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Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Summary Reflections

(All of Fleet’s daily blog entries from the retreat are on this site)

The western hemisphere air travel mess that resulted from the Icelandic volcano eruption and ash cloud unexpectedly afforded us the opportunity to remain in Rwanda for an indefinite stay following the Bearing Witness Retreat, allowing us to do considerable follow-up work with our retreat partners and potential new partners here in Rwanda. On the morning following the retreat, our staff including Dora and Issa from Memos spent several hours in a deep listening council with each other followed by several more hours of retreat debrief.

During the following days, our core team had very productive meetings with Javier Forongo, Executive Secretary (director) of IBUKA, the main umbrella NGO for genocide survivor organizations throughout Rwanda; Ildephonse Karengera, Director of Memory and Genocide Prevention at the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide; Frank Maier, Joint Chief of Mission at the German Embassy, Immaculee Mukankubito, Second Deputy Director at the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace; Senator Joseph Kagabo, a historian and member of the upper house of parliament; and Rev. John Ngabo, director of the Evangelical Prison Fellowship; and Dr. Jean Baptiste Habyalimana, a heart surgeon who is also the Executive Secretary (director) of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Our key partner and dear friend Issa Higiro has kept us busy everyday with a steady round of meetings, building our Bearing Witness Retreat coalition here and continuing to listen for how we can be most useful here in Rwanda.

Right now five initiatives are emerging

The first is expanding next year’s retreat to include more Rwandan partner organizations and more international partners and participants.

The second is to address the need for more Rwandan trauma counselors and legal advocates to work with survivors, as well as former prisoners, throughout Rwanda and the need for more trauma counseling and legal advocacy training for these volunteers. Our idea at this point is to organize a two or three day training for trauma counselors and legal advocates next year, likely just before the bearing witness retreat.

Third, there is still a great need to document the testimony and stories of the survivors, as well as former prisoners, and this is urgent as survivors are dying and their stories with them. We had a long discussion about this at lunch today with our partner Freddy Mutanguha, a survivor himself, and director of the National Museum of Rwanda, which includes the Kigali Memorial Center and most of the major genocide memorial sites in the country, as well as a museum of history and culture.

Fourth, we have connected with and would like to support two youth organizations, the Gisimba orphanage, founded and directed by a national hero of Rwanda who rescued over 400 peopled during the genocide, hiding them in the rafters of the orphanage, and the Kimisagara Youth Center, also known as Maison des Jeunes. Both of these organizations are in great need of materials, from soccer balls, to books, to band equipment to computers.

Tomorrow we will be meeting with the Director of Maison des Jeunes and with Ely Sagitto, Director of Educational Programs at the United States Embassy in Kigali. We will also be meeting with Freddy Mutanguha again at the Kigali Memorial Center to look at their archival system for survivor testimony and documentation. We may also meet with the national coordinator of the TIG prison camps.


My overall experience here in Rwanda has been one of deep humility, recognizing that despite the horror and deep sorrow I have personally experienced here bearing witness to the realities of the 1994 genocide and murder of over one million Tutsis, I can never even begin to imagine what the victims and survivors experienced then or even really understand what the survivors are still dealing with today. All I can say is the horrors were unspeakable and beyond imagination and that resultant the trauma of the people is a deep as trauma can be.

Throughout the retreat I found myself in an almost unbearably emotionally raw state. Every time I brought my attention to my heart or body, I was at the point of sobbing; and the tears flowed frequently. Having lost my wife and the love of my life just 18 months ago, I am only to familiar with this kind of pain have sobbed and sobbed and shed oceans of tears in my grieving Denise. So during the retreat I often wasn’t sure where the pain was coming from. In the end, I feel I was connecting with the sorrow and grief of the Rwandan people, my own grief and the universal, collective grief of humanity, which knows no bounds. Even now, all I need to do is bring my attention to my heart and the pain and tears are right there.

I also feel a deep sense of responsibility and accountability as a U.S. citizen and member of the international community for our utter failure here in Rwanda 16 years ago to stop a genocide we knew was happening and clearly could have stopped. This fact has been acknowledged the U.N. and most of the leading western powers. For me this fuels a passionate commitment to show up now that I have made a connection with our Rwandan sisters and brothers and to keep showing up as a friend and ally of all Rwandans. Unfortunately, the western powers are still dragging their feet in cooperating with the arrest of genocide perpetrators living freely outside of Rwanda and actively sow seeds of divisiveness through their misinformation campaign about Rwanda.

The other dominant feeling I have experience here in Rwanda has been one of profound inspiration and hope. During the past 16 years since the Tutsi genocide, the Rwandan people have courageously rebuilt their nation, while living side by side as victims, survivors, perpetrators and rescuers.

We have also learned the importance of getting the facts straight. Before coming to Rwanda we received a series of emails from someone warning us of an extremely repressive regime and lack of political freedom and human rights here in Rwanda. Having been here for over three weeks now, my initial assessment is that this could not be further from the truth. The fact is that there are many genocide perpetrators still living free in Europe and the U.S. where they spread just misinformation and perpetuate the genocide ideology and quest for power under the guise of being a legitimate political opposition. We have experienced a nation where people are addressing very tough and controversial issues openly and proactively. We have felt completely safe and welcomed wherever we have gone. The Rwandan people and government lead the world in empowering women with over 56 percent of parliamentary seats held by women. We have also seen top government officials being arrested and held accountable for corruption and self-dealing, something we rarely if ever see in my own country. Of course, Rwanda is not perfect and has a long way to go; but we have experienced the Rwanda as a country of resilient people working hard to overcome deep trauma and years of learned divisiveness.

What is also very clear based on the evidence, is that the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis was just that … genocide, a concerted attempt to wipe out a people with a ‘final solution” that had been planned from as early as 1959. This was not ethnic strife as some have tried to portray it, and there was no “double genocide,” as some would have us believe. Yes, there was ethnic strife and killings on both sides in the past in Rwanda and surrounding countries; however, this ethnic strife was very different from the well planned and methodically carried out attempt to exterminate the Tutsis in Rwanda.

The roots of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda are complex and largely rooted in the divide and conquer tactics of the colonial powers that dominated Rwanda … the Germans, Belgians and French, especially the Belgians. We have had deep discussions with many Rwandan friends and leaders here trying to understand the nature of the Tutsi – Hutu distinction and conflict. Historians argue that the Tutsi – Hutu distinction is not in fact an ethnic or tribal identity and that the Tutsis and Hutus are in fact the same people. Rather, they argue, it is more of a social construct and social class distinction that was manipulated by the Belgians, first elevating the Tutsis to dominance and then leaving the Hutus in power at independence. Clearly there is a complex history here that I am personally just beginning to explore.

For me the real question is that how is it that as a human race we are still capable of genocide and capable of turning away in the face of genocide. We were very encouraged to hear from Ildephonse Karengera, Director of Memory and Genocide Prevention at the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide, that the mission of this Rwandan governmental agency is not just to fight against genocide ideology and to prevent genocide here in Rwanda, but to fight against and prevent genocide everywhere in the world. He emphatically stated that genocide anywhere harms all human beings, clearly recognizing the interconnectedness of life that is core to our Peacemaker Institute guiding principles.

While there is still great danger that the genocide ideology and actual genocide could surface again here in Rwanda or in surrounding countries like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I believe the Rwandan people are going to prevail in there heroic efforts to rebuild a unified nations out of the ashes of genocide. If this is the case, I believe Rwanda can become a beacon of healing and peace for the rest of the world and that peacemakers will come to Rwanda in the future to learn the arts of healing, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

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