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Come With Us To Rwanda

Almost only Osman’s Daily Journal of the 2016 CONTACT Rwanda Mid-Year Seminar

February 8, 2016 By Osman Benk

Day 1:

We, the CONTACT certificate students from the 2015 CONTACT summer Peacebuilding Program, are in Rwanda, the country best described as a country with a thousand hills. Barely 24 hours after our arrival, we had the opportunity of visiting the Parliament where we had honest, frank, and sometimes brutal discussions on peace, reconciliation, and current political issues with three sitting MPs, one of whom is a CONTACT Certificate Graduate himself, Honourable Eddie!

We spoke about the Rwandan context of the ‘More Time’ trend concerning African Heads of State and the extension of their terms in power, Rwanda’s role in Burundi and DR Congo and other regional issues, the ‘international hypocrisy’ of the international community, the structures of the Rwandan governance architecture, and, of course, Donald Trump!

Day 2:

Reaching out to grassroots communities is my (Osman’s) first love (obviously after his wife). Consequently I was very excited on our second day in Rwanda as we ventured out to Butare in the southern region of Rwanda. It was a journey of three hours snaking our way up and down hills reminiscent of what one might see training for the marathon in the Rift Valley of Kenya. SAVE village (pronounced sah/vay), a very small town with a very lively people and wonderful children, was our destination. We had come to take part in a community dialogue which created a platform for both victims and perpetrators of the country’s Genocide in 1994 to share with us their experiences before, during, and after that period, as well as how, twenty years after, they continue to live side by side in peace.

In all, five of them, including three women who were Genocide widows and survivors, opened up their hearts to tell us their stories and what lessons we could endeavor to learn from them.

I cannot judge them but what they had to say was heart-rending. Yes, this is about Rwanda’s past, present and future, and we are here to listen and learn more, but we can tell that the emotional, psychological, and physical scars of their collective past run very deep and every day is an act of courage.

After listening we had time to visit the community and partake of their food and hospitality. After we went into Butare to get a taste of the best home-made Rwandan ice cream from a place called Sweet Dreams (owned and managed by a women’s drumming collective), and then joined the township of Butare in celebrating Rwanda’s victory against Ivory Coast in soccer that afternoon. Three more hours through beautiful, green rolling hills and we are home and resting for tomorrow!

Day 3:

Even in the creation story, God, according to the Holy Scriptures, rested on the Seventh day…and I (Osman) imagine that day to be a Sunday. However, with limited time and a lot of ground to cover, we students of the School for International Training’s (SIT) Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding CONTACT Certificate program were in class today to continue with our seminar!

While we were busy preparing for the start of the day, the Catholic Church nearby was busy setting up its speakers and its choristers were seen (heard!) putting last minute finishing touches to their vocal cords. We could not compete with them as once they start we will be drowned by the voice of God coming from next door, so we moved into the garden of our guesthouse.

Meanwhile, though it was still in the early hours of the morning, you could sense that Sunday was already going to be a quiet day. The streets were less busy unlike other days. Shops, stores and other businesses around were literally shut down. January (Osman’s taxi driver!) had earlier said: “Today is a day for us to go to church and nothing else to do but church.” I can understand where he is coming from because, according to a United States 2013 statistics (actually based on the country’s 2002 census) on religion in Rwanda, only 4.6% of the population is Muslim. 56.9% is Romanic Catholic, 26% Protestant, and 11.1% is Seventh Day Adventist.

For us not to be left out of the religious flow, and as was standard practice while in Vermont, we reverted to our morning ritual. This is a form of devotion that is not attached to any particular religion but is rather a platform for us to reflect on the world’s woes and requests for that Supreme Being to find the right answers that will culminate in peace, love and harmony.

With our friends from Rwanda, Dede and Fanny, we were taught a Kinyarwanda song and a proverb and afterwards, we sat in silent meditation for peace to reign in Rwanda and all over the world.

The tone was now set for the day and a very long day it was. First was an encounter with both a perpetrator and an amputee survivor of the Genocide, Emmanuel and Alice, respectively. Emmanuel had left Alice for dead when they attacked the swamp where she was hiding with her baby and husband and many other people. A cut he had given her on her right arm later became infected and she lost her hand. He confessed his crimes in the Gacaca courts and later, when he had the opportunity of working together with Alice at a construction site, he confronted his past telling Alice what he did to her and begged for forgiveness. Though she immediately fainted and was rushed to the hospital, when she regained consciousness after two days she went back to the site and forgave Emmanuel. She, in fact, had been searching for him specifically for years so she could forgive him for what he had done to her. Today both work in the same organization and they are like a family with a special, almost divine, bond, though both talk about the psychological scars these memories and experiences have left them with.

