How Rwandans Cope With the Horror of 1994

"The genocide is not over," a trauma counselor says. "The survivors are still living with those who committed the crimes."
Pictures of genocide victims in the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

Consolee Nishimwe has an easy giggle and repeatedly uses certain phrases when we talk: “pain,” “painful,” “it wasn’t easy at all,” “I was only 14 years old.” Bearing in mind what she endured in 1994 during Rwanda’s genocide, some of these are possibly understatements. Now 34 and living in New York City, Nishimwe said she can describe the events that brought her here, but not without difficulty.

“In our culture, we don’t talk a lot about experiences,” said Nishimwe, who is a public speaker on the conflict. “It takes a long time to express how we feel. I am trying to show the other survivors that we need to express that pain we have.”

Today, 20 years after an ethnically motivated genocide in which nearly 1 million Rwandans died and up to half a million women were raped, the government forbids certain kinds of public discussion about Hutus and Tutsis. When I visited the country in February, I heard a lot of chatter about something called “Vision 2020,” which is supposed to transform the country into a thriving state marked by good governance and a healthy economy. Construction is booming in the capital, Kigali, and President Paul Kagame has expressed a desire to make his country more like Singapore—a sort of authoritarian democracy. There is a robust effort, in other words, to deliberately “move on” from the tragedy—a determination to never lose control again.

But what Rwandans endured is so extraordinarily horrifying—in terms of how many people experienced or witnessed brutal acts, and the sheer scale and speed of the killing—that the more time I spent in the country and talking to Nishimwe and others, the more I wondered how such a place could possibly go on after what happened in those horrible 100 days from April to July. How did each person survive? How does a whole country thrust into a hideous nightmare of people hacked to death and raped and tortured survive? What is it like to live in a society in which nearly everyone over the age of 20 has memories of such inhumane deeds?

The skulls and bones of Rwandan victims at a memorial inside the church at Ntarama, just outside Kigali. Some 5,000 people, mostly women and children, sought refuge near the church in April 1994, but were massacred by Hutu extremists who used grenades, clubs, and machetes to kill their victims. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Consider that 15 percent of Rwandan children were forced to hide under dead bodies to survive.

Consider that 90 percent of those children believed they would die.

Consider that Nishimwe still won’t wear a skirt because she doesn’t want to show the scars a man etched onto her legs with a sword as he raped her—or the marks the HIV he gave her has left on her body.

Consider that her three brothers—Philbert, 9; Pascal, 7; and Bon-Fils, 18 months—were hacked up and thrown in the septic tank of their burned-down house while Nishimwe was with her mother nearby on May 9, 1994. Her father had already been killed in the first weeks of the genocide, on April 15.

And then consider the response Nishimwe gave when I asked her how she survived: “There are others who really had it worse,” she said.

This phrase, “others had it worse”—I heard it time and again from other Rwandan survivors. It is hard to understand how someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events in a short period can think their experiences are not as bad as what others have gone through.

“We’re going to be breathless in realizing that they have the capacity to come out of atrocity with this very modest sense that others had it worse,” said Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University and a pioneer in the field of trauma therapy. “The Rwandan example is one of endurance.”

But just because Rwandans have endured doesn’t meant they’re living lives free of pain.

***

In Kigali, there is a walkway that herds you through the country’s genocide memorial. But after half an hour of dutifully progressing with my audio guide from room to room, I fled the building. I had come to something called the “Children’s Room,” which features large portraits of toddlers above descriptions of their favorite foods, what they loved in the world, and how they were murdered. Ariane, 4, was a “neat little girl” who loved cake. She was fatally “stabbed in her eyes and head.” Her parents said she enjoyed singing and dancing.

To recoup, I escaped to the bright sun outside and started speaking with some Rwandans who were working as tour guides. As they talked about their family members being dismembered and shot, we looked out over the 14 steps of concrete burial plots that contain the remains of 249,000 people killed in 1994. The memorial is still accepting bones, which are even now being discovered around Kigali and its outskirts.

The mass tombs in which nearly a quarter-million genocide victims' remains are interred at Kigali's genocide memorial. (deepphoto/Flickr)

Part of coming to terms with something as massive as genocide involves coming to terms with the dead, according to experts I spoke with.

“The dead have powerful and legitimate claims on us: to remember, to bear witness, to remain attached,” said Richard Neugebauer, a professor of clinical epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University. “So if Rwandans can resume their lives in the world, many of them must first renegotiate their ties with the deceased.”

Neugebauer has worked on and off in Rwanda since 1997, and is quick to emphasize that he cannot speak for the Rwandans he has met. But his observations as a clinician are devastating. When he first went to the country, he said, “the laws of nature were reversed. The dead were more alive than the living. The dead were everywhere in the sense that you could almost feel them around you, clamoring to be heard. Whereas the people who were literally alive were so bereft or left empty for the moment that it seemed they were dead.” (When he returned to the country in 2010 and 2011, he again sought out some of these people, who seemed younger and revitalized.) It is this strong pull of deceased relatives and friends that “must be overcome to actually live,” he said.

Presented by

Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. Wolfe is a former senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She writes regularly at laurenmwolfe.com.

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