April 7, 2007 marks the 13th anniversary of the commencement of Rwanda's terrible genocide. During the hundred days that followed April 7, 1994, almost a million souls perished in a cataclysm of violence that stunned the world...and the world did not respond to the violence. Consequently, guilt for the massive loss of life rests not only on the perpetrators, but also on those who stood by, both willingly and un-willingly, and did nothing. Without resolving issues of responsibility, it is, of course, proper that we pause again to honor the dead and the victims of this tragedy.
As U.S. Ambassador in Rwanda I attended a number of memorial services for the victims. Each year on April 7, a national commemoration was held. Such events involved the exhumation of a mass grave at a genocide site, then proper reburial of the victims. These were sobering occasions when the true horror of genocide was clear to see. Yet they were also healing sessions with prayers and speeches. The dead could now rest in peace. Those present recommitted themselves never to let such events happened again.
I was not in Rwanda when the genocide occurred, but I became the U.S. Ambassador there in the years afterwards. My tasks were recovery, return refugees, reconstruction and reconciliation. I wrote about these undertakings in my book "In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda" (go to www.regribbin.com for more info). Reconciliation was the most nebulous of these tasks. How to contribute to a healing process between individuals and communities that were so decisively torn apart by hatred? Many Rwandans considered that the rendering of justice to be an important step. The U.S. could help there, so we created programs to help reconstitute the judicial system, train personnel, help draft a genocide law, etc. Socially, we supported a number of survivor groups, especially women's organizations, that inter alia worked to rebuild trust and communication between ethnic groups. Yet there was only so much outsiders could do. Reconciliation, that is admission of guilt, then forgiveness, are mostly individual decisions. Aid programs, church efforts, discussion groups, government attention to the issues, all could build a climate conducive to reconciliation, but the individuals involved had to make the decisions.
Even as people were coming to grips with such internalized issues, they had, had to get on with their lives. In this Rwandans were more successful. Homes were repaired, fields planted and commerce reignited. The refugees did return. The new ethic of "get along" promulgated by the government was accepted. After a while, peace and predictability returned to the hillsides.
One of the post-genocide/refugee return success stories was the placement of lost, orphaned or abandoned children with families throughout the nation. Initially over a hundred thousand children were collected into camps, orphanages and institutions. One model orphanage was run by an elderly American lady, the late Mrs. Roz Carr. A massive effort was undertaken to reunite the children with their families, extended families or place them in adoptive homes. This succeeded in fairly short order. By 2000 only several thousand children remained in group settings.
Following is an excerpt from my book that highlights this success.
" I visited an orphanage we supported in Rubungo just outside Kigali. A gracious lady, one of the sponsors of the orphanage, showed me around and explained how successful they were in placing children with extended or foster families. So much so, she said, that the institution would be closed within six months. In the meantime, she pointed with great pride to a cow contentedly chewing its cud in an adjacent pasture. She said the cow was newly acquired and would provide milk for the remaining children. She elaborated, saying that the cow had come to the orphanage as bride price. A girl in their charge agreed to marry, and the husband-to-be's family insisted that traditional practices be followed. Otherwise they believed the marriage would not be legitimate. Accordingly, a family group from the groom's side and a team of sponsors from the orphanage conducted traditional negotiations and settled on the cow as the bride price.
I found this transaction to be a remarkable statement of resilience and hope. Despite all the tragedy, lives went on. Customs adapted. "