I can never forget the Rwandan genocide. April 1994. I was in secondary school. Still wearing the chequered frock of Junior Secondary and not yet the elegant pinafore of the Senior set. On April 6, 1994, an aircraft carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. That barely registered on my radar. The African Cup of Nations was going on in Tunisia and Nigeria would eventually go on to win it. We had also qualified for the World Cup in the USA. All-4-One’s greatest hit ‘I Swear’ was on the lips of every schoolboy. Sonny Okosuns had brought his distinct style of singing to Gospel. The Rich Also Cry was on television and we were still enthralled by Living in Bondage.
At the time I could not identify Rwanda on the map. Rashidi Yekini had more resonance for me than Kigali. Hutu and Tutsi were words I had never heard. All cockroaches meant to me was the scourge of our kitchen, those creatures that insisted on defecating in our gaari. But soon the news from Rwanda brought the horror into our television sets. 800,000 Rwandan people were killed in 100 days. (Read that sentence again, let it register.) This was not aerial bombardment. This was not a case where weapons of mass destruction were used. Most of the killing was done with machetes, done by neighbours and family members… ‘friends.’ One seemingly little known fact is that the Hutus and Tutsis have the same language; the same religion; the same culture. The physiological differences between the communities were greatly emphasised by the European invaders of Rwanda and Burundi, first the Germans then the Belgians, as an instrument of colonial rule.
So I listened to the news. Every day. And the horrific truth was that the whole world had seen it coming. And we were silent. Colonialism enabled it, neo-colonialism let it happen. 800,000 people tortured and killed. 800,000. There are currently about 70 countries in the world whose population is less than that. 800,000 people.
Years later, I would watch the film Hotel Rwanda and weep uncontrollably at the main character standing in the middle of a sea of bodies hacked down as they fled to safety. I watched Sometimes in April at end of my second Term at Enugu Law School, the very last day of term. I watched it twice, I could not sleep for months. I can still taste the horror I felt. Miles and years removed from the violence.
In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly designated April 7 the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. One of my professors at Lancaster told me that her students do not remember Rwanda because it happened so long ago, before most of them were born. But we should always remember. How can we learn the lessons of the past if we always forget the past? How can we learn that looking away will almost certainly result in destruction? We forget so easily. How do we learn that difference should be celebrated and not obliterated? How do we remember that the path to destruction starts with dehumanisation? HOW?
As I write this, gas attacks are happening in Syria, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, bodies drowning in the Mediterranean, for the first time in history 4 man-made famines are endangering lives across the African continent. So many more horrors than there is time and space for. And we see these coming, we are turning away from people who are different. We need to remember, so we can change.
I hope and pray that never again will human life be taken for granted, never again will we see human skulls as the raw materials of an interior decor display, never again will our backs be turned as a world descends into hell, because if we do again as a world we will lose more of our humanity… and truthfully, we do not have much left to lose.
Today is the 7th of April.
Today we remember.
Tomorrow we must change,
So we do not stand here ever again.