if you don’t pass, you might not get to swear in as a Volunteer! This weekend being the last weekend of the month is umuganda, or the national work day. I’m not sure what activity we will be participating in yet.

2 thoughts on “Gisozi Genocide Memorial and Culture Shock

  1. I am reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. (It isn’t a good book to read before bedtime.)

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