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Death then, life now: ‘We are all Rwandans’


The classroom in Nyange Secondary School where 6 students were murdered 3 years after the genocide. journeysforthesoul.wordpress.com under a Creative Commons Licence

‘I’ve been in the church choir since 1970. There are only three or four people remaining from that time. In 1996 it was difficult to start singing again. It took courage. The choir means that Rwanda is unity. We don’t think about anything else apart from God and the sound we’re making.’  Jean Marie Vianney, as told to photojournalist Brendan Bannon.

‘I always tell my friends being in Rwanda is like pitching your tent in the land of hope.’ Clarisse Iribagiza, as told to photographer Andrew Esiebo.

‘How do you see Rwanda?’ is the question posed to visitors at the start of a photography exhibition at King’s College London to mark 20 years since the country’s genocide.

I thought back to 1994, when I was 7 years old. And to the little I have learned about the genocide since: the film Hotel Rwanda; Shake Hands with the Devil – the autobiographical account by Romeo Dallaire, then UN commander of the Rwanda mission; and the conference I attended as a student on the stages of genocide. These things had shaped my impression of the small East African country.

Seven-year-olds in Rwanda who happened to be Tutsis, or in families considered Tutsi ‘sympathizers’, were either victims or survivors of genocide in 1994. And Hutu children bore witness to or were involved in immense hatred. No life was left untouched: 800,000 men, women and children were mercilessly killed by génocidaires in just 100 days. A crime against humanity that, people say, must never be allowed to happen again. Yet the international community stood by, only letting the UN intervene when it was too late.

A small part of the exhibition is devoted to the magazine covers and famous photographs taken by international journalists who have since visited Rwanda to seek out the reminders and the remains of the genocide, sharing them to atone slightly for the world’s collective guilt.

But the exhibition does not dwell on death; it delicately interweaves stories of everyday life – present-day issues of poverty and inequality, and the refugees from neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – while also honouring the memories and stories of the past.

The visitor is encouraged to sample the diversity and complexity of Rwanda through the many and varied photographs on display. Many Rwandans have returned to rebuild their country in recent years, even those who have been in exile all their lives, as captured by Nigerian photographer and workshop facilitator Andrew Esiebo in his project Returnees. And who knew Rwanda’s national symbol was a cow? Many rural people have benefited enormously from the government’s ‘One Cow per Family’ programme. A series on barbershops illustrates the country’s flamboyant side; street photography depicts the dangers of car crashes and shows young people sleeping rough. The country is portrayed through the eyes of Rwandan photographers – it is their Rwanda.

One room is devoted to the victims and survivors of the genocide and a genocidal crime that happened three years later, in 1997. In Nyange Secondary School on the evening of 18 March, 5th and 6th grade students were studying in two classrooms. Hutu insurgents from a neighbouring DRC refugee camp entered the school, asking students to identify who in the class were Tutsis. The children replied: ‘Twese Turi abanyarwanda’ (We are all Rwandans). The génocidaires then killed 6 students and a night-watchman, and injured 20 others. The courage that these children displayed that night, long after the genocide was meant to have ended, is a sobering reminder that the decades that led to it left wounds that will take decades to even partially heal.

In honouring the memories of almost a million Rwandans, the shame of the international community must not be buried. As New Statesman’s Musa Okwonga writes: ‘It is impossible to imagine a scenario in Western Europe where, as was the case in Rwanda, the UN would go to 69 countries who had previously pledged military assistance and come away without a single soldier. Not one.’

Compare this with how Britain and the US defied public opinion (and the discerning voices of many politicians and most Iraqis) to invade Iraq in 2003. And the ongoing drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Technology has facilitated a degree of separation from the act of killing, but the murder of innocent people is as unlawful now as it was when the génocidaires attacked with their machetes in 1994. It is never too late to learn from the mistakes of the past. But those we are making now are a little harder to justify while lighting candles for Rwanda’s dead.

Rwanda in photographs: death then, life now runs until 30 April 2014. Some of the images can also be seen on the Arts and Humanities Research Council website.

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