Rwandan Genocide Remembered – 22 Years Later

Pictures of killed people donated by survivors are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali April 5, 2004 which depicts the country's 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus died. Rwandans hungry for justice demanded tougher efforts to track down and punish killers who carried out the 1994 genocide, saying there could be no reconciliation while suspects were still at large. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti
Pictures of killed people donated by survivors are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali April 5, 2004 which depicts the country’s 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus died. Rwandans hungry for justice demanded tougher efforts to track down and punish killers who carried out the 1994 genocide, saying there could be no reconciliation while suspects were still at large. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

The following post is from something I wrote in 2012. Though dated, it’s still apropo for reflection today.

Eighteen years ago this month, the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis began in Rwanda. In just 3 months nearly 1 million elders, adults, children and infants were brutally slaughtered.

Earlier this month leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York City to commemorate the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated “…the only way to prevent such atrocities from occurring again is to learn from history.” (the post associated with this link has since been rewritten.)

While somewhat reassuring to hear a statement like this from an individual in power, I’m skeptical as to whether it can influence positive change in the future. Here is why. Of course we should learn from history so as not to repeat it. I’m sure if I surveyed 100 people outside my door on the street, most would claim they believe that. But if we want to be really honest with ourselves then the more clarifying question is: If it were 1994 again would we have done anything differently than what we did, as citizens, as a country? Would this have changed with the benefit of hindsight? And if we believe that knowing ahead of time the tragic events that were about to unfold would be enough to move us from bystander to actor, then the next question is: How do we know for certain?

I was traveling to South East Asia at the time of the Genocide. For April and June, I don’t think that I watched television or the news even once. I’m certain that I didn’t read a paper or listen to the news on the radio during this time. I was completely wrapped up in my own world. I was leaving my boyfriend of 8 years and our shared apartment. The first afternoon in my new flat in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, I got an invitation to be part of an international venture. I leapt at the chance and after a week of frenetic shopping, packing of luggage and unpacking of moving boxes, I found myself in a first class cabin bound for Singapore.

The plane took off, I reclined in the cushy first-class seat and pressed the “on” button of the mini-screen t.v. to see the news for the first time in months. That’s when I learned about what was happening in Rwanda. There were scenes of masses of people walking down dirt roads, refugees fleeing for the border. There were other scenes of streets strewn with corpses. There were headlines with quotes from government officials and there was a number, an estimated death toll.

I sat, stone silent while watching. My mind raced with what to do. I had no idea. Nor did anyone around me who had just become aware of the news as I had. I dived into my overseas assignment moving my impression and shock from the news to the back of my mind but not forgetting. In three months I was back home in San Francisco. And that’s when I let fade the news of what I’d heard in early April. Life got busy, I had more responsibilities – shock morphed into memory and nothing changed. And there was nothing to remind me of what was happening in Rwanda in my beautiful neighborhood.

I’ve felt woefully complicit ever since. Not just personally but as an American. There is no question that our country, amoung many others demonstrated a clear and intended lack of leadership and humanity. I’ve asked myself what would I have done differently, had I known? Would I have written my Congressman, and Government Representatives? Would I have started a petition and gathered signatures to try and urge action? Is there anything else I could have done? None of this is enough, of course, but is it better than nothing?

Now, every year in April I make it a point to remember, not just what happened, but also what did not, namely, any form of action by me, as well as any form of intervention on behalf of the Rwandan victims, by one of the worlds most powerful countries, the United States.

Perhaps the most humane act any of us can do is to admit that we, in fact, do not know how we would behave. What we can have is an intention and a commitment to staying awake in front of that commitment. Maybe someday more of the worlds leaders will follow suit, and in so doing, start to build a plan to respond to future threats based on co-responsibility instead of co-denial.





Hate Starts Small Which is the Best Time to Catch It

A Typical Day

It’s 2 in the afternoon on a Sunday when I see Mei-Lian, my landlady’s Gardner, squatting beside the bushes outside my apartment. A quiet 60-something woman from Mainland China, she greets me with a warm, “hay-wo.” She’s holding a pair of long arm plant clippers in one hand and fresh plant cuttings in the other. Over the years, I’ve noticed that she’ll prune a plant that’s not overgrown but ignore the one beside it with dead leaves. I glance at the blooming Bougainvillea just to her right and feel a slight shiver run up my spine. The thought crosses my mind that it could be the next victim of Mei-Lian’s hit-and-miss pruning approach.

