17 Years Later: Thoughts on the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide

Rwanda is a stunningly beautiful country. They call it the “Land of a Thousand Hills” and this is no exaggeration. Unlike much of Africa, there are no flat plains, no wide open spaces. Farmers work plots of land that seem near vertical, and the acoustics of the landscape are such that you can clearly hear the call-and-response songs of the fisherman far out on Lake Kivu, or the lone radio miles away broadcasting the World Cup (when I was there in 2006, people, everywhere, from the relatively urban capital of Kigali to the most remote village, were gathered around any radio or television set to be found). Unfortunately, what Rwanda is most known for is the genocide of 1994, so that it seems to exist on two levels at once. One admires the calm beauty of Lake Kivu, then recalls the many mutilated corpses of Tutsis and Hutus that have been dumped into its waters. One smiles and waves to the children who run out to see the wazungu (white people) passing through, but can’t help but wonder what will become of this new generation. Everything, everywhere, is tainted by Rwanda’s past.

Just as stunning as the beauty of Rwanda was the tenacity, poise and elegance of a women I met during my brief two and a half weeks there. Rosamond Halsey Carr was an American woman who had come to Africa in 1949 as a young newlywed, and at age 94 still made Rwanda her home. I had the honor of meeting her at her home near Imbabazi, the orphanage she opened in 1994. Of her decision to return to Rwanda after the genocide, she writes, in her autobiography Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life In Rwanda:

“It was suggested to me in none to delicate a fashion that I was a bit old to be attempting such a perilous journey with such an uncertain outcome. I was at that time just a few weeks shy of my eighty-second birthday. Without putting too fine a point on it, the consensus was that I had lost my mind entirely.”

She returned to find her home in utter ruin, everything either taken or destroyed. She recalls:

“I looked around at what used to be my lovely home and wept with hopelessness and despair. I wept with shame for the people who had done this, and I wept with anger at the utter violation of my life and the senseless destruction of the country I loved. It was the greatest heartbreak I have ever known.”

Roz Carr passed away just a few months after our visit. I felt like the luckiest person in the world to have met her, and her story is an inspiration to me beyond words. (When my companion passed on a compliment about her autobiography from a friend of his back home who had found it wildly inspirational, she airily waived a hand and said, ‘Oh, that silly thing…’) I can wish for nothing more than to someday grow up to be like her, having lived a life of passion, courage, humility, and dignity.

I think of her, and I think of my visit to this country, today on the seventeenth anniversary of the genocide. And I think of the turmoil in the world today, and all of the lessons we have and have not learned as people living together on one planet. I think of the Rwandans I met–always a warm smile, a coy dodge of direct questions…so much pain still in their hearts that they cannot speak of, if one is to get through the day…. I think of the people of Lybia, Egypt, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Japan–and so many more–who are faced with their greatest struggles, will continue to struggle at their own seventeenth anniversaries of said events.

I think of Iman Al-Obeidi, raped by troops loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi, who fought her way into a room of journalists to tell her story to the world, even though she was forcibly taken away, kept hostage, called a prostitute, sued by her attackers for libel. I think of girls in Africa who flee from forced genital mutilation and arranged child marriages, like Waris Dirie, like the girls in the documentary film “Africa Rising” produced by Equality Now, where I currently have the honor of working with colleagues dedicated to ending violence and discrimination against women and girls across the world.

I think of Ashley Judd, whose book party for her newly released memoir All That Is Bitter and Sweet I just attended last night (“It’s so not about me,” she said. “It’s about this rape surviver I met in the Congo who literally dragged herself to the hospital after her brother had been stabbed to death by soldiers for refusing to rape his sister. This is her story. I am her voice.”) and of course I think of Gloria Steinem, who introduced her and who is a beloved member of our board of directors.

I think of these, my role models. And I get back to work…for there is much to be done if we, as humanity, wish to prevent the marking of similar anniversaries as that which we mark today in Rwandan history.

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