Over the past almost two years in my work at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, I have traveled around the world, and even more importantly, listened to and worked with survivors and activists from all over. As you might have noticed, I've blogged less--both because of time and because much of this is hard to write about--to do full justice to what I want to convey. But in late August in Rwanda, I had an experience that I know my writing skills will fail me on, but at the same time, it was a museum experience that I know I'll think about, in both emotional and intellectual terms, for a long, long time so I wanted to try and share.
I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial with a group of Sites of Conscience members and activists from Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. I had previously visited the Memorial--which is both a museum and the resting place of more than 250,000 Rwandans killed during the genocide of 1994. It's moving and complicated, with a story that reaches much further back than 1994 and providing visitors a distinct sense of the long process of "othering" people and the deadly consequences of such work.
But this time, after touring the exhibits, we sat down in a large room and three people came and sat in front of us. After introductions, the woman stood up and began to tell her story (and many thanks to the Memorial staff who translated into both English and French for all of us). I didn't take notes or photos, because the story itself was so compelling, so my apologies for any mistakes. She begins the story when she was young, and as a Tutsi, she remembers being treated differently in school, and even remembers making clubs in school, but not being told what they were for. And then, of course, the killing begins and her entire family is killed--somehow she manages to survive.
And at this point, she reached down and tightly grasped the hand of the older man sitting next to her, and pulled up him to stand next to her. Standing together, hands clasped, she said, "This is the man who killed my family. We are friends and neighbors. We help each other. I have forgiven him." There was, I think, an audible intake of breath from many of us in the room. And he begins his story. I don't remember many details, but I do remember that he talked about propaganda (not referred to as such) and feeling like it was his responsibility to kill. But then he talked about coming to the point where he felt the need to ask for forgiveness--and his appreciation that it was granted by her.
I've never had an experience like this. Over the past two years at the Coalition I've met many inspiring survivors. But this was the first time I heard directly from a perpetrator. It reinforced for me the complex nature of victims and perpetrators. Perpetrators become victims; victims become perpetrators, and there is often a gray line, particularly when people are exploited by leaders. There are many viewpoints on Rwanda's reconciliation and trial process --some positive, some negative. But this was a personal experience. Both speakers expressed thanks to the government for making their lives better and it's clear that the government has played a strong role in this process.
I'm writing this on a day when much seems broken--that the ability to bridge across difference seems ever harder. But these two people are powerful evidence that reconciliation can happen--and the Kigali Genocide Memorial a powerful example that museums have a role to play in this effort.