I moved into my current apartment from the unit below, despite it being smaller and more expensive, in part because of the view of this Bougainvillea. I loved how its cinnamon-magenta flowers fill the left side of the window, blocking my view of the Hollywood Squares-like apartment complex across the street.

“Hello,” I say back to Mei-Lian with a slightly forced smile. Normally, I’m happy to see her but the thought of my Bougainvillea getting over-pruned triggers a kind of rigidity inside me. I go inside my apartment and pour a glass of chilled green tea, hoping my mood will do the same – chill. But for good measure, decide to cDSC_4811.JPGall my landlord to check that he remembers our agreement that the Bougainvillea not be cut down. Minutes later, after a short but pleasant conversation with him, I’m assured by him our agreement still stands. Relieved, I go take a nap.


Thirty minutes later a buz saw wakes me up with a jolt.  It can’t be…I think to myself, rushing outside in a surreal combination of post-nap daze and hyper-alertness.

“What are you doing!!?” I yell, “This bush doesn’t need pruning!!”

Mei-Lian, standing at the top of her ladder, moving the saw through the Bougainvillea from left to right, turns it off to answer me. Smiling she says, “is k, is k…bett now.”

Enraged and a bit nauseas, I can taste the bitterness of adrenaline. “What are you doing!!!!???,” I repeat, in the vain hope that words, if conveyed with intensity, can be as effective as actual physical action to stop her in her tracks.

But it’s no use. With a nervous laugh, she turns on the saw and finishes the job until the once blooming beauty is reduced to a woody nub.

I walk away, feeling betrayed and disrespected. How could this happen? I had an agreement? I went back to my apartment, dropped onto my couch and sobbed, feeling unheard, disrespected and powerless to protect something I cherished. I thought bad things. Hurtful things. I knew that Mei-Lian was not malicious, and that there may well have been a miscommunication between her and the landlord. (In fact, this turned out to be the case).

In thinking about it a short time later, I don’t know what was more painful, not having control to stop someone from doing something that was hurtful, or feeling rage toward a peaceful and gentle person.

Her action, whether wrong or right, brought out the worst in me. I got a taste of the animal within. I think this is what was MOST painful, that the thing that enraged me, Mei-Lian’s unwillingness to stop an action that was causing distress, was the very thing that I did toward her in response.

During our interaction and moments afterward, I continued a verbal assault on Mei-Lian in my mind. At one point, even referring to her as “those kind of people don’t care…”

Thinking further, I realized that by framing our interaction in terms of them/us I felt better about myself.

What an ugly and important thing to see in myself, how easy and convenient it is to  objectify another person so I can feel better. Not a great moment for me, but actually a really useful moment to remember.

Slippery Slope to Intolerance

Isn’t this a kind of slippery slope from indifference to intolerance that can lead to hate and even hurtful action. Slippery because the smallness of it makes it so subtle, as to tell oneself – I’m only human, I have the right to be upset…blah, blah, blah.  And there’s truth to that, a lot of truth. I am only human – we are all only human. Feeling emotions is are part of being human.

It’s what happens after that, the story we tell ourselves and hold on to over time that’s the tricky part. The slippery part.

Have you ever noticed that it’s often victims who speak up against injustice – as they should. But the voice that’s often missing is that of the bully accepting responsibility.

Would that change, I wonder, if more of us saw our part early on?

Time Heals All Wounds If…

They say time heals all wounds. Maybe so. But I think in order for that to happen, we have to be diligent to try and see our part BEFORE and INSTEAD of blaming others. We have to take care to not hold on to the boxes we put others in. It’s our choice whether or not we keep them there in our mind and hearts.

As of today, the Bougainvillea has completely grown back. But as for my pride, I’m working to keep it pruned, not to a woody nub, but not overgrown.