Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lessons Learned

Today I went to the Kigali Memorial Center.

In 1994, more than one million people were killed in Rwanda during a genocide that lasted 100 days. The center is a memorial to those who were brutally murdered, a remembrance for those who survived, and an information hub for those who are trying to understand.

We walk around the grounds, past 14 mass graves housing 250,000 human remains collected from the streets following the genocide. I lay flowers on one of the graves. The gardens were peaceful, in sharp contrast to the event they were in memorial to.

In the museum, pictures and objects of the genocide surround us. The information was straightforward. The effect was devastating, but enlightening. Rwanda owned the atrocity and dealt with the consequences directly. The country was not trying to run away from the truth that is its past.

What did I learn here?
As a volunteer working in a post-genocidal country, I learned that it is important to sympathize. I can’t fathom the survivor’s experiences. At my best, I can begin to understand. Even then, the scope of what has occurred here is beyond my best intentions.

What does it mean to me?
Two of the consequences of the genocide are a large number of orphaned children and HIV-positive women. Many children lost their entire families and found themselves completely alone following the genocide. Furthermore, known HIV-positive men raped women during the genocide, a tactic used to ensure the demise of the Tutsi population. As a health worker in Rwanda, I will be working extensively with these two sectors of the population. Their experience with genocide adds an additional component to their health assessment, as they are dealing with health issues within the context of a post-genocidal environment and while experiencing post-genocidal stress. Furthermore, many of the health issues they face are linked to the memories of the genocide, and pose a difficult obstacle to the foreign health worker.

Rwanda has made enormous progress since the genocide and has emerged recently as one of Africa’s leading nations. It is amazing to see how far this small country has come mentally, physically, politically and economically in the past 16 years. Rwanda’s post-genocidal approach is unique, progressive, and exemplar. In addition to rebuilding the nation physically, Rwandans have adapted traditional tribal practices to deal with the social healing aspect. The Gacaca System was originally developed to settle community disputes and transgressions. Today, it is being used to settle tensions between community members in the aftermath of the genocide. Rwanda’s experience has been an experiment in post-genocidal justice, and its success thus far heralded and noted.

As I walk away from the Kigali Memorial Center and retrace my steps back through the mediation gardens and the parking lot, I cannot help but reflect on the difficult lesson I have just faced and its implications for me as a member of the global community. The message stressed at the memorial was one of remembrance. One must remember the past in order to learn from it so that one may guarantee a better future. To forget the past is to forget the lessons learned from the past. One cannot change the past, but one can do something to change the future.

What am I doing to change the future?
I am learning, then sharing my message and educating others. By doing so, I am helping to make others, near and far, aware of what happened in Rwanda and the important lessons Rwanda’s experience has taught us. It is my hope that by doing so, the situation in Rwanda will not be repeated anywhere in the world. Now that you know, you can do the same and together, we can sympathize for a country, work to heal its wounds, and ensure, in memory of its dead, that the world will never experience a similar situation again.

In 1994, more than one million people were killed in Rwanda during a genocide that lasted 100 days.

Now you know. Always remember and spread the word.

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