If like me you lead a sheltered life (and most readers of this blog fall into that category), then maybe your idea of a bad time might be the Irish “troubles.” Some 3000 people out of a northern Irish population of 2 million died violently over a period of 30 years. Or maybe you’d think historically… in terms, say, of the U.S. Civil War. 750,000 were killed over a five-year period out of a population of just over 30 million.
The scale of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was different. Perhaps as many as 800,000 people out of a population of 1.5 million Tutsis were killed in a period of only 3 months. This works out to a stunning 10,000 murders per day maintained over a period of roughly 100 days. The closest comparisons might be the Holocaust (9 million out of a 12 million population over a period of five or more years) and the Cambodian killing fields (2 million out of 8 million over 4 years).
Unsurprisingly you see repercussions of the Rwandan genocide everywhere today. The wounds are still fresh. For example, our time here has included visits with women who are HIV-positive or who have full-blown AIDS as a consequence of the genocide’s brutality.
We’ve also walked through two of the dozens of memorial sites scattered about the country. Monday we spent some time at a Catholic church outside the city where 5000 Tutsis including women and children were killed after vainly seeking sanctuary there.
5000 deaths in one small church? The number, like all the other statistics, is stupefyingly large. The great social scientist Paul Slovic has termed our inability to comprehend and respond effectively to genocide and other tragedies psychic numbing. This particular memorial and others like it here try to overcome this by presenting the event in a stark, gripping way. The church structure itself was partially destroyed by grenades and other weapons used in the attack. The ruins have been allowed to stand in this state, protected from the elements by a frame structure supporting a simple steel roof. Skeletal remains of the victims are stacked against one wall, their clothing against another. A dozen coffins contain an additional one hundred sets of remains each. [There’s more, but it’s simply too painful to incorporate the full specifics here.] One particular of the tragedy that’s hard to get over is the reality that in previous Rwandan genocides…there have been several over the past century…churches had been a safe haven for those able to reach them. But that was not the case this time around. [Three or four photographs can be found here, among those dated Rwanda 1/28]
Thursday we visited the Kigali Memorial Center, opened in 2004, on the tenth anniversary of the genocide. The remains of over 250,000 victims, all from the Kigali area, are buried here, in terraced tombs, on a hillside facing and offering a commanding view of the city’s center. A museum, reminiscent of Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, gives the background and tells the story. April of every year, this and all the other memorials are crowded with mourners. Sobering. But the most telling part is that the country continues to struggle to come to grips with what happened and work through a meaningful reconciliation.
The genocide also lives on in unique demographics. We’re told Rwanda has the highest percentage of orphans of any country in the world…perhaps as many as one million orphans out of a total population of only 10 million. The country struggles to cope. It also finds the statistic embarrassing. There’s talk here that Rwanda plans to eliminate all orphanages over the coming few years, with the exception of certain legacy orphanages such as Mother Teresa’s Home of Hope orphanage in Kigali, which we visited Sunday. However, such a step may do little more than mask the problem.
In addition to children currently housed in orphanages, there are children who are truly homeless, as well as so-called “street boys.” This third category was a new one for me. Turns out there are thousands of orphaned boys who are offered a place to sleep at night by friends or close relatives, but given no food or other forms of support (girls in such a position would be far more vulnerable, and it turns out that they are not forced into such a position in any comparable numbers). The street boys eke out a precarious, day-to-day existence on the streets of Kigali, scrounging bits of food and small items for possible sale. Some missionaries here have taken the trouble to identify some of these children and provide the minimal underpinnings needed to get the boys enrolled in schools and support them a bit so long as they’re there. Unless such efforts are successful, Rwanda’s social challenges will be perpetuated for generations. Our group met with about 40 of these boys ranging in age from 5 to 17 on Thursday. I asked the boys two questions among many: Who has to come the furthest to the church school each day? One of the five –year-olds walks an hour each way each day. How old did they think I was? (Remember, these are teenagers, not little kids, guessing). They thought I was impossibly old, so they guessed: 30. They couldn’t imagine anyone living longer than that.
Gender-, genocide-, and generational issues make up part of the fabric of Living on the Real World that must be addressed if we’re to live sustainably for the remainder of this century. Quite bluntly, the science and engineering of resource extraction, environmental protection, and natural hazards are silent on these topics. We must therefore look elsewhere for answers. Social science is a starting point, but social science tells us early on that spiritual dimensions… such as hatred, love, and forgiveness…must be dealt with in the same disciplined way we approach science if we’re to have any hope of a brighter, more humane future.