Bill Frist, MD
The first stop this morning was the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. John Podesta and I laid a wreath at the mass grave site of the genocide victims. I had the opportunity to do this last year when I was in Rwanda with Samaritan’s Purse, Scott Hughett, and my wife, Karyn (who is at home now recuperating from back surgery). The site and the service in which we participated are a moving, memorial remembrance of the million people who died over those 100 days of genocide. (It is so hard to comprehend). Each member of our delegation laid a single rose alongside the wreath, one by one, as we each paid our respects. Beneath that wreath lay a mass grave, one of many at the site, containing the partial remains of over 5,000 individuals from the Kigali region.
It was remarkable that the memorial was designed to tell the story a mere four years after the genocide occurred, during a time when the horror and pain and raw feelings surely must have been still high. The result is a gripping, very tough, realistic portrait achieved through graphic, yet telling, photographs, video interviews, and displays.
We then had lunch at the famous Hotel des Mille Collines, where so much of the 1994 history took place. On the patio we heard first-person testimonials from both a perpetrator, a man who had killed many, many of his fellow Rwandans, and a victim, whose vivid story left all of us in tears. She had watched her husband and children murdered, escaped amidst mass killing in her village (by people she knew), been captured and tortured with repeated sexual assaults by fifteen men, received massive lacerations and broken bones by machete, and yet, she survived. At the table, sitting a mere three feet apart were killer and victim/survivor. How does a country like this move forward? Rwanda is confronting the past openly, with discussion, truth, forgiveness and reconciliation. And they are looking to the future, a future full of hope. This is a lesson of human resilience, played out in our presence: on the patio of the Hotel des Mille Collines.
The greater meta-story is the confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation, not just of these two but of the thousands of Rwandans who just fourteen years ago had identical experiences. How could they forgive? How could they live together even today? If you ever think something seems impossible, reflect on the fact that just fourteen years after genocide, Rwanda has both killer and victim living side by side, together. It doesn’t seem possible but everywhere we go we see this reconciliation process well established and underway, opening up a fresh start for the future. Other Rwandans at the lunch stimulated an enlightening discussion. Rwanda is about reconciliation, not retaliation. Their experience is that repentance begins with confession and leads to reconciliation which leads to justice. They claimed it was important to remember the past, but not to fixate upon it. We learned so much. There are about 350,000 survivors of genocide today. As you can imagine, these survivors were deeply wounded by the experience, and they are still in need of assistance and care.
We also learned that the court system is pure Rwandan. It is a local innovation which launched to deal with the 120,000 suspects of genocide. Traditional courts were too slow and failed for four years; thus, the new court system was adopted. Today there remain 4,000 perpetrators to be tried. The goal of these courts is to seek justice and reconciliation. Perpetrators are punished, but if they confess to their victim’s family and community, they are given leniency.
The world abandoned Rwanda in 1994. The U.S. failed; we watched on the sidelines. We failed humanity. This failure pushed me to bring the genocide resolution against the government of Sudan with respect to Darfur to the floor of the Senate, as Majority Leader. I did so when the Administration and the State Department did not want to call it “genocide” (though six weeks later, the Administration did label it “genocide”). Yet, when Americans, like our delegation, come to Rwanda, the Rwandan people told us that they are left with the feeling that now “We are not alone.”
Rwanda’s “fresh start” is being accelerated by a remarkable president and a government who understand how good governance can facilitate private sector growth to fight poverty. For instance, coffee washing stations open up new worlds for those who had once lost hope. They say again and again that they don’t want “hand-outs,” they want “hand-ups.” They are doing whatever it takes to maximize economic growth: to expand business and foreign investment. They looking and moving ahead with remarkable speed instead of looking backward.
None of what I’ve written gives justice to the nature of the lunch with Rwandans, but I share it just to give you a feel of Rwanda today. In the words of Rwandan Senator Odette Nyiramilimo, M.D., “The past fourteen years have been a time of stabilization; the next ten years are a time of economic growth and opportunity.”
What a morning. A heavy weight was felt by all as we departed the famed hotel with unimaginable images in our minds.