The Rwandan Genocide – My Story

My story about the Rwandan Genocide is the least important story of all. But it has value to me in that it is my story. And I hope it has value to you reading this. I hope my story gives access to the other, much more important stories.

In April 1994 I was in my first year of university in Australia. I was living at home. I was 18 years old but I was a very young 18.

In 1986 I had been on a family trip to the USA, the UK and Canada to visit family. It was a safe, controlled environment. And apart from the fact that Smarties came in tubes (revolutionary!!) it was the same culture and values and lifestyle. I knew that the rest of the world existed. Every night as a child the news had updated us on the Iran / Iraq war. I knew that there was a wall in Berlin that had been torn down. I knew the joke about a Jew in Belfast being asked if he was a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew. But I had been a child. And these things were far away and even though I left the room when the television announcer said that some of the following scenes may be disturbing for some viewers, they had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could do. I was only a child.

In April 1994 I heard about the genocide in Rwanda. I had never heard of Rwanda. I had no connection with the country whatsoever. And yet, the horror of what was unfolding there struck me. I cried. I went to the bank and withdrew money from my account so that I could donate it to the fundraising that the Red Cross was doing. I had never done anything like that before. It was a lot of money for me at the time and yet it was such a tiny, pitiful amount. What could my meagre Australian dollars do in the face of such atrocity?

The days turned into weeks. The number of people killed had long surpassed numbers that my brain could comprehend. I was deeply horrified. I didn’t understand the political situation. But I didn’t need to. People were killing each other. I didn’t really care that it was genocide. It didn’t matter to me whether the stated motivation was race, religion, skin colour, language, wealth, nationality, age, height, weight, gender, eye colour, hair colour, favourite football team. People were killing each other. And there was absolutely nothing I could do. I cried. But what could my compassion and my tears do in the face of such inhumanity?

I was not a child. I was an adult. My powerlessness struck me. But I was so far away and I was so small and weak and powerless. All I could do was to grieve for these people I didn’t know. All I could do was to be resolute in my belief that we are all human beings and that no distinction between us really matters.

And that was probably the moment when my mindset changed. I am Australian by birth. I grew up there. But my Australian identity is only a result of living in that country. I am British. I have spent most of my adult life in the UK. But my British identity is only a result of living in that country. Much more importantly, I am a global citizen. I am inherently the same as all of the other people on the planet. My luck, my opportunities, my choices are different. But my blood and my breath and my heart are the same. I am a global citizen. Crimes against any people are crimes against my people. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is only ‘us’. And it was Rwanda that taught me that.

Today, I have spent some time in the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This was important to me. It was a chance for me to close a chapter that started 22 years ago. It was a chance for me to pause over the mass graves of 250,000 people. Some of the people I cried for – half a world away and half a lifetime ago. And today I fought back tears but I didn’t cry. Today was not about crying. Today was about facing one of the defining moments of my life. It was a chance for me to pay my respects.

My visit here in Rwanda is about that. It is about me showing respect for a country and a people (one people) who have come through so much and rebuilt from such tragedy. It is about me contributing in some small way: giving my time and attention to this beautiful corner of the world; spending my money in businesses run by these wonderful people; telling all of you about what a lovely country this is. Tomorrow I’m off to an orphanage / school / community where I’ll spend a couple of days and hope to do some teaching. Then I’m heading off to another local development organisation where I’m going to learn more about Rwandan life. And then it’ll be a couple of days of hiking in the spectacular Volcanoes national park before my Ugandan adventure starts.

I don’t think my Rwandan story will ever end. But this chapter is a very important chapter for me.

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