We are all just Rwandans

I recently returned from a trip to Kibeho, Rwanda. It was, in fact, the third time I had been there since 2007.  I feel at home in Rwanda, and my heart is at peace—there are literally no worldly things to worry about, as relatively few “things of the world” exist there.

When a person hears the word “Rwanda,” another word almost always pops out of their mouth: “Genocide.” There’s no getting around that. The Rwandan genocide, which happened in 1994, was like hell on earth. Neighbors began killing neighbors, friends killed friends, children killed parents, and pastors killed their parishioners. Bodies littered the streets and homes. The world watched in horror, but did relatively nothing to stop it.
Now, however, when I hear the word “Rwanda,” my mind is filled with beautiful images. I see happy children surrounding me.  They stare at me, wide-eyed and smiling, as I film them. They call me Mazungu, a word that can be translated as “aimless traveler,” but is used by Rwandans as a somewhat affectionate term for a white man. I flip over the camera’s viewfinder and let the children see themselves. Screams of delight ring out.  Most of these children have never seen themselves; there are no mirrors, let alone cameras, in their mud huts and open-air schools.

As difficult as it is for outsiders to believe, Rwanda is no longer a place of murder and carnage; amid the bones of a million victims, it’s now a place of healing and forgiveness. And, yes, bones are everywhere. Shards and fragments of human bones can be seen whenever a garden is freshly-tilled, peeking out of the dirt as if eager to tell their stories. The more intact bones, however, are displayed like works of art in the many genocide memorials that dot the country, such as the one at Nyamata, near the capitol, Kigali. Leg and arm bones, for example, are stacked like firewood in one section of the memorial’s crypt.  The rib bones are heaped in a neat pile in another section.  Skulls are arranged side-by-side on a shelf like bowling balls.  Most difficult to look at, however, are the crude indentations on many of the bones—scars that indicate the vulgarity of the most popular weapon during the genocide, the machete.

This may all sound horrible, but there’s a purpose behind these memorials.  Despite these constant reminders of what happened in 1994—or perhaps because of them—most Rwandans are determined to shed the tribal identities that helped foment the war and, instead, focus on peace and reconciliation.

“We are no longer Tutsis and Hutus,” I was told by a man who lost his wife and children in the genocide. “We are all just Rwandans now.”

Kibeho, Rwanda NOTE: During the early Eighties, the genocide was foretold by the Virgin Mary when she appeared to several children in Kibeho, Rwanda, but few heeded her warnings. Kibeho was the focus of the documentary I produced with genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza, titled If Only We Had Listened, and the reason I went to Rwanda. More on that later.