This past week, Rwandans commemorated the 18th anniversary of the genocide which took place in 1994. Every year during this week, everything pauses in Rwanda and there are widespread events to commemorate that time in history. I’m glad I could be here to take part. Without talking too much about the events themselves, I’ll just talk about the thoughts in my head now, post-commemoration.
I have been thinking about one thought more than others: It is so easy to look at things that happen in the world and pause and think, “Oh, how horrible,” and then move on with our lives. We may even do so in a completely genuine and truly heartfelt way. But eventually, after this short pause, we just get on with what we were doing because the truth is, even the most empathetic of us won’t really be affected in any major way after that brief moment of sadness. The thing is, we see the news and especially the books and movies as a sort of story. No matter how true you know something to be, if you were not there, to some extent, it remains a story. Nearly everything I have learned about the genocide has been learned in Rwanda itself. Because I have done my research here, while looking out at Rwandan landscapes, having already met Rwandan people who were affected, I thought that I was in a pretty good position to see the issue as a real event affecting real people. But I’ve realized that after 3 ½ months of being here, I’m only just beginning to grasp the true “realness” of the events. The reason is that I’ve had more opportunities to talk to good friends and people I’m close to, and see that these normal, regular, fun people are the ones who lived through this. They are the ones I read about in the books. Not some sorry people “over there,” but these people who I hang out and joke around with. People who today, on the surface at least, are no different than me.
There is a movie, Sometimes in April, which I believe gives a good depiction of events. One of the things I appreciate about it is that it juxtaposes life in Rwanda with life in the USA at the same time. It not only shows the decisions (or lack thereof) being made by politicians, but it also shows images of ordinary Americans going about their daily business – jogging in the park, playing soccer, etc. I think these are important images because they make you think. For me, it's about being a 5-year-old in that peaceful world, totally unaware that there were people my age in the world, destined to become my friends, who were struggling for their lives and losing their families.
But can we help not knowing, not feeling the full extent of the struggle? Today, I feel I can almost empathize with the people in Rwanda, but it took being here – for a long time – and really getting to know people. Before that, it was not possible to grasp, even though I thought I could. I guess that's reality.