(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, April 19, 2014)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ Forgive and forget is how the old saying goes, but you and I both know that it’s not worth spit, that we’ll never forget certain crimes committed against us, maybe even imagined crimes like those in a recent dream of mine.
It was a nightmare with Africans carrying machetes. I looked out my window. The university grounds where I live was crawling with the killers.
“We won’t kill anyone,” one said. He looked at me through a window of a bedroom where my 10-year-old daughter lay sleeping. “We’ll just cut your arm off.”
I grabbed my daughter – we were the only ones home – and hid her in a closet. Locked it. My heart pounded. My mind raced. The killers swarmed, then got in. I blacked-out. Finally, I awoke, bewildered.
At the time of the dream I hadn’t read a word about what has since been filling papers around the world, the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide. But the next day I came across a story about two Rwandans: Alice Mukarurinda and Emmanuel Ndayisaba.
There’s Alice’s picture. She’s holding one arm up, an arm with no hand. Emmanuel had cut it off and hacked her head and left her for dead in a swamp. Emmanuel also killed Alice’s daughter.
This, in April 1994, the start of 100 days of horror when about one million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were killed, usually by machete, by fellow Rwandans, Hutus. Mangled bodies were left on roads and in septic tanks and bloody rivers, if not Lake Victoria where they later washed up, bloated, on Uganda’s shores.
Maybe this is why I dreamt what I did. Ghosts, apparently even for a quiet Canadian, a Hamiltonian who had nothing to do with any of it, can linger. And what can you do but hide?
Alice did something else. She forgave.
She didn’t forget. No, every time she raises her arm she can’t forget. But she forgave so much that she and Emmanuel are now neighbours working for the same organization that builds simple brick houses for genocide survivors.
“The Bible says you should forgive and also be forgiven,” Alice told the media matter-of-factly. “Forgiveness is possible. It’s common here. Guilt is heavy.”
So heavy that after Emmanuel finished a six-year jail term – he had killed at least 16 people – he sought forgiveness from his victims’ families.
“The first family I killed, I felt bad,” he explained. “Then I got used to it.”
This is what happens when that old lie, the one that says some people are less human than others, is pounded into your head. Kill, kill, even your family. Kill or be killed.
Then, eventually, this strange forgiveness. Not trite. Not glib. Not obtuse to the ways of this world. But strange, nonetheless.
Yes, if someone ever came to my African home and murdered my daughter, I’m not sure I’d have the intestinal fortitude to live, let alone forgive.
But this is the story of Rwanda, a place of murderers and survivors living beside each other.
In this, somehow, Rwanda is us. And through this, Rwanda has also somehow found some dignity and unity and prosperity.
After the genocide tore apart Rwanda’s entire social fabric, most observers in 1994 predicted complete state failure. Instead, most of two million Rwandan refugees, mostly Hutus, have repatriated back into Rwanda’s population of 11 million.
Nine in 10 Rwandans say they feel reunification has been successful. In healthcare and education and infrastructure, the country is now among Africa’s better developed nations. In 20 years, life expectancy has almost doubled to 65 years.
And Rwanda’s government, while hardly perfect, is among Africa’s least corrupt, meaning western aid has helped more than hurt.
Rwanda is still working at this, keeping people with painful differences together, keeping people remembering. Genocide museums dot its landscape. Some sites – often churches – have skulls and bones of thousands piled high to remind visitors of humankind’s darker side. Help, in fact, is now needed to preserve such remnants for future generations.
While remembering, many Rwandans have also imagined something brighter, something for their children, something unexpected.
Now, with some measure of success, it’s come to pass. And it’s rather beautiful.