Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rwanda: Genocide and the Heritage of Hope

It was the children that touched me most. Their smiling faces were pinned on postcards line upon line around the room. The fact that these young lives were brutally cut short, sometimes by horrific, prolonged, torturous deaths, was inescapable. Yet, it was impossible to imagine what would possess anyone to commit such atrocities to defenseless human beings. Children were forced to watch the torture of their parents, the rape of their mothers, the mutilation of their fathers, the death by machete of their siblings. All this left the seemingly unanswerable question: "Why?"
Our first stop of the day was the Genocide Memorial comprised of a garden surrounding the mass graves of over 250,000 people, and a commemorative building that told the stories of the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a period of time not much longer than our around the world trip would take. It was a sobering and somber time of reflection. It was a soul-searching experience that could not be described by words. It left me searching my own psyche. Could I commit such atrocities under the right circumstances? Could the perpetration of such evil lurk behind the smiles, the handshakes, the pleasantries exchanged by friends and neighbors, even family members? How could a nation ever recover and rebuild after suffering such a bloody national stain?

I must admit that I was anxious to leave the Memorial, as I had never been confronted with such a graphic example of man's inhumanity to man. Our schedule did not allow us to linger, and I went reeling into the remainder of the day carrying the images of callously murdered children in my mind.
The next engagement was with representatives of the Kigali Bar Association (misnamed for historical reasons, as it is actually the Rwanda Bar Association). The meeting provided a helpful overview of Rwanda's extraordinary efforts to deal with its own unprecedented crimes of genocide at a time when the legal profession, judges and the justice system had been decimated. Rwandans are proud people who, despite the still painful scars they bear, insist that they must deal with the injustices. It is as if to say, "You were not here to help stop the slaughter, so how can you help heal our country?" Yes, Rwanda has been the beneficiary of foreign aid dollars. Yes, nonprofit organizations have been, and continue to be, an important part of rebuilding. However, it is the Rwandan people who bear the burden of confronting the horror of their history. It is the Rwandan people who must reconstruct the shattered trust of their fellow citizens. And it is the Rwandan people who must create a new heritage of hope.
While statistics are only one aspect of any story, the executive director of the Bar Association gave me the following information:
-         In 1997 there were 37 advocates (lawyers authorized to represent people in court) left in the country Rwanda. Now there are approximately 767. This works out to one advocate for every 15,000 people in Rwanda (Canada has approximately 1 advocate for every 700 people, and the United States has 1 for every 500 approximately).
-         64% of the advocates are in their first few years of legal practice.
-         There have been as many as 120,000 prison inmates, including genocide criminals and those awaiting trial. This number has been reduced substantially.

Later that afternoon I had the extraordinary privilege of a meeting with the President of the High Court of Rwanda.  He is the equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal for the country. While thrilled to meet him, and thankful for the opportunity, I fully expected the visit to be perfunctory, polite and short. Instead, I was honored with a meaningful time of discussion where real issues were addressed for more than 90 minutes. While he was confident, I did not detect any arrogance. And while he recognized the huge burden and public nature of his responsibilities, he spoke with passion about the resilience of the Rwandan people. While he readily admitted imperfection in the system, significant progress has been made through the use of alternate dispute resolution techniques, community courts focused on reconciliation, and rebuilding of credibility in the country's justice system. He was obviously well read, well informed and well educated, while at the same time maintaining a sense of humor evidencing he did not take himself too seriously. When asked what he wanted most for others to understand about Rwanda and its justice system, he was ready with an answer, generally as follows. The wealthy nations of the world could have stepped in to stop the genocide, stop the injustice and give hope to the hopeless. They did not. The media could have assisted in alerting the world to the plight of helpless Rwandans in 1994. They did not. But now they are quick to judge us. If they must do so, let them do so on the facts, on the evidence. Rwandans have no motivation or desire to harm Rwandans. On the contrary, Rwandans must be given hope, a faith in their future, and an ability to move on.

I had the opportunity of meeting with several other Rwandan lawyers with extraordinary stories of personal tragedy and yet these men and women maintain an unfailing commitment to a bright and hopeful vision for Rwanda. While the lawyers and judges of Rwanda have a series of seemingly impossible hurdles ahead of them, they are working courageously and diligently to contend with these challenges. While not without stumbling from time to time, and despite international criticisms (some deserved and some not), having looked in their eyes and heard the passion in their voices, I believe they will succeed.

If the people of Rwanda can rebuild their lives, restore their faith in a future and reignite hope for their country after the devastation of 1994, then how can we in the West do any less? And to those of us with Parkinson's disease, men and women who have experienced life-changing diagnoses, can we not commit ourselves to battle for a better tomorrow? We can learn much from Rwanda about resilience and the ability to move on from unimaginable pain and loss. For all of us, nothing less than leaving a legacy of hope for those who follow, for the children, is acceptable.

1 comment:

  1. What an extraordinary day, as well as the opportunity to meet with the High Court President. Our daughter in law has been to the Kigali Memorial and I have heard her responses that are so similar to yours, Bob.
    The historian in me would like to know more about your enigmatic statement that the "Rwanda Bar Assoc was misnamed for historical reasons...?"