Rwanda, Twenty Years Later

Lauren Wolfe:

Today, 20 years after an ethnically motivated genocide in which nearly 1 million Rwandans died and up to half a million women were raped, thegovernment forbids certain kinds of public discussion about Hutus and Tutsis. When I visited the country in February, I heard a lot of chatter about something called “Vision 2020,” which is supposed to transform the country into a thriving state marked by good governance and a healthy economy. Construction is booming in the capital, Kigali, and President Paul Kagame has expressed a desire to make his country more like Singapore—a sort of authoritarian democracy. There is a robust effort, in other words, to deliberately “move on” from the tragedy—a determination to never lose control again.

But what Rwandans endured is so extraordinarily horrifying—in terms of how many people experienced or witnessed brutal acts, and the sheer scale and speed of the killing—that the more time I spent in the country and talking to Nishimwe and others, the more I wondered how such a place could possibly go on after what happened in those horrible 100 days from April to July. How did each person survive? How does a whole country thrust into a hideous nightmare of people hacked to death and raped and tortured survive? What is it like to live in a society in which nearly everyone over the age of 20 has memories of such inhumane deeds?…

[Richard] Neugebauer has worked on and off in Rwanda since 1997, and is quick to emphasize that he cannot speak for the Rwandans he has met. But his observations as a clinician are devastating. When he first went to the country, he said, “the laws of nature were reversed. The dead were more alive than the living. The dead were everywhere in the sense that you could almost feel them around you, clamoring to be heard. Whereas the people who were literally alive were so bereft or left empty for the moment that it seemed they were dead.” (When he returned to the country in 2010 and 2011, he again sought out some of these people, who seemed younger and revitalized.) It is this strong pull of deceased relatives and friends that “must be overcome to actually live,” he said.

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