Editor’s note: This blog post is adapted from a speech delivered by Stephen Smith at the Kigale Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda on April 28 to commemorate the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
Today I am grateful.
I know that talking about gratitude does not sound right as we gather together to remember the brutal murder of your families. There is truly nothing to be grateful about when we think about their lives being torn apart, when we remember the fear, the running, the hiding, the cutting, the screaming, the scorn, the hatred, the rape, the murder of little children.
Just the opposite is true. There is every reason for bitterness, anger, hatred, for reprisal, seeking vengeance. After all, the killers killed in cold blood. They woke in the morning to man their road blocks, they banded together, planned their tactics, then went out and searched the bushes, the attics, the banks of the river Nyabarongo, hunting their Tutsi neighbors like ‘Inyenzi’ - their only aim, to crush them mercilessly. Yes, they planned their evil.
It was no accident that they surrounded churches and threw in hand grenades. There was no happenstance about where the roadblocks were placed, who was on duty, who gave the commands. It was calculated, organized, intentional, cold blooded and violent genocidal murder. There is not a single murderer whose actions can be justified or reasoned because there was no reason to turn on your neighbor, crush his skull or rape his wife to death.
There have been many days I felt far from grateful. I have felt angry; I have felt sad; I have felt wrung out; lost in my own despair. I have questioned my own actions, felt the burden of sorrow that I was a bystander, terrified that this was possible in my adult lifetime. There have been many days when so intense was my immersion into your past in 1994 that I felt like I had been there. Then I realized that nothing could be further from the truth, because when you were being chased for your life, when you were hiding, running, watching your family floating down the river, I was watching from the safety of my couch.
That’s when the guilt set in. Who am I to speak about such things, events so far removed from my own experience? What right do I have to speak to such unthinkable horrors? After all I have never experienced fear in my entire life. Not once I have I had to run, I have never had to hide or hear the final cries of my neighbors, friends in the middle of night. In darkness. The terrifying all-consuming darkness, that reminded you that tomorrow might be your last day, or worse, the last day of your wise and dignified parents, your beloved spouse, your beautiful children.
I am guilty. I am guilty of not being there. Of standing at a distance and watching on. I feel guilty that I am standing here, with no right to speak because I cannot speak of pain, I cannot speak of loss, or the struggle to survive, or the loneliness, the nightmares, the trauma, the fear that it could all happen again. I cannot speak to what it means to be an orphan, to make a life after genocide, to wait twenty years to find the remains of my parents, to be an outsider in my own country. I do not know what it means when the seventh of April comes around and the ghosts of the past emerge to haunt every day of the next three months. 'This was the day my mother was murdered. This was the day my sister was raped. This is the day I knew I was going to die.' A simple day on the calendar for everyone else is another reminder. What was I doing to celebrate my 27th birthday in 1994 on the 15th April. I have no recollection, but for some of you the 15th April 1994 will never be forgotten, every day of those three months, seared into memory.
But as the fog of guilt cleared I learned things I had never fully understood before. I discovered that anger only begets more anger; that guilt serves no purpose; that memory is a friend, and memory is an enemy; that it is not who we remember, but how we honor their memory that matters; that it is not what we remember, but who we become through what we do. I learned that what we do is not as important as who we are, how we think, how our hearts beat. I learned that it is always too late to undo the past, but it is never too late to influence the present. I discovered that you can bury the dead, but you cannot bury not the past; that physical wounds heal quickly but mental anguish never heals; that we can build monuments but if we do not build relationships our memorials are empty concrete walls; that denial is an act of genocide and should be treated as such; that as much as we want others to understand, those of us who did not experience it directly only ever get the briefest glimpse into the endless void of genocide; that words are easy, that actions mean more, but neither makes up for a single life that was lost; that numbers tell us nothing about what each of those individual people went through, who they were, how they lived, how they died. Every one of them was a beautiful person who should be still enjoying the life they were given, to laugh, cry, hope, dream and live to old age and die when they were called home, a privilege every victim was denied at the hands of their killers.
