20 years ago this week, Rwandans who had long believed that God walked the world during the day and slept in Rwanda were left to deal with the worst evil when God presumedly forgot about the tiny African country!! As we commemorate 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, I want to dedicate the note below to the memory of my two friends who took their own lives before their 25th birthdays, to my sisters and brothers who are still in and out of hospital battling mental illness, and every other Rwandan youth who went through the war and is still struggling to deal with it all.
I’ve spent the last 20 years thinking about death, daring the devil, Tony Montana; my eyes unable to close, a nocturnal, dreaming of death, imagining it, holding it, embracing it. Going to bed with my index finger on the yes button, ready to answer the call, but waking up in the morning and having to remind God that I haven’t changed my number. For the past 20 years, I’ve spent so much of my life, thinking of that 3 year old boy I passed by, seated by the road side like a passenger at a bus stop, firmly holding on to his mother’s head while her body lay a few metres away, why did I have to make eye contact with this little boy? why do I still see him whenever I close my eyes? Isn’t 20 years long enough? I’ve spent the last twenty years stuck in the memory of my beloved grandmother, what must have gone through her mind when the village that she single handedly raised came up the hill, cutting her whole body mercilessly into pieces as if she was a carrot. Men that she had fed as youngsters and whose wives she had helped during child-birth, picking up her pieces, one by one, throwing them into a wheelbarrow, driving around the marketplace, a sign that no soul will be spared.
I’ve spent the last 20 years my mind, body and soul in exile. I’ve spent the last 20 years unable to look my mother straight in the eyes; what if I saw what she went through, what if I saw what she must have felt that cold morning when she went down on her knees, her head on the feet of my so called “God father”, sobbing, shaking, chocking on her sobs, demanding that I join her in begging this man to at least hide her oldest son, that at least one of her children could be spared the panga. How this man we’d known and shared everything turned us away like a box of cold pizza, as though he hadn’t drank and dined with my father, like he hadn’t swore before God and the church to protect this little boy as his own when he stood behind him as he was baptized.
I’ve spent the last 20 years still hiding under that banana tree, where a few days earlier, I was playing hide and seek with my mates, but where on that dark afternoon in April I was told to go and hide, alone, ghastly, killers arriving in town in small vehicles, one by one, walking past my hidden body, almost stepping on my little fingers as they passed by. I’ve spent the last twenty years, still stuck under that tree where I ended up having the best seat in town, all alone with a bird eye view of the entire neighbourhood, no popcorn but tuned into the best horror movie of all time. A 7 year old, seated under a tree and watching as the machete wielding men attacked my neighbours’ homes, houses I’d gone to for sleepovers. Why did my little brain have to remember all the details, of killers chopping, cutting, throwing babies out of the windows, pulling mothers by their hair and cutting from the neck downwards, no child left behind.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been hitting delete but I still keep all these pictures, of families bursting out of their houses, hands clasped, fathers and mothers, kneeling, begging for a faster death, demanding bullets be sprayed upon their heads but who were guided to the pit holes, one by one, their heads cut off, again, no child left behind. I’ve spent the last 20 years fixated on how my mother must have felt, to have her son out there in the bush, in a battlefield, all alone, at the theatre of evil with the entire town burning. I’ve imagined how she must have felt when she came to search for me, how fast did her heart run when she came looking and I’d moved spots? How she gathered all her children together, saying the entire rosary and concluding it with a prayer, our last prayer on earth, her voice begging God for their salvation, for a better death. And where did she find that confidence she had when she promised each of us that we would soon see each other again in heaven? What must have gone through her mind when she put the entire house in the same bed, covered herself with her children and waited for the killers to finish their jobs? I’ve spent the last 20 years, wondering how my mother must feel to have lost her entire family except for one person.
I’ve spent the last 20 years stuck on top of that pick up truck, driving by rivers of blood, bodies of men, women and children piled up by the roadside, Berlin wall-esque. I’ve spent the last 20 years, wondering how Mutabaruka Senior single handedly fought a whole barrack of soldiers and I’m still baffled by how 20 of us hid in a tiny kitchen room for an entire 3 months. I’ve spent the last 20 years thinking of that wounded soldier that made me carry a bag of bullets and how he almost handed my 5 year old brother his gun only for me to snatch it away. 7 years old with an AK47 and 50 rounds behind my back, I’ve spent the last 20 years mulling over how my 9 and 10 year old sisters trekked, bare foot from the corner of one country to the next, passing province after province, one with a sufuria of beans on her head and the other with a full size mattress on her head.
I’ve spent the last 20 years scrutinizing what they must have seen on that journey, how they escaped, daily, in the middle of the night when the butchers learned that there were some Tutsi looking women among the crowd. I’ve spent the last 20 years wondering how my good friend Eric was able to become a professional comedian, how he’s able to talk about how he hid with his two brothers behind a ditch and watched as their mother was raped in front of their father before they were orphaned, the oldest of them being just 11. I’ve spent the last 20 years imagining how my friend Ariane is able to climb into her bed each night, having spent a week sharing a room with her knifed and butchered father. How is she able to wake up and manage go on living? I’ve spent the last 20 years stuck in a forest, trees passing at the corners of my left and right eyes simultaneously, crowds of bodies with mattresses and sufuria carrying children.
I’ve spent the last 20 years stuck in Nyungwe forest, wondering what happened to the mother who refused to leave her dead child by the road side and continue with the journey; remembering the children who dug a hole by the highway, put their parents to rest and rejoined the millions of mattress and saucepan carrying children and women in bulldozing through that unforgiving forest. What kind of parents did they have? What type of parents would they turn out to be? What do they say to their kids when they ask about their grandparents? I’ve been haunted by questions about what happened to children whose mothers died by the roadside while they were still firmly strapped behind their backs. I’ve spent the last 20 years rewinding videos and images of the “red Kivu”, my innocence initially having me believe that this was the Red Sea I’d heard about in the Bible, only to watch people hopelessly try to swim across, being eaten by crocodiles, others drowning from exhaustion.
I’ve spent the last 20 years amused at how Mobutu’s soldiers went into ecstasy at the site of mattress carrying women, God they loved mattresses! I’ve laughed to tears at the image of how they striped us all of everything we had walked with from the end of one country to the other, the pathetic sight of all the men, women and children stripped of everything but their underwear. I’ve smiled, a brittle smile, every time I’ve passed by a huge tree, reminiscing on how we would all gather around the Marula tree, dig our teethes in, sucking from its roots and leafs for lunch and dinner.
I’ve spent the last 20 years in awe of how I survived cholera, my mind taking me back to the nights spent with my pants down, squatting in a field full of lifeless bodies that had all fallen victim to the disease. I’ve spent the last 20 years, my head stuck on those nights when we would be attacked by helicopters in the middle of the night, our blue tents going up in flames. I still break my neck gazing at the sky every time I hear a plane near by as though waiting for the loud gunshots, taking comfort in the ensuing silence. I’ve spent the last 20 years wondering what we were doing in that endless forest having spent the previous three months in solitary confinement.
I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to imagine the deaths of my cousins in those forests, holding their siblings as they died, an entire family thrown in the river, feeding the crocodiles. I’ve spent the last 20 years, wondering how we went from not finishing grade one in one country to grade 5-6 in another, skipping five years of early education, not understanding a word of swahili, english, algebra or any other thing the teachers said. How we still managed to graduate, to go to high school, to hung our own honours degrees today. I’ve spent the last twenty years laughing at the number of times I was called a “mukimbizi”, embracing it, accepting it, thriving with it. I’ve spent the last 20 years cursing at my parents, wondering why they couldn’t stick to their own tribes, angry at God for making me a Rwandan when could have passed for a Kikuyu, a Nuel, Ashanti, Oromo or even a Zulu.
I’ve spent the last 20 years, trying to understand my people, to be accepted. I’ve spent the last 20 years, praying for innocent, open minded young Rwandans who have to grow up dealing with the anger, hate, sorrow and the hopelessness their parents still carry today. I’ve spent the last 20 years fuming at the two Christmas parties my people organize every year. I keep tearing up two invitations from two diaspora presidents every year, waiting for the day that I only receive one. Wondering if it’s possible to be just a Rwandan and not a Hutu or Tutsi. On so many occasions, I’ve found myself at the centre of it, defending my country among my countrymen.
I’ve been pictured fiercely pointing a finger at my mother, right in-front of my brothers, trying to make sense of our situation. For the past 20 years I’ve found myself telling colleagues that my name is Kamau, not prepared for their sympathy or another review of hotel Rwanda. I’ve spend the last 20 years unable to sleep, my mind and thoughts glued to a movie, a self made fiction of what it must be like to go back home. What if I were a bird and could fly back and forth, see where it all started! I’ve spent too many nights under that banana tree, imagining the clean up that happened after the storm had settled, amazed at how people are able to still walk those streets today. Will I walk the same streets someday? I’ve spent the last 20 years wondering how it could have been like to be raised in those streets, in my hometown, to have played for Mukura instead of Kawangware FC. Could I have made Amavubi? I’ll never know.
