I am republishing this, as I have reworked it. It is part of a series of articles I will publish over the next few days. Hope you like them.
The blue sky appeared tranquil and paradise quiet. Outside my office I saw the last of the students, from the school where I was the Director, leave for the day. Late, I tried to hurry. It was after 3:30 and I was due at the gym to begin training. My trainer, Michl, did not like me to be late, as, it meant, he had to stay to work with me.
As I stood there, saying good-bye to the last of the students, I heard my cell phone ring. I grabbed it and heard, a deep, resonant African voice saying; “Mom?” “Michl,” I replied, “I am on my way.” Quickly, I reassured him I was hurrying when he interrupted.
“No, Mum, I don’t want you to worry, but I have been arrested. It is nothing and it is a misunderstanding.”
I stood there staring at the phone as if it had grown horns and a tail. “Arrested?” I said, “What happened.” Quickly, he told me he had been part of a general sweep of the country. About three hundred army deserters had been arrested. Recently there had been a number of bomb attacks and this was a preventive measure to prevent it from taking place again.
This was my second year in Rwanda as Director of a small, international school. Just twenty years previously in 1994 the country had experienced genocide. Approximately a million Tutsis had been slaughtered in 100 days. The actual figures are a bit vague. The country was divided into three main groups, the Tutsis, the Twa, and the Hutu. The Belgians established the Tutsis as the ruling class. Traditionally Tutsis were cattle herders. In general they are taller, with a leaner skeletal structure than the Hutu. Considered to be descended from the Ethiopians, the Tutsi were established as superior to the other two groups. But, as often happens with these things, the designations were arbitrary. Those the Belgians thought were “worthy” were arbitrarily selected and given Tutsi identity cards. Intermarriage among the groups for centuries had long ago taken away clear clan distinctions.
In 1935, identity cards were issued legalizing the system of Tutsi supremacy set up by the Belgians. Prior to this time, the three groups intermarried, and interacted with each other without difficulty. After the establishment of identity cards, movement between the groups became difficult. Periodic outbreaks of violence between the Hutu and the Tutsis, at approximately twenty-year intervals, resulted. The Twa are the smallest group, and generally are not involved. They are artisans, being primarily musicians and potters. They are part of the pygmy group, largely ignored, and discriminated against by everyone.
When I first arrived, Rwanda appeared as an unbelievable paradise. Situated near the equator, one might expect the country to be unbearably hot, but this was not the case. Kigali, the capital, was situated approximately a mile high above sea level. There are flowers everywhere, and Kigali is the cleanest city I have every seen in either the Middle East or Africa. It becomes hot in the summer for a few weeks, but the temperatures are never extreme. It has its rainy season, and its dry season. However, for the most part, the temperatures are comfortable. The country has volcanoes in the north where the gorillas lived. In the south are large expanses of land, where you find elephants, zebras, and before the genocide, lions. Lions are being re-introduced, and the safari park is beginning to flourish again. There are tea plantations and one can find chimpanzees and monkeys. In place of oceans and beaches, are large lakes with shorefronts.
Rwanda appears as the perfect land. The current President had decided that Rwanda would flourish and grow. No guns permitted in the country and rebels just seem to disappear. It was, without a doubt, one of the more beautiful countries I had visited, or lived in. As I was to find out the people hardly ever spoke above a low voice. They never yelled or hollered. Public displays of emotion are unheard of and anger is not seen. This made the concept of the genocide all the harder to fathom.
In the years prior to the genocide, there were smear campaigns on the radio. The Tutsis were referred to in Kinyarwanda, as cockroaches, as well other derogatory remarks. It was a strange genocide like no other in history. Machete was the primary weapon of choice, and so it was up close and very personal. Fathers killed wives and children because they were mixed Hutu and Tutsi. People woke up in the morning, and went to kill all day, came home, and ate large, very large amounts of meat, and then, did it all over again the next day. This went on for one hundred days It took large amounts of food to sustain the calories needed for such large, wholesale slaughter. By the end of the genocide, there were no animals left and about one million dead. The most accurate description of the genocide appears in a book t title, “The Day the Devil Walked in Rwanda.”
The President stopped the genocide, and he is determined to never allow it to happen again. He was recently elected for a fourth term as president. In order to do so, the country changed the constitution. Regardless of how it has been done, the fact the he has instituted peace in a worn torn country is to be admired. Rwanda is considered to be one of the safest countries in Africa. Such is the background leading up to the events of that fateful call.
Each year the genocide is remembered for a month. During the major week the television stations stop the broadcasting schedule and only pictures of the victims, and their stories, are shown. Everyone has a story to share and it is heart wrenching. Michl had told me the story of his mother. She had been murdered during the genocide. He did not explain how it happened. He, his brother and his sister had been sent to Uganda prior to this taking place. His father was in the country. When he spoke of his mother, his voice became low.
“If only I could hold her in my arms.” He would say, “and cradle her, and tell her how important she was to me. How much I love her.”
I would reply, “she is with you, and she knows. She is proud of you. I can feel her with you. She is with you, and she is so proud.”