In 2003, I and others were preparing for the opening of the Kigali Genocide Memorial at Gisozi. As part of the effort volunteers had been dispatched to every sector of Kigali, Rwanda -- going door to door to ask people what they remembered and to mark mass graves, road blocks and killing sites. We also collected many photos and documents.
The mayor of Kigali had asked me to build a memorial to the children that were murdered during the genocide against the Tutsi. He had mentioned to me that he liked Daniel's Story, an exhibit built to introduce children to the Holocaust through the story of fictional character Daniel at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
I thought about it, but somehow creating a fictional story for children to experience at the Kigali Genocide Memorial did not seem right less than 10 years after the genocide, when so many families were still mourning the loss of their beautiful little children.
One day, I was in my office in Kigali, when I was visited by a volunteer data collector from IBUKA, an umbrella organization for genocide survivor groups in Rwanda.
The volunteer emptied the contents of a brown manila envelope onto my desk. There on top of the pile of papers and photos was a photo of two little girls. I thought of my own two little girls four thousand miles away in England, who were the same age as the children in the photo. I thought of the lively characters of my children, how different they are from one another, what they enjoyed playing, their favorite food, their special and unique characteristics.
I asked the volunteer what he knew about the girls. Their uncle who had survived and donated the picture had told him their names were Uwamwezi and Irene and that was all we knew. I wanted to know more. 'What did they enjoy doing?' 'What was their favorite food?' 'Did they have special games or songs?'
I asked him to go back to the uncle and ask these questions. I wanted to know who these beautiful children were, about how they lived, who they loved, how they died.
The next day he returned.
Uwamwezi and Irene were 6 and 5 years old. Their favorite toy was a doll that they shared. Their favorite food was fresh fruit. They were both daddy's girls. They loved him so much. They died when a grenade was thrown into their shower.
I sat and I cried at my desk.
These two little girls were just like my own.
Over the next few weeks I asked every volunteer to tell me about every child's photo they found. It was the most painful experience, hearing one after the next after the next.
I wanted to find a way to honor the memory of these little people whose lives had been cut off so prematurely by evil adults. I wanted to place their pictures in the windows at the Kigali memorial so that the sunlight would shine in through their photos, to learn about them through the light, the joy they brought into the world of their families for the short time they were with us.
Every day now their memory is bright with sunlight.
There is never a good outcome to genocide. Its only fruit is loss and pain and emptiness and despair. We can never say that this man who died did not die in vain, or we can find meaning in the rape of his wife, because in fact their lives were totally wasted on the altar of hatred. Evil does not yield good fruit. There is nothing to salvage. There are only tears and more tears.
Maybe once the tears have flowed long enough there is some solace. Through the tears I cried every day creating the children's memorial, seeing their little faces on my desk, the seeds of gratitude began to grow. Gratitude to know just a little about the families that lived and loved their children; gratitude to get to know them as people, not as the mangled faceless victims the perpetrators had intended; gratitude for my own children who I treasure more every day; gratitude that so many families had the courage to tell their most painful memories so that dignity would out-live humiliation, that lives lived would be the story we told; that the language of the killers and haters would not prevail over the language of love; that truth would outlive denial; that hope would overcome despair. Gratitude to be accepted in spite of my failure to act; gratitude that I have never been judged, by the ghosts who could rightly condemn me for my apathy and inaction; gratitude for the chance to learn at the feet of young people fifteen years my junior, survivors and orphans, who were leading the world through their dignified testimony. I am grateful to the survivors who despite the overwhelming terror that they had gone through, despite the darkness of their despair, light my life with their strength of purpose to make a better world from the worst of all worlds they had lived through. I’m grateful to hear the whisper of each individual testimony which when heard together is an undeniable voice of truth.
I stand here today in humility, to honor your families, to remember two little girls, Uwamwezi and Irene, and say that even though their lives were wasted through the senseless destructive behavior of our flawed and terrifyingly dangerous human nature, the lives they lived will be weighed on the scale of humanity, and so when the last perpetrator dies and is condemned to be permanently forgotten, the names, the lives and the love of your families will live on. Forever.
Dr. Stephen D. Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Endowed Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation. He was the project director responsible for the creation of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda.