By Craig Elson
Emotion wells up inside Lama Mugabo, and he chokes it back as he introduces his documentary film on the children of Rwanda.
“I have never seen so many people who are interested in what happened in Rwanda. I didn’t return to Rwanda to tell the story of the genocide; but to show the reconstruction, how youth and women are recovering.”
Rwanda is the genocide the world ignored. Between April and June, 1994, 10 per cent of the population was decimated. The vast majority of those slaughtered were Tutsis, annihilated by the ruling Hutu power.
The Rwandan media, backed by Hutu government officials, practiced undisguised hate-speech, calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” pushing for their “extermination” as being the only solution for Rwanda.
It was a meticulously planned attack carried out with the complicity and even outright support of the so-called Western civilized world.
A small assembly of people bore witness to the horror of the Rwandan genocide inside the Bahen Centre, at the University of Toronto last week.
A mere hundred people gathered to remember the annihilation of a million Rwandans, but the filmmaker was grateful for the interest. Perhaps because Rwandans have no reason to believe that we care, then or now.
Depending on how you look at it, Rwanda is a small country or a giant garden. Because of its agriculture, it supports a large population, made up predominantly of Hutus (80 per cent) and Tutsis (17 per cent). After the end of colonial rule in the early 1960s, Rwanda faded completely from international sight.
“As far as political interests go, Rwanda might as well be Mars,” writes Philip Gourevitch in his book, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with out families. “In fact, Mars is probably of greater strategic concern.”
In Mugabo’s documentary, Through the Lens of Love, a group of Canadian teachers and students travel to Rwanda to gauge the society from the viewpoint of children in post-genocide Rwanda. Mugabo returned to Rwanda with the team to the country of his birth from British Columbia, where he has lived in exile since the 19070s.
The film is unpretentious. Its message is simple: Rwandans need anything and everything Canadians can send. Chairs and tables for schools, teachers, social workers, hard currency. But there is hope, too. The Canadians teach Rwandan youths to use a digital camera; and one of them vows to become “a famous filmmaker,” hoping to highlight Rwanda’s plight. In the final, haunting scene, a boy plays a simple, stringed instrument, a distant, detached look glazing his eyes.
During the atrocities, children, as young as eight and nine, were forced to join in, or die themselves.
As a result, the children of Rwanda became killers (Hutu children), or homeless orphans (an estimated 300,000 Tutsi children). Thus, Rwanda was destroyed, physically and emotionally.
“Children are treasured in Rwanda; they meant everything. What happened is the worst thing possible. You cannot imagine the suffering,” said Louise Mushikiwabo, coordinator for Remembering Rwanda, at a panel discussion that followed the documentary.
Remembering Rwanda is an organization dedicated to sustaining the memory of the genocide.
“The children have not lost hope. We, who care, must sustain that hope. Here in Toronto, so far away, I beg of you to send a signal that someone cares,” Mushikiwabo, who lost family members in the killing spree, appealed to the audience.
As she outlines the need for international aid, Mushikiwabo adds that Rwanda does not want “a savior” from the West.
“The Rwandan people need to be part of the solution. We will not accept the West’s help with strings attached ever again,” she said.
The one element missing from this meeting, an obvious reaction, given the subject matter, is anger.
There is none, outwardly at least. The Rwandans in the audience express pain but it is muted, almost controlled. The audience is left to wonder how deep the hurt lies buried, and how long it will be before individual Rwandans, and the country itself, are truly healed.
Why did the international community fail to act to stop the genocide in Rwanda?
“It was political collusion, particularly between France and the Hutu power,” said Mushikiwabo.
Dr. Robert Caplan, a panelist who also works with Remembering Rwanda takes a different view.
“It was racial. We simply didn’t care about a black, far-off nation in Africa.”