The little girl stares out of the photo smiling. She liked Fanta and chips and playing with her elder sister and she was killed with a single blow of a machete. The last thing she said, when the soldiers came, was – ‘Mum, where shall I run to?’ Next to her is a grainy family snapshot of two toddlers killed by a grenade thrown into their shower. They liked eating mash and swimming and their last sight on earth was their mother being killed. Beyond them is a little boy who was burned alive in a church.
Welcome to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a small building in the capital of Rwanda that houses the story of 1 million people who were murdered in a single month, 21 years ago. It is one of the most powerful places on earth. Inside are the photos and clothes and weapons and bones. There are films of survivors retelling the horror of those days – and reliving it too, as tears stream down their cheeks at the memory of parents, children, husbands, wives, lost in the frenzy of killing in 1994. Outside are the graves of 259,000 victims, buried beneath vast stone slabs on which visitors have laid baskets of red and orange roses.
But the museum is powerful too for its ultimate message of hope. In the final room are stories of four Rwandan children of today, who are growing up in a country that has boldly built its future on forgiveness. Instead of seeking revenge, in 1994 when a rebel Tutsi army swept away the Hutu extremists who had planned to slaughter all Tutsis, they made a fundamental decision. They called for reconciliation between the two groups. This would be based on truth-telling, penance and acceptance, and operated through village-level community courts to bring forgiveness to every part of the country. And it has worked. Today Rwanda is a growing hub for eastern Africa, a stable democracy for two decades. And the four teenagers described in the museum are full of hopes.
“My choice is not to take revenge, but instead to live in a good way,” writes 10-year-old Olivier in the display. “Our greatest problem,” reflects young Evariste, “was the brokenness of our hearts because of the genocide. Now we look at what people need, not who they are. We speak about peacebuilding at community days and in our families. Our aim has become harmony in Rwandan society.”
I’m visiting the museum as part of this year’s Peace Exchange, a global gathering of peacebuilders from 10 countries affected by wars and other conflicts. There are two women from Pakistan who rescue young people from indoctrination by violent jihadists. There’s a man running village peace committees from the safety of a garrison town in Darfur. There are two activists from neighbouring Burundi, where killings and hate speech have started this year that remind them of the pre-1994 period in Rwanda. A delegate from the Philippines warns that while this museum preserves stories of atrocity so they may never happen again, in his country there have been massacres unrecorded and untold.
All are what we call ‘local peacebuilders’: local people running grassroots organisations in their own communities who aim to prevent conflicts, reduce violence when it happens, and rebuild communities after war. They’ve been invited by Peace Direct to meet in Kigali and share their knowledge, insights and solidarity. For this is a neglected field of work – vital as the example of Rwanda shows, but often ignored by the international community or by the governments in their countries.
After the visit we sit in a circle and reflect on what it meant to us. Some are in tears. A Sri Lankan woman says, “These stories are still happening in other places. We each have a responsibility to stop them.” Her colleague adds, “We are peacebuilders, a group of people who are not only moved by this experience, but we want to do something about it. It’s a reminder of what we do – and what we still need to do.”
An American delegate is fighting back tears. She whispers, “I kept forcing myself to look in the eyes of the children, because I think we need to face these things. And after a while the eyes seemed to look back. I saw a light in those eyes, and I felt I have to do what I can.”
Our Rwandan host concludes: “The visit reminded me of our responsibility as human beings to work for ‘never ever again’. I come from a mixed parentage here in Rwanda. I feel it is my duty to reconcile my relatives on both sides. What I am proud of is that I have been part of the reconciliation process.”
As we walk down the hillside from the little museum, the peacebuilders are very quiet. They have much to think about, and much to do.