Kwibuka in time of Covid-19: Genocide memories and the triumph of humanity

I don’t know… I think we have been programmed to distrust or hate our leaders. We are more accustomed to the narrative of bad governance, incompetence and corruption whenever the projector is put on African leaders. It is not entirely false. As a genocide survivor, I have witnessed and survived the worst government policy anywhere in the world: extermination of a group of a country’s population.

In addition, whenever governments and leaders do what is right, we tend to say “it is normal. It is what they are supposed to do”. To appreciate a government’s effectiveness and the country’s progress is often considered gloating vis-à-vis other countries, or it is denigrated as a form of sycophancy or government paid PR.

In my view, it is a bad version of cynicism to systematically consider that your government never shows up. It is even a deplorable form of narcissism if you believe your mind has to be oblivious to the good in order to be a critic of the government or to hold leaders accountable.

Why can’t we be thankful in good fortunes and constructively critical where there is a need to correct the wrongs? Surely, we should never compare ourselves with fellow African countries with the intention of putting them down. It is un-African. It is also un-African to exploit a neighbor’s misfortunes in order to paint yourself as better or superior. But we should be able to positively contrast our own past and the present, appreciate the progress achieved, acknowledge sacrifices made, applaud noble or brave accomplishments, and pay homage to patriots and heroes.

Without such sense of a historical trajectory comprising a recognition of patriotic sacrifices made by known and unknown sons and daughters of a country, it is difficult to have anything to build on connections between people, to encourage citizens to transform their country for the better and to call them to help compatriots.

While many countries pride themselves of, or prioritize, enjoying freedoms and trusting everyone to exercise their rights responsibly, Rwandans have chosen to respond to their painful past by meditating on the implications of each citizen’s action, and have found ways to sanction reckless behaviors, without defeating the purpose of nation building, making connections between Rwandans.

Understandably, the Covid-19 crisis can’t be compared to the genocide against the Tutsi. However, to some people, especially genocide survivors, there are aspects that can be paralleled, and therein is an inspiring convergence of memories of the genocide, and of emotions stimulated by conditions of the confinement.

“There are things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”

April 7, 1994, marked the genocidal government’s launch of the extermination of the Tutsi in Rwanda; 26 years ago, the country descended into an apocalyptic lockdown where even doctors and priests, nurses and nuns, became agents of death.

On the morning of April 7, 1994, the Radio broadcasted government directives to remain home; similarly, in March 2020 a week before the 26th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi, similar directives were put in place. The two similar directives of 26 years apart were juxtaposed in the minds of Rwandans like myself.

Both Aprils, 1994 and 2020, the directive called on everybody to remain home; in both cases, public gatherings were disallowed, except that in April 1994 officials convened genocide planning meetings, and when killers visited homes of their Tutsi neighbours, doors were kicked ajar, as they went in to kill, loot and set the houses on fire.

Conversely, in April 2020, government officials and medical professionals hurried to control the spread of covid-19, while village leaders organized volunteers to collect donations of food stuff and distribute them to the most vulnerable in the community. A friendly knock on the door of homes of elders or of the most vulnerable neighbors signaled the delivery of food stuff.

In 1994, soldiers, police and Interahamwe guarded roadblocks spread all over the country which were literally killing sites. IDs were verified to identify Tutsi who were executed on the spot. In 1994, stadiums served as slaughter camps.

On the contrary, during the Covid-19 lockdown, the police roadblocks aimed to enforce health measures designed to control the spread of the killer virus, and they served as temperature scanning checkpoints. People caught in breach of rules of the confinement were taken to sports stadiums where they got to meditate about the implications of their actions.

In April 1994, Tutsi ran for their lives and many found refuge in churches; unfortunately, the killers created hell in those churches by turning them into mass graves. After the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, survivors returned to visit ruins of churches and mass graves steaming with odor of death, in search of their parents, spouses and children in vain.

However, in April 2020 churches and mosques were closed down to prevent covid-19 contamination, as a measure to defeat a life-threatening enemy. Religious leaders complied with the lockdown with confidence and eagerness to see the return to normal, so that they can resume services as soon as possible.

In 1994, journalists on the Radio RTLM read names of Tutsi killed, and invited listeners to celebrate that version of Rwanda turned upside down. Killers chanted and enjoyed the hunt down of Tutsi; the wounded Tutsi wailed in the midst of the day begging for life, and cried in dark during the tortuous April 1994 nights praying that dawn wouldn’t come.

On the contrary, in April 2020 as Rwandans they commemorated, they also impatiently awaited in their homes for evening news on TV and Radios, while others checked their social media platforms for updates of the Ministry of Health on new Covid-19 confirmed cases; when the first recovery case was announced, the entire nation jubilated. Whenever updates of the Ministry of Health reported no Covid-19 fatality, shouts of gratitude resonated throughout the country in the peaceful nights of the confinement and remembrance.

In April 1994, expatriates were evacuated from Rwanda including the UN Peacekeepers; Tutsis begged to be protected or evacuated in vain. Inversely, in April 2020, the Government of Rwanda organized flights to repatriate Rwandans from abroad, while many foreigners declined their countries’ offer to evacuate them because they felt safe in Rwanda.

Twenty-six years ago, Rwanda was considered a failed state, as everything seemed lost. If anything, the solidarity of Rwandans during “Kwibuka” and their trust in the effectiveness of their leaders’ strategies to address Covid-19, should assure the doubting that Rwanda’s commitment to what is essential is unwavering.

Despite the painful memories, Rwanda is a testimony that with a focused leadership, and people’s heart in the right place, hate can be reversed, and a nation can learn to re-imagine life where everybody is their brother and sister’s keeper.

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