I’ve spent the last 20 years wondering how my cousin must have felt to go from a family re-union of more than 200 people to renting people to seat on her family side at her own wedding. For the past 20 years memories of my own home have been terrorizing me, confining my mind and body in solitary detention, convincing me that happiness is not for people like me, forcing the guilt of having witnessed so many perish and for I to still be alive. Reminding me that I was no different or better than that 3 year old on the road, forcefully shoving guilt down my throat to the point of my attempted suicide(s). I’ve been a prisoner of my own mind, my own experience. Twenty years ago I survived the genocide, overcame dark years of burning forests in Congo but it’s taken close to 20 years to settle my mind. To exercise peace, mental peace.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been restricting myself from smiling, from happiness, never celebrating my birthday, unable to think about my own well-being, unable to share what my eyes saw even with my own family. In constant battle with my mind, with mental health issues, enforcing upon myself weeks of silence, severe insomnia. As we commemorate 20 years since the genocide, I want to dedicate the note above to the memory of my two friends who have recently taken their own lives before their 25th birthday, to my extended sisters and brothers who are still in and out of hospital today battling mental illness and every other Rwandan youth who went through the war and is still struggling to deal with and understand the whole experience.
This is not my story, it’s our story, the story of each and every Rwandan child who was over 5 years old in 1994. Of those born since and before then. It’s the story of every war child world wide. Our stories are important, our stories matter. I used to spend most of my time in my head, locked in thoughts, scrolling back and forth through pictures of the whole tragedy, trying so hard to be free, to unchain my mind, desperate to be normal but not able to spend a single moment by myself without drifting back under that tree. Luckily, I learned how to adapt, built different mechanisms, used music, reggae music, I also used sports, playing football and running, those three and the thought of my mother losing another person freed my mind, saved my life. While most of us have adapted and have a better understanding of our mental state and have successfully built barriers, millions of our brothers and sisters are still struggling. More so around this time of the year.
Impact of Genocide on Rwandan Children
April is a tough time to be Rwandan in general, it’s dreadful, it’s depressing, it’s emotional, it can get lonely and dark and it won’t be getting better when so many of us are still using Heineken as therapy! Drinking our minds away. We must learn how to speak to and about our issues, I for once know how tough it is. It’s taken me 20 years to have the guts to write the above paragraphs which in reality, doesn’t even represent 2% of my story, of how far my mind has travelled the last 20 years, but it’s a start, and I know you can do the same. I challenge you to speak up, to write two paragraph of where your mind has been the last 20 years as a twentieth commemoration of the genocide, of the thoughts, worries, mental and emotional challenges you’ve faced. I challenge you to share your story with your family this April, to speak to a friend, to your local community. I challenge you to start a mental health club that addresses our issues.
To find a reason (that doesn’t involve another person) for you to be happy. You can do it. For example, last April, a number of young people from the Canadian Association Of Rwandan Youth organized a mental health forum, and while I wasn’t ready to participate in full at the time, today, that experience has led me to share part of my experience with you. If I can do it, you can do it too. You should never forget that your story is important.
To conclude, I’d like to mention that today, as a community, we are rather too quiet on the issues of mental health. In fact, we appear to have collectively, silently come to the conclusion that mental health does not exist, and if it does, then it is really not our problem—“only white people suffer from things like that anyways,” “and who cares, a case of Heineken and multiple Bible study sessions will take care of those with “personal problems”. We keep lying to ourselves—this is our current stance. But we, the people who suffered, the young generation, our generation, the generation of overachievers as I call it, shouldn’t sit around and watch while our brothers continue to suffer, we have come so far, achieved so much, most of the children who survived, those who escaped the camps are now leaders in their own industries, inventors, innovators, fathers, mothers, artists and business moguls: we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the future, a generation of achievers, we are the rose that rose from concrete, the diamond from the mud.
We went from sleeping with the dead to champions like Corneille, this is who we are and our stories must continue to be told. By each and every one of us, without an apology. We are not interested in sympathy, it’s too late for that. We just want our story to be heard, to free our minds, and for those of us that are still suffering to get the help they deserve. We should be able to talk openly, I know it’s heavy, it’s personal, it comes with stigma but talking is like finally being able to breath, which makes you more endurant. I’ve spent the last 20 years a bitter and broken man on the inside, today, I urge you to come out and join me on a journey towards happiness. We’ve earned it.
A study published in “world psychiatry” reported that one-fourth of Rwandans still suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. “99% of Rwandan children witnessed violence during the spring of 1994, 90% believed they would die, 87% saw dead bodies, 80% lost at least one relative, 58 % saw people being murdered with pangas and 31% witnessed rapes”. Are you a child of #Rwanda? Where do you fall among the above categories? Break the taboo, speak up, mental health is real, a matter of life and death.
Moses is the founder and CEO of TAP Magazine; A medium whose mission is to “Tell the African story to the world, unbiased,uncensored and from a balanced perspective”.