Why Rwanda never leaves you

Opinion: The breathtaking beauty of the land contrasts with the brutality of the genocide

Dominic MacSorley, CEO of Concern Worldwide, headed the Concern team in Rwanda in the immdiate aftermath of the genocide. He visits a church where 5,000 people were massacred, whose bodies and clothing serve a reminder of the event. Video: Concern


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.

Graphic reminder
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.

In many ways, it is an African success story. Under the leadership and indisputably tight control of President Paul Kagame the country has enjoyed robust growth with per capita GDP nearly tripling, admittedly from a desperately low base.

But despite all the advances, huge challenges remain and over 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

In the week I was there, I met Scholastic Mukamugaga, a mother of six, whose husband is serving a 19-year jail sentence.Whatever money she earned went toward the 5,000 Rwanda francs ($7) needed to feed her husband. His crime, and sentence, condemned her and her children to years of poverty and hardship.

When I met Scholastic, she had just “graduated” from a Concern programme that provided her with small monthly cash transfers along with counselling and skills training, allowing her to support her family.

On this project, we are working with Vision 2020, an ambitious Rwandan government strategy to reduce the percentage of people living in extreme poverty to under 10 per cent in the next four years, down from 40 per cent in 2001.

With support from the Irish Government and public, we are working to ensure Rwanda’s vision becomes a reality.

Roughly 10 per cent of those we work with have a family member in prison for their participation in the genocide, which has pushed them to the edge of destitution. The genocide may be 20 years in the past, but the long shadow it has cast has a devastating effect today on the poorest.

Hope and humanity
As I left Rwanda, it was the thousand stories of hope and humanity I brought with me; of children reunited with parents, schools reopening, women standing proud again as they paid off a small business loan, children being successfully treated for malnutrition, communities coming together, lives being rebuilt – stories of people carving out a new and stronger future.

Rwanda is not only a story about one of the gravest and most inhumane acts in recent history; it is also a story of recovery, resilience and the ability of humanity to overcome appalling atrocity.

It is a resilience, however, that should never, ever be tested.

Remembrance cannot stop short at paying tribute – it must drive action and compel us to do even more to stop the atrocities and gross human rights violations that are happening every day in Syria, the Central African Republic and other parts of the world.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, we must remember the danger of indifference and bear in mind, as the Genocide Convention compels us, that taking action to prevent atrocities is not a policy option; it is an international legal obligation of the highest order. It is this, and only this, that can truly honour the dead of Rwanda and enable us to fulfil our promise of “never again”.

Dominic MacSorley is chief executive of Concern Worldwide

Tomorrow on the Opinion page Paul Cullen, who covered the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide for The Irish Times , asks what has changed since.

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