Next, we wanted to have an alternative voice to what we had heard from Parliament the other day. How free is the media in Rwanda? Does it provide an alternative voice to the Government’s narrative and, if not, what is the alternative? Interestingly, it was Robert Mugabe who came forward to tell that story. No! He is not the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe! This is the Editor of The Great Lakes Voice (www.greatlakesvoice.com) who is said to be perhaps among the few fearless media voices to be found in the country. He says he knows about Concord Times and claims he even attended some training in the U.S. several years back with a female Concord Times journalist. His perspective on the space for media and on being a professional journalist in Rwanda was an interesting one. He spoke of how he must constantly be the best journalist he can be because every story he writes is literally the story of his life. He is both supportive and critical of different government and civil society issues and sometimes must work very hard with the government to keep them comfortable with his continuing presence as a free media voice in Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region.

We concluded the official aspect of the day with some refreshing stories of how a woman named Cristine, who is known as a rescuer, saved the lives of four people, including two babies, during the Genocide by hiding them in her house and later taking the kids to an orphanage where they all survived. She also helped another lady not to die of her wounds after the woman was attacked. Cristine took this woman to the hospital for six consecutive days and she spoke of how each of those days was like going through hell and back. She could have been killed but cared less about the consequences. One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of her story was that it was members of her own family who were the people manning the checkpoints on the way to the hospital or coming to look for the folks she was hiding in her home. Indeed, she belongs to a special class of unsung heroes. When asked why she risked her life to save these people, she spoke of God and of who these people were who were being killed around her: they were her friends. Her neighbours. They were children. How could she not try to save them was her answer.

Then it was time for dinner, chatting, and some boozing for those of us who care for that form of debriefing!

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Day 4:

Mondays everywhere in the world are very busy days and so it goes for Kigali, Rwanda. The animated-like suspense that gripped Kigali streets on Sunday has been replaced by the hustle and bustle of heavy traffic and commuters running to places where they go for their living.

For us, the morning was spent with Ruhama Jean Claude, Director of Refugees in the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMA). He gave us a detailed description of the different types of refugees that they are dealing with: (1) foreign refugees hosted in Rwanda are mostly from DRC. 75,000 of them are in five camps. (2) Burundian refugees are now increasingly coming into the country due to the growing instability in Burundi. He also spoke about the various transit camps set aside for Rwandan refugees returning to the country and the successful ‘Come and See, Go and Tell’ program which has helped, in a way, in getting over 3.5 million Rwandan refugees to return to the country since 1994. Jean Claude could not be distracted from his views and was quick to give, in a subtle way, knockout punches to my colleagues Patrick, from DRC, and JC, from Burundi, respectively, when they claimed that refugees are being recruited from camps inside Rwanda to go and fight in the two neighboring countries. He flatly said these were mere allegations.

Next was Alexis Nkunrunziza who came to talk to us about the role and influence of foreign aid in Rwanda. He represents CLADHO, the umbrella body of Human Rights organizations in the country and his specialty is on social and economic rights, international aid, and government budget transparency. He was the ‘figures man’ and he seems well grounded on issues relating to how the national budget caters to the needs of the country. He noted that 38% of the budget comes from foreign aid and the rest from homegrown income. For him this is a success story considering the fact that in 1994 after the Genocide, the country had barely a penny to kick-start their economy and start rebuilding their society. The government’s stated goals are to be reliant on foreign aid for only 25% of the National Budget by 2020.

One of the most interesting things about Alexis is that he was a child soldier who joined the RPF at the age 11 to help liberate his people during the Genocide. He was born in Burundi but two years after the Genocide, Save The Children helped him to return to school and today he is a well-grounded man talking about budget transparency, the role of international aid in developing nations, and other fiscal disciplines and human rights issues.

The afternoon was set-aside for a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It was my (Osman’s) second visit. I (Osman) thought it was going to help me go through the experience without betraying my emotions. It did not. In fact, nothing prepares you to go through this painful experience. This was the gravesite of about 259,000 persons who lost their lives to the catastrophe of Rwanda’s Genocide.

The museum itself is a sad reminder of what transpired in the country in 1994, but also a place of remembrance and learning for the future. I (Osman) came out of that experience again today more confused and with a lot of questions—Why, why, why do things like this happen on our beautiful planet.

