“Start by Killing a Bird Your Own Size”


“Violence”, said our guide through the Nyamata Church and Genocide Museum in Kigali, “is built into Rwandan culture.” “Start by killing a bird your own size” is a typical saying parsed out to African children.

But obviously that’s not the whole story, and much of what the guide said was applicable to a much wider slice of humanity. Lying on the floor in one section of the Nyamata Church was a long, thin cross. The guide started explaining how Tutsis had always been the favored ones, sparking a good deal of envy among the Hutus. Not only were Tutsis richer, more educated, but of course Tutsi women were supposed to be prettier too. So during the Genocide against the Tutsis, raping Tutsi women seemed quite desirable. One Tutsi woman was supposed to be prettier than anyone else – and she was gang-raped and then impaled on that cross, from her vagina to her neck, and left hanging dead for three days.

The Genocide was actually orchestrated by the government, which feared a Tutsi uprising. Soon after the Colonial Period ended, many Tutsis had been banished to Uganda, and a generation later, in the 1990s, a large number of Tutsis did come back, with a view to taking over the government. By April of 1994 the Hutu-led government had forged a power sharing plan with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, but many Hutus were unwilling to accept this. And when the President’s plane was shot out of the air as he returned to Kigali, remaining elements of the government instigated the Genocide immediately and very directly, and within a period of 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis were murdered, often by friends, neighbors, people they knew.

Most incomprehensible was the murder of so many children. The museum’s Children’s Room holds pictures of smiling, happy children, identified by name, age, favorite food, favorite game, manner of death. Nothing more.

And our guide told us that when he was eight years old and his family had sought safety in the church, another eight year old boy was choosing the people to be killed. Our guide’s heart stopped when he thought the child was pointing at him, but someone in back of him had been selected.

How do people ever get over this absolute trauma? The generation that lived it probably won’t. It is still a shadow over the country. Village women, when they talk about their experiences with Women for Women, say they felt isolated in their own homes, unwilling to make friends. (In the Genocide, neighbor killed neighbor, friend killed friend.)

But the terms Tutsi and Hutu are no longer used. Everyone is Rwandan. Eventually the ethnic identities will not even come to mind.

We met a woman who moved back from Uganda in 1994 and set up a hotel, and agreed to sell baskets for the women in the area who made them. Eventually her entrepreneur nature came to the fore and she set up a large basket making and marketing business, even making selling trips to New York. She said different women refused to work together at first, but when cash came in for the baskets, they relented and said they could sit together to work, but just wouldn’t talk. And of course their silence didn’t last long!

Women for Women classes too have become solid groups, working together, gaining confidence in themselves and earning money, taking control of their own lives. They are no longer Tutsis nor Hutus, but just Rwandan women.

And of course we mustn’t forget the heroes of the Genocide, those few people who tried to calm things down, save people. (The Schindlers of the situation.) Paul Rusesabagina was a Hutu man married to a Tutsi woman, and manager of a good, sophisticated hotel in Rwanda: the Hotel des Mille Collines. It was the type of place the highest people in the government would gather for strategizing meetings, counting on good Scotch gratis from the hotel management, etc. So Rusesabagina had connections. And he was in a position to pull a few minor strings at least. So when more than a thousand Tutsis swarmed into his hotel for protection, he protected them, and closed his doors and declared the hotel off limits. Even when the United Nations Peace Keepers gave up on the situation and pulled out, he persisted, through bribery and bluff. In the end all the 1,200 occupants of the hotel, including Rusesabagina and his family, were saved. This of course was Hotel Rwanda in the movie.

And after an emotionally draining day in the Genocide Museum, this is where our group had dinner!

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