By Gurpreet Kambo, Peak Contributor
“We’re titled today: 25 Years: Rwanda Remembers. But we’re here also to talk to the resilience, the renewal of the Rwandan people,” said SFU professor June Francis, at an event on June 6 at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, remembering the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which nearly a million people lost their lives.
“We ask that we all open our hearts and our minds [ . . . ] we’re not here for any other reason than to ensure that these events never happen again. In order to do that, we have to open up to the pain of memory. But we also need to salute the Rwandan people in their resilience.”
The event, officially titled “RR25: Remembering 25 Years of Reconstruction and Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” was organized by the SFU Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement, along with local organizations Building Bridges for Rwanda and The Hogan’s Alley Society.
The overarching theme of the evening was “resilience,” and the event hosted a lengthy list of speakers covering topics related to the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath.
SFU alumnus Lama Mugabo spoke about how Rwanda transformed from a “failed state in 1994, to a model state that a lot of countries around the world are emulating.”
“After the genocide, we also have to think about social inclusion,” said Mugabo, on the topic of women’s rights in post-genocide Rwanda.
“To the government’s credit, a new constitution was written that gave equal rights to women. Women now have the same rights as men to own property, but also in terms of elections. Because women were so far behind, they came up with [a quota] of 30% of women [ . . . ] women took that 30% and turned it into 64%,” he said, to applause.
“Oh Rwanda. Oh Motherland,” stated Fraser International College student Sandrine Umuhoza. “Lest I forget how you were bleeding, bleeding the blood of your own. How can we forget the rivers that were flowing blood, and the bodies that were eaten by the birds and the dogs.”
Umuhoza spoke about Rwandan women, particularly from the perspective of a young woman in Rwanda who grew up in the country after the genocide. “Our parents had to sweat blood and sacrifice a lot to ensure we had a safe place to call home. So it is upon us to ensure that our home safe for every Rwandan.”
Dr. Masahiro Minami, SFU assistant professor of counselling psychology, spoke about his work in Rwanda in facilitating reconciliation between survivors and perpetrators of the genocide. He shared a quote from a survivor who talked about the relationship they had formed with a perpetrator who had harmed them.
“Others who sought forgiveness, left when they received it from me. I’ve never seen them since. But he’s different [ . . . ] he continues to show his apologies in actions, and it makes our relationship stronger.”
Minami later noted that an application for an expanded facilitation program had been submitted to the Rwandan government.
There were several other distinguished speakers and attendees, including Soline Nyirahabimana, Rwandan Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, and Dr. Diane Gashumba, Rwandan Minister of Health.
Steven Kega, a student at Thompson River University, discussed his experience growing up in Rwanda and his research on Rwandan plant ecology.
Dr. Regine King, a professor of social work from the University of Calgary, spoke about her research into the long-term psychological well-being of survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
Also announced at the event was the RR25 Legacy Project that will consist of a biannual conference and study tours to Rwanda. Mugabo spoke to its importance.
“Very often, because people don’t understand the complexity of Rwanda history and development history when we have public conversation about Rwanda, the conversations tend to be diluted and before long the discussions veer away to topics that people are more familiar with.
This time we hope to engage people who have visited Rwanda and sharing their experience on Rwanda to understand how the Rwandan model can be useful for the diaspora to build resilient and sustainable communities here in Canada.”
The event ended with a few words from Dr. Francis. “We heard a lot about resilience, we heard about being better together, about youth and the future, about forgiveness. We also heard a lot about pain, and the hope that this will never happen again. I wish I could say from what we’ve heard that this will never happen again. But what we’ve head here should give us courage.
We had a question at the end that asked, ‘How can we learn to rise from these ashes, and continue on, with a kindness? To stand in the very places that turned a blind eye?’ That is forgiveness from you as well.”
In the Q&A period that followed, one member of the audience asked about what many have called a genocide currently occuring against the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region of China. “It’s very sad, I lost contact with my family members over two years ago [ . . . ] all phone numbers disappeared, not in service. How can we help them?”
Though there were few specific answers, Dr. Francis complimented her courage and requested a moment of silence from the audience for the individuals lost and in danger in that conflict.
Reflecting on the event to The Peak, Mugabo stated that: “The feedback from the audience is positive. We are told that the event exceeded their expectations.”
“Most of people who spoke to me said they learned a great deal about Rwandan history. They said it was refreshing to hear what works in Africa. Most of the time, they hear negative news and complaints about what doesn’t work.”
Likewise, volunteer Gaelle S. Ingabire wrote in an email interview that: “I wanted to help in changing the narrative about Rwanda. Given that most of the times stories about third world countries are about wars, poverty, famine, you name it. With this event we were given an opportunity to show more than that and shine a light on the journey led by Rwanda after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi,” she said.
Concluding, she noted, “choosing to remember is a way to mourn the lives that were lost and also honor every person that helped in putting an end to the genocide. Moreover, in order to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes, we must learn about the past ones. We need to know and learn about our past in order to have a better future.”