Day 5:

Kigali never ceases to amaze us! It has already been five days here and each day has come with its own emotions, sometimes with a mix bag of emotions. From the parliament on Day 1 to joining hundreds of Rwandans in celebrating their small victory over my West African neighbors, Ivory Coast, in a junior continental football tournament, to meeting with perpetrators and survivors of the genocide in ‘94 at a village in Butare called Save and yesterday’s visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, there is a lot to do and learn not only about the country but also about how we as actors in the areas of Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding could be useful in helping to put out those little flames that have, over the course of history, resulted in huge and violent conflicts.

Today rolled by quickly. It started with a session with Search For Common Ground, hearing about how they operate and what the organisation does in the country. Theirs is a peculiar story considering the role I (Osman) know the same organisation plays in both Liberia and Sierra Leone where they continue to have a huge influence in working with the media and civil society especially on governance issues and more particularly elections. They do not seem to have as much influence here in Rwanda. A referendum dealing with presidential tenure extension recently took place here in Rwanda and Search For Common Ground was not too involved in that discourse. Here, they are more encouraged to talk about land issues or land rights, as some may want to call it. Narcisse Kalisa, who came to speak with us, is Search For Common Ground’s Country Director and he is happy that at least some effort is being made to reach out to Rwandans on some other burning issues of equal importance. The good news though is that at least they have been able to work on regional projects targeting neighboring Burundi and DRC and, in a way, they appear to have created an impact.

Then, Jean Claude Ntezimana, who is the Secretary General of the only legally registered opposition party, the Democratic Green Party, was next to talk to us. It took them four years to register in 2013. Like any opposition, he said they have had their challenges. They are still trying to find answers as to who killed their Vice President which initially resulted in the fleeing of the party’s leader, Frank Habineza, to Sweden. He returned in 2012 after assurances from the government that he is not a wanted man, but questions remain for them. He thinks that the media has been a very helpful partner but only with the blessings and through the utterances, statements, and, in all seriousness, the tweets of President Kagame, which have pushed the national radio and television to open up the space for the voice of the opposition to be heard in the national discourse on some issues.

They petitioned against the recently held presidential term referendum but said, for the places that he was able to monitor, they were free and fair. However, should his party win the 2017 elections, they will seek to revisit certain clauses of the constitution. Obviously, this is an opposition that is happy with some of the space that is being granted them in the national discourse, but still feels squeezed on certain issues and in certain spaces.

They say an idle mind is the devils workshop and today being a half day for our sessions, it was time to better explore Kigali. This I (Osman and friends) did with my main man Celestine who turned out to be not only our taxi driver but also our tour guide. He first took us to the memorial where the 10 Belgium UN peacekeepers were killed in 94. This was another humbling experience though I was visiting again for the second time.

Local food came in very handy after crisscrossing the city! A well-deserved rest is now needed to prepare for what awaits us on Day 6!

Day 6:

It is already six days since our arrival in Kigali. With the speed of a rocket, the days have come and gone. A lot has been covered from the first day when we visited the Parliament to yesterday when Osman and friends had the opportunity of paying our own respects at the site where the 10 UN Belgian peacekeepers lost their lives during the genocide period in April 1994.

The highlight of our day came at the end and was an interactive session we had with Pastor Antoine Rutaysire of the St. Stephens Anglican Cathedral. We wanted to talk to him about Peacebuilding and rebuilding societies after Genocide but from a religious perspective. He was best placed to talk on such a topic because he served for twelve years as a Commissioner in the Unity and Reconciliation Committee set up after the fateful events of April 94.

For him, Rwanda has not succeeded in long lasting reconciliation but “we have succeeded in creating peaceful cohabitation.” He says it will take Rwanda about three generations to achieve real reconciliation though “the mistrust and the wounds will exist.” He had much to speak about in regards to the role of church communities and religious leaders in both the Genocide itself as well in the struggles and success of its aftermath. Keenan’s favorite quote from Pastor Antoine was that nobody hates God, people just hate irrelevant churches. Pastor Antoine is a shining example of a religious leader who is dynamically engaged with his community and it shows as he spoke of how, on Sundays, folks pack his church and even hang their heads through open windows! He spoke eloquently of the divinity of true forgiveness but also realistically about how it is something that cannot be forced. He was well versed in politics as well and spoke at length about the restrictions in place within Rwandan society, how they are positive and negative, and how the time is not yet ripe to lift these restrictions as the wounds and social realities that led to the Genocide in the first place have not all healed or been transformed yet. He say he hopes one of his grandchildren will be a part of the voice that eventually opens up Rwandan society into its full and free potential!

