I spent a week in Kigali, Rwanda last month. It was a meeting of colleagues from the East and Southern Africa region and for the first 4 days, it was in many ways a celebration of our work, our relationships as a team and learning from each other. On day 5, we were taken to one of the genocide memorial sites and it was as if time stood still.
I have seen the films and read the books about the genocide in Rwanda, which although harrowing, showed me the atrocities at a distance. The terror was in the past and far enough away from me that I could feel it, but not fully. Much like when I now see photos of refugees piling into boats to cross the Mediterranean, bombings by ISIS or drone strikes by America. Painful and truly awful, but far enough away that I can cope.
At the genocide memorial site, we walked through a steel bar door which had been wrenched apart by militia to enter into a church sanctuary. We were told that 40,000 Tutsis had gathered there for refuge and when the militia arrived they were sitting ducks. The iron sheets that formed the roof still had bullet holes from the shots fired and inside the sanctuary there were benches covered with the clothes of those whose lives were stolen. I stood in that space where such a terrible atrocity had occurred and was left speechless, horrified by the depth of human depravity and the evils we are capable of.
Behind the church is a graveyard, three mass graves sit there to house the bodies as they rest. Our guide took us down into one of the graves, into what felt to me like a storehouse of skulls and bones. You could see the force with which each person had been murdered, blunt trauma to the head, cracked skulls, broken bones. These people were not just killed, they were destroyed.
Around the same time as I walked through that house of memorial for a genocide that happened now 22 years ago, a single gunmen killed two people before heading to a local school in La Loche, Saskatchewan in Canada. 4 people lost their lives that day, one of them was the brother of a friend. The family and community are reeling at the loss, so sudden, so senseless. It is truly unthinkable to me for a family to have their loved ones stolen from them like this, to have to bury them and lay them to rest before their time.
I like to imagine that the people who do these things are different from me. That they are just that bit more messed up or unhinged to do the things they do. I don’t feel comfortable to identify with them as part of the same stream of humanity, I want to distance myself from that kind of terror.
I don’t know if we are different or the same. I don’t know if we are all capable of such darkness or if only a few members of our human race can do these things. What I do know is that none of us gets to our places of darkness overnight. We are, of course, accountable for any action we take, even if it is born out of immense suffering. But I think it is important to remember that there was something that got them there, something that shook the very core of their being to inflict such pain on others. I don’t claim to understand what that something was, all I know is that there was something.
I won’t attempt to offer an explanation as an outsider, it would be entirely inappropriate to try to do so. My only point is that there is a story, there is always a story, and we find pieces of it when we seek to listen to those in the midst of the tragedy.
La Loche, Saskatchewan has terrifyingly high rates of suicide. Most adults and young people are unemployed. The town has been forgotten by public services. Our country’s history and how it has treated indigenous populations cannot be forgotten as we seek to understand the story of this tragedy.
The story of genocide in Rwanda is not complete without reference to the deep social divisions that followed colonialism, and the context of scarcity that created an environment where different groups saw each other as threats and not as allies.
The family of Adam Wood, a teacher who lost his life in La Loche, have courageously called for Canadians, and especially the Canadian government, to listen to the community there to try to understand this story.
In an article in the Huffington Post, the family said, “Rather than looking for someone to blame, or coming up with outsider opinions of reasons why this occurred, we must stop and listen to the voices of La Loche. The leaders and members of the community know what types of support and changes are needed. Our responsibility as a nation is to listen and respond to create lasting systemic change.”
To stand in the midst of soul destroying tragedy, to feel our hearts wrenched open by unthinkable losses and yet to remain open to the story behind the terror is to me, a kind of miracle. The Wood family are seeking to understand the unspeakable pain of those who inflicted this atrocity as they stand deep in the river of their own grief. I am thoroughly humbled by their bravery and in awe of their compassion.
Fuel the Change is a charity set up by the family of Adam Wood. The charity aims to support students in La Loche to rebuild, to envision a different future and to set out on that path with support.
“It is in these moments, when tragedy strikes, that we are able to stop and consider life: it’s frailty, challenges, its laughter, and its tears. It is in these moments we are given the opportunity to examine ourselves and hopefully, come out better and stronger as a community and a nation. We feel sadness and remorse but rarely do we use that to fuel change.”