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Returning to Rwanda

30 May 2011

I returned to Rwanda, the land of 1000 hills, more like 100,000 hills having worked there in 1994 and 1995 for a few months each time. The phrase written by William Butler Yeats about Ireland in 1916 struck me very forcibly on my return “a terrible beauty is born”.

Rwanda craft group funded by Trócaire

Rwanda was devastated in every possible way after the 1994 genocide which saw over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus killed in a 3 month period. Everything about the country was broken, lives, hearts, infrastructure including government ministries, banks, houses etc. The country was effectively on its knees, shattered.

On returning to Kigali I was genuinely awestruck at the changes in the city - frankly I didn’t recognise it and thought how beautiful and clean it looked. Yet I couldn’t help the memories of the past creeping back to torment me. The decomposing bodies of women with their heads decapitated and their children still tied on their backs, multiple bodies rotting in the hot sun, the smell of blood omnipresent together with bombed out and looted buildings is an image impossible to erase from that time. I remember too the eerie silence and an almost empty city as hundreds of thousands had fled to the safety of neighbouring countries. Now I was witnessing a bustling city completely transformed with modern buildings including banks, insurance companies, mobile phone companies, government buildings, private businesses and modern houses all newly built. Yes indeed “a terrible beauty was born”.

Travelling to the south and north of the country Gikongoro and Gisenyi where I worked as a humanitarian programme officer with Trocaire in ’94 and ’95 it was clear that huge changes and development had occurred in the numerous towns we passed by.

Rwanda has received massive aid from the International Community; many believe to make up for turning our backs on Rwanda at that critical time in April 1994. Up to 50% of the budget of Rwanda comes from the International community including the World Bank and the IMF.

However, travelling into the rural communities on the dirt roads all was familiar. To be fair I did notice better housing, better constructed health clinics and schools but the vast majority of the people I met are still living on a Euro a day and some on less. I have an image etched in my mind of a very poor family with no furniture in their home, the roof of their house not yet fully constructed and their children cold as all were poorly clothed with bare feet even though it was the rainy season. I was saddened to see a five year old child with a chesty cough and runny nose (due to smoke inhalation from the open fire) minding his 2 year old sister who was tied on his back, already I felt his youth being snatched from him. Immediately I could feel myself getting angry at the inequality – plasma TV’s, vacuum cleaners and fridge freezers for purchase in Kigali and not a pair of flip flops for poor children or proper clothing against the cooler rainy season in the hill/villages not to mention running water or electricity. And then it occurred to me but what’s so different about Ireland or anywhere else for that matter – inequality is just a fact of life but when it’s so obvious and in your face – I found it very hard to stomach.

Of course this raised many questions in my mind who’s the development for and who are the winners and losers. Buildings are being constructed at an amazing pace but what about the construction of society and human hearts and minds when you consider the pain and suffering this country has gone through.

I met a survivor of the genocide whose entire family had been killed in May 1994. As he recounted his story I found it very difficult to suppress my tears. A neighbouring family who had been his friends carried out the killing. He lost all members of his family and extended family. For years after the killings he couldn’t feel love and was full of bitterness and anger. He shared with me that for years he couldn’t forgive and had lost his faith in God. However a couple of years ago he became a member of the Anglican grass roots church supported by Trocaire and over time began to think and feel differently. Another member of that church group was a member of the family who killed all his loved ones. He had spent 8 years in jail for his involvement in the killing and was now back living in the same community. At first the survivor could not relate to this man but over time they were reconciled. They both acknowledged this could not have happened without the support of the church. Sitting in the mud hut with the rain pelting down and watching both men engage and talk about their healed relationship was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in Africa. The survivor has helped build a house for the man who had killed members of his family and contributed money towards helping him with a dowry payment. Hearing first hand how one can overcome such horrors in one’s life and offer friendship and kindness to someone who committed such atrocities was indeed a humbling experience. I felt enormously moved at witnessing such a remarkable act of love and forgiveness. I left wondering what happens to the survivors who can’t forgive.

To say I felt enormous pride in the work of Trocaire and our partners is an understatement as we work towards assisting communities reconcile and build relationships at grass roots, community and national level. Helping communities to know their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a state and participate at all levels in trying to ensure good governance while also being able to provide for their families is at the heart of what Trocaire does in Rwanda.

It’s easy to rehabilitate buildings and build new ones but much more challenging and difficult to heal hearts and build new ones capable of forgiving and trusting after the horror of the genocide. We only have to look at our own country, Northern Ireland to understand how long it takes for opposing communities to truly learn to trust and respect one another. We appreciate it is work in progress – so it is with Rwanda and will of course take time for all old wounds to heal and a more normal society is established. One in which trust is more common than fear and where fear is replaced with courage to express one’s opinions and feelings without consequences. So leaving Rwanda I’m left with a mix of emotions and thoughts as I reflect on the privilege of being able to return and witness the work of Trocaire and out partners. Building right relationships, empowering the poor and marginalised to hold their government to account (we know only too well the importance of this in Ireland) and helping families meet their basic needs to ensure all can live a dignified life is truly bringing about real and lasting change in the live of ordinary Rwandans.

Trocaire’s vision of building a just world where people are the authors of their own development and where their basic needs are met is very evident amongst the Rwandans’ we work with. What I’m most proud of is that many agencies came to Rwanda in 1994 but have long since left. However Trocaire remains and has built a reputation for being at the leading edge of development in Rwanda working passionately with the poor and vulnerable to ensure a more dignified life for all.