However, before this date with the Man of God, it was pleasing for us to see the streets of Kigali consumed by young men on motorbikes brandishing the colors of their national flag and the thunderous blabbing to the sounds of the ‘Vuvuzela’. The whole nation in one way or the other was preparing to throw its support behind the Amavubi (Rwanda’s National Football Team—The Wasps) as they were preparing to lock horns with their Gabonese counterparts at the ongoing 2016 African Nations Championships which the Rwandese are hosting. For the record, Amavubi won the game by 2 goals to 1!

On a slightly chilly morning (like most mornings in this land of a thousand hills), our day started with a topical discussion on promoting positive masculinities for Gender Equality. In a room with almost an equal size of men and women where the men had to talk in a circle while the women listened at the back, Patrick from DRC and Eric from Liberia gave us their thoughts and, mostly, it had to do with the cultural sensitivities or the social makeup of the environment from where they grew up and how that formed their notion of what it means to be a man. The good thing, though, all are in agreement that no matter what, both genders should be placed on the same pedestal. This is what they desire for their kids, whether boy or girl.

We also got to learn a lot from the Ministry of Education’s Science and Technology Director who came to talk to us about a wide range of issues. Like someone who believes that proverbs are the red oil with which words are written, she spoke most of the time in parables, a reminder of the great African storyteller, Chinua Achebe. The Director was also interested in knowing our impressions of her beautiful country. For me, that I see very clean streets and so much peace and quiet around, I have all reason to be impressed. That women also dominate the space in the halls of parliament with a percentage of 65 is also something worth recognising!

Clearly, Rwanda has come a long way from her unfortunate past in 94, and as I continue to listen, see and hear, my mind will be open to receiving the rich knowledge I can take back with me.

Final Day:

Today was the last session for our Mid-Year Seminar in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding. We chose to come to Rwanda because we wanted to learn how the country is engaged in healing the wounds of the past. 21 years after Genocide, the wounds are still fresh in the minds of the people but there has been tremendous development in the country. The tangibles are there to be seen but tonight, as I (Osman) begin to pack my bags for my return journey, my parting thoughts are in the form of a poem.

Please read on as I also leave you with the spectacle of the most wonderful people I have been with for the past days in addition to the beauty of Lake Muhazi where we spent our final day in debriefing dialogue and conversation in the presence of sheer natural splendor.

Ndagukunda Kigali

From the West Coast of Africa I come
To the land of a thousand hills I pray
Unlike Jesus, my second coming beckoned
To where Kagame is King

In 94, blood awash the land
In 2015, smiles reign supreme
And Never Again they vow
Not to flow the land with blood

Oh Kigali how I yearn Salone (Sierra Leone) could learn
From beautiful streets devoid with trash
From a town where ‘cut ya put ya’ is strange
And oh yes! From a Parliament where women rule with 65%
But oh gosh! I rest my mind in peace
To the delight of Ndaagukunda Kigali
Or simply put, Kigali, I love you!

Osman’s Final “Thank You Kigali”:

Having read and seen movies about it, a trip to the beautiful city of Kigali, in my mind, is incomplete without visiting Hotel Des Milles Collines, or Hotel Rwanda.

During the Genocide in 94, and according to the movie, Hotel Rwanda, the hotel providing refuge for Tutsis trying to escape the genocide.

However, other sources say the Hotel Manager, who was well portrayed in the movie, his name is Paul Rusesabagina, actually collected 100 USD a day for protection. It was not free.

Controversies aside, I wanted to have a feel of the hotel itself and enjoy its panoramic view of the city.

So, together with a few friends, we settled for dinner there. It was well complemented with a live band performance of very melodious, traditional Kinyarwandan songs and dances.

Lunchtime, however, was used to visit the Presidential Palace now turned museum of Juvenal Habyarimana. He was the country’s President whose plane was shot down just a few kilometers from his house on April 6, 1994, thus sparking the start of the genocide.

A splendid compound it was with a lot of bathrooms and more escape routes than bedrooms. Quite a paranoid man apparently! However, I could not contain my tears when I saw pictures of babies massacred during the genocide.

No wonder Pastor Antoine said it would take about three generations for the scars of genocide to heal.

Coming was indeed an experience in itself. Now, as the city is soundly snoring, I await at a silent terminal with Philip and Eric for our return to the West Coast of Africa.