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Rwanda wasn't supposed to be real. I had studied the 1994 genocide in Rwanda fervently in the hope of discovering whether societal recovery was possible. The scenario in Rwanda seemed to be the ultimate test of human resilience. But thinking about a phenomenon is not the same as picturing it. May be it is too far away conceptually to be tangible. Ultimately, all of my background knowledge could not have adequately prepared me for the complexity of the situation on the ground.
My first impression of Rwanda is that it looks like any other place I have ever been. The drive into Kigali overwhelms me; it is a bustling capital city in every sense. Having lived in a small town in Tanzania for a while, I am startled. I see a streetlight and realize I have not seen one in three months. There are French restaurants, a movie theater, and excellent roads. And there are so many people. The high population density of Rwanda is something that I have read about, yet have trouble grasping. I expected to see a decimated society. But even outside Kigali , navigating the winding roads of rural Rwanda , there are people everywhere-farming, riding bikes, loitering. The number of children under the age of eight is particularly remarkable to me. I wonder if they are products of rape, or orphans. Or is there just a natural desire to replenish society after such devastation? Staring at these children, there is something missing. Usually when you smile at children, they smile back. These do not, not easily. I am curious [about] how much they know about their past.
As days pass, my preconceptions continue to be invalidated. Initially, I was intellectually attracted to the Rwandan genocide precisely because it seemed straightforward, with identifiable "good guys" and "bad guys". The Tutsis, being the victims and the victors, were obviously the "good guys". The current Tutsi-dominated regime faces unprecedented challenges in rebuilding a shattered society, and is granted moral authority and wide latitude in doing so. The Hutus, having followed their leaders to bloody, unfathomable extremes, were obviously the "bad guys". While hundreds of thousands of perpetrators are incarcerated, the remainder of the population is encouraged to reconcile. However, now I find there is more to the story; for the first time, I am exposed to the non-politically correct edition.
When Rwandans talk about the past, they generally refer to "the war" rather than "the genocide," because the events of 1994 are not isolated in their minds. A myriad of unspoken, complicated nuances of discourse has emerged to avoid assumptions. For example, speaking to someone in English shows you think they are Tutsi, raised in Uganda , and affiliated with the current government. Likewise, the innocent question "Where are you from?" cannot be answered without alluding to the individual's role in the genocide. If the answer is anywhere in Rwanda , it raises the question of how he or she survived. The most common nuance of discourse is silence, but the sheer silence of the majority speaks volumes.
The critical thinker in me begins to realize the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the extreme versions. The heralded current regime appears not to be as angelic as depicted. Evidence has surfaced that its armed forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the civil war and ensuing refugee crisis. To this day, basic human rights are routinely abused and independent thought stifled. Political opponents, labeled "divisionists," are deprived of due process; international observers question the fairness of elections; and eight years after extremist radio incited a population to genocide, there is still only one radio station in the country. Clearly the current government is the "good guy" relative to the extremists who presided over genocide. However, the fact that the regime can still be so "bad" naturally lends credence to its opponents. Both sides have their share of saints and demons, and the vast majority of the population cannot afford the luxury of "sides", as it struggles for survival. Now I can appreciate why there has been nohistory curriculum taught in the nation's schools for the last decade.
Joseph, my interpreter here, is one of many Rwandan victims. He is a friend of a friend and a recent law graduate from the National University , Joseph is also a genocide survivor, one of the few Tutsis I met who was actually in Rwanda in 1994. His reserve and cautious nature, though understandable, makes me uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I am impressed by Joseph. He speaks freely and criticizes the status quo, both rare practices in Rwanda . He does so not with passion or zeal, but with a sincere thoughtfulness that is compelling. He refuses to join the survivors' organizations in Rwanda because, after suffering discrimination for so many years, he vows never to inflict it on anyone else. Although I find myself wondering why there cannot be more Josephs in Rwanda , may be it is for the best. For all his ideals and compassion, Joseph has no hope. He fears an impending return to conflict, seeks to escape his people's cyclical fate, and refuses to expose any future children to such a society.
Now that Rwanda is real to me, I consider Joseph's pessimism. I aspire to find the best way forward, and yet, like him, I wonder if there is any hope. I do not expect law school to make everything simple again, but I do seek to gain tools and perspective with which to respond to such pessimism. Joseph is a "good guy," and he wants out. That does not bode well for Rwanda .