Austin Harris, KF11 Rwanda
In 1994, over the course of 100 days, a mass killing of an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda took place. These killings were targeted at Tutsis and pro-peace Hutus, reducing the country’s population by over 10%. Many witnessed family members and friends murdered, tortured, and/or raped. Of those who were not killed, around two million Rwandans fled to neighboring countries. Most, even if not directly involved, were affected by the genocide. The wounds are deep and are still healing among the people.
After the genocide Rwandans have attempted reintegration of its people into society. Regardless of a person’s association with the genocide, Rwandans have attempted to become unified. This process cannot be easy, especially given that your neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens may have been involved in the violence. However, the country strives to move beyond the divisions of the past and become one people.
Although memories of the genocide are still painful, Rwanda has chosen to memorialize many of the sites where killings took place. These memorials serve as a reminder of the past and a place to work through the anguish of the memories. There are several large memorials and over 200 smaller memorials spread across the country, enabling most Rwandans to revisit this event. In addition to capturing the atrocities of the genocide, the memorials provide a lesson of the devastating potential when divisions in a country worsen without amelioration. Simply shielding the public from these events would not allow for the necessary grievance and mending Rwandans need.
I am a Kiva fellow working with Urwego Opportunity Bank (UOB), a microfinance bank that has branches spread over the country with over 200 Rwandan staff of various backgrounds. For any group to function well, they must be able to work together, trust each other, and value one another. Given the horrors of genocide, this process may prove difficult. UOB staff members have different connections to this genocide which could easily put them at odds with each other. Urwego Opportunity Bank strives to unify its staff members so that they may collectively serve the microfinance community.
Staff members of UOB traveled together to the Nyamata Genocide Memorial. They marched the streets of the town with a sign reading “In commemoration of the Tutsi genocide. Let’s work together and fight against trauma.” As they marched, the cars on the road stopped and pulled to the side. The people of the town lined the streets. As they marched, a silence hovered.
The Nyamata Genocide Memorial is a site where approximately 10,000 Rwandans crammed into a church to seek refuge from the approaching military. They locked themselves in by securing metal gates. The military shot through the gates and threw grenades into the space. They finally used their grenades to force open the doors. The mass killings began. Men, women, and children were shot, butchered, and bludgeoned. Piles of blood encrusted clothing from the dead are piled in stacks throughout the church. Bullet holes are visible in the walls and blood stains remain on the walls and ceilings from those who were shot. Outside of the church is an underground crypt with tiers of skulls and other bones, revealing the impact of the knives and bludgeoning weapons.
The Nyamata Genocide Memorial is both graphic and candid. The site preserves the horrific event and captures the intensity of the killings. Most of the UOB staff lived through this genocide and were revisiting the emotions surrounding this event. Staff members from either side of the killings were at the Memorial together, both enduring the difficult yet therapeutic process of facing these past events. The Nyamata Genocide Memorial, like other genocide memorials in the country, enables Rwandans to face a dreadful past and jointly strive to never allow a similar atrocity to occur.
Staff members of UOB gave speeches. The focus of each largely treated this event as a past evil that must be overcome together. There was no mention of retribution, retaliation, or any type of revenge. From a variety of staff members, the speeches emphasized the common goal of achieving progress through unity. They declared the mission of the bank is not just to alleviate poverty, but also to alleviate the poverty of humanity. UOB’s role is to build good within people along with building wealth for its clients. The staff, who could very easily be divided given Rwanda’s history, recognized the abomination of this genocide and used its lessons constructively. The staff were both united in their cause as a microfinance institute and as a people; they were united by an understanding of the potential destruction of division and a yearning to build a better nation.