Why Rwanda never leaves you
Opinion: The breathtaking beauty of the land contrasts with the brutality of the genocide
Lasting 100 days, the Rwandan genocide was brutally efficient, leading to the murder of over 800,000 Tutsi, Hutu moderates and Twa. Over two million people were displaced internally or in neighbouring countries.
The scale of the destruction and displacement was unprecedented; the brutality and enormity of the killings challenged us all on every level, striking at the core of our moral fibre, our humanity. We vowed: “never again”.
Rwanda gripped the conscience of Ireland and generated massive public support. For the first time in its history, the Irish Army formally seconded logistics personnel to work with the aid agencies, including Concern. The health services released desperately needed nurses. Nora Owen TD volunteered her time, setting up Concern’s first transit centre in Kigali for displaced populations.
For me, this anniversary has a particular significance, as I headed up Concern’s operations in Rwanda 20 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the genocide. It was one of the toughest assignments in my 30 years with Concern.
The agency launched its largest ever emergency response, with over 1,000 national and international staff working day and night to provide immediate relief assistance – food, shelter and healthcare – to hundreds of thousands of survivors, ensuring that those who had lost everything were given practical support to start the slow process of rebuilding their lives.
Last month, I returned to Rwanda, with members of Concern’s governing council, including Barbara O’Reilly who had worked alongside me back in 1994. Like Nora Owen, Barbara has stayed with, and supported Concern ever since.
Rwanda never leaves you.
Going back always hits me with extreme, contradictory emotions. The breathtaking beauty of the land, and the polite hospitality of the Rwandan people, stand in stark contrast with the brutality and inhumanity of the genocide.
I don’t think I have ever fully reconciled these contradictions. Even now, that feeling of disconnect between what you see and what you know has happened remains.
On the first morning of my recent return, we drove about 20 miles outside the capital, Kigali, to Nyamata church, one of the hundreds of genocide sites scattered across the country.
In the three years I had worked in Rwanda, I had visited Nyamata many times. I felt it was important to return to pay respect and remind myself of the enormity of what had happened.
Twenty years on, Nyamata had lost none of its impact. The blood-stained clothes of the 5,000 men, women and children who had been slaughtered as they sought sanctuary, hung on every wall of the church; more real, more disturbing than the human remains, skulls and bones neatly stacked on shelves nearby.
Scrawled on a classroom wall at the back of the church were the words of a young student who promised that the next generation would “stand tall, in the gap you have left”.
Nyamata serves as an important testimony, a graphic reminder to all of what can happen.
On this 20th anniversary of the genocide, we are obliged to look back, to pay tribute to the victims and survivors, but also to look at the progress that has been made in the past two decades.