These days, mention Rwanda, and the most common reference that springs to people's mind is the Genocide. In 1994, after the mysterious plane crash President Habyarimana on April 6, Hutu radicals began a country-wide massacre of Tutsi's and Hutu moderates which ultimately wiped out or displaced over two-third's of the country's population. Famous after the fact, like so many things, the Rwandan genocide has become the stuff of hellish nightmares - an African Holocaust that quite horrifically, occured right under the nose of the UN.
In the years following, while the memory has faded for us in the west into the stuff of great heart-wrenching hollywood films, its aftermath remains very real, and very painful, for everyday Rwandans. Today, one is not allowed to identify themselves by ethnicity, and it is not allowed to deny that the genocide exist. However, it's not something you bring up over coffee either. Its certainly awkward for an outsider like me to ask around the office "How was your life affected?" but little dribs and drabs come out.
I discovered from one of our expat staff that in one way or another, everyone has been affected. A few staff take the entire Memorial week off, to spend with what family they have left, or just to mourn. Our country manager had lived in Rwanda during the 1980's, returning home before the genocide, and shared with me his frustration on being unable to help his Tutsi friends escape.
But the story that gave me goosebumps was that of Sebastien.
Our country manager met Sebastien's father in the 80's, they kept in touch, and became close friends. During the genocide, he called every single day to find out if his friend was still alive, and what was happening. Some day's, he couldn't get through. Other times, they described their increasingly alarming situation. As interhame stormed the streets of Kigali, they had to find food wherever they could, often going hungry. They lived in the shadows, in fear. One day, he stopped answering his phone. Our country manger feared the worst.
Year's later, back in Rwanda, our country manager began looking for his friend. The ICRC and other international agencies had set up registration processes and photo boards to help individual's reconnect (think about it - without a cell phone or a photo, or a home to return to, how would you find your family?). Eventually, he found a friend of his friend, who confirmed the worst - he had killed on April 28th, his body most likely dumped in one of the many shallow mass graves around Kigali, or left to rot in the sun. (Interesting side bar: there are few dogs in Rwanda. After feasting on the dead bodies, dogs were systematically hunted to prevent the spread of disease).
However, a son - Sebastien - survived. He was found, and convinced to come and work for our company. It's not clear to me how he survived, but he is a delicate fellow. He's bright, but there's a shadow behind his eyes. I'm told he only made it through because everyone thought he was crazy. Our country manager happened to have photos of his parents from when they were friends in the 80's and Sebastien broke down. He didn't have a thing left to remember them. The interhamwe had destroyed - obliterated - everything.