By Jeanne Mariella Uwimana
April is a month of great significance for Rwandans all around the world because the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda that lasted 100 days and eventually claimed 800,000 lives, leading many to flee Rwanda, began on April 7, 1994. Usually, Rwandans and their friends gather in large numbers to commemorate the genocide, however 2021 will be the second year this is not possible because of the COVID-19 crisis.
April 7 is International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, as established by the United Nations, and marks the beginning of national mourning, which continues until July 4th, or Liberation Day, when the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) brought the genocide against the Tutsi to an end.
When the genocide happened, those of us who lived through it were all so much younger, and now we are grown ups, parents ourselves, with children who have no grandparents. We were torn apart physically, and emotionally.
I see these months of annual mourning as a reminder to go through the emotionally toughest parts of our past. Like a tool, this forces us to remember the most strange period in our lives. Gathering together made it easier in the past, but our hearts never wanted to go through these hard emotional flashbacks!
I have consciously thought about how different the 2019 and 2020 Days of Remembrance were. In 2020, the world was in total lockdown due to COVID-19. Our local organizing team was busy preparing for the large community gathering in Portland, but a few days before the planned day the announcement came out – and that was it! We had to cancel all the plans we were making. Our focus turned to the sickness that was taking over everyone’s attention. However, as a genocide survivor who has made the decision not to run away from talking about the horrible past any longer – especially to my own children – I was determined not to let the day go by unnoticed. My children need to have a picture of what happened.
So, when April came, just two weeks after the lockdown started, I knew I had to make sure to bring up the topic of genocide to discuss. We had started practicing the memorial song for the children to sing in a group with other children during the gathering, and we kept practicing, with the two younger brothers asking me why we would still do that, even though there would be no community gathering due to the COVID lockdown.
I was alone with my three sons, dealing with the fear brought by COVID-19, wondering what was happening to the world, when April 7 arrived. We sang the commemoration songs together and reflected on the 2019 peaceful Remembrance Walk and gathering in Portland, and on their singing in 2019 in Kinyarwanda. My boys are full of curiosity, they asked me questions endlessly! Provocative questions about the genocide againt the Tutsis are always lurking. But I was prepared, and answered as well as I could.
April 7, 2021, finds the world, both in Rwanda and for Rwandans everywhere, still in the COVID-19 crisis. However, things feel quite different today compared to 2020, when the pandemic was very fresh, and terrifying. The world has changed tremendously since that time. We have lost family members, acquaintances, colleagues, and neighbors. The whole year has been full of emotional events to deal with. But now the world is seeing the light, I believe, with the vaccine bringing hope of unlocking the world again.
Although large gatherings for International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda are not being planned for this year, Rwandans all over the world have adapted, along with the rest of the world, and virtual events are planned. I feel so glad that different groups of survivors and communities are meeting and commemorating virtually, and that small numbers are gathering, following COVID-19 protocols. None of us have had it easy this past year, but when it comes to April, Rwandan genocide survivors have double the emotional baggage to carry. But we have all persevered, learned, and become more resilient, more creative, and most importantly, more flexible, to deal with what life surprises us with. So let’s keep riding. I believe that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Mariella is a native of Rwanda and a global citizen, having lived, loved, worked, and studied on three continents. She’s committed to living a deeply meaningful life and intentionally creates loving community and family connections wherever she lands. As an expert in diversity, equity, and inclusion, she hopes to be an asset for the community to build bridges between New Mainers and long-time Mainers. She is passionate about helping women grow and learn to live balanced lives.