Shaking Hands with the Enemy, My Brother

April 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. One of the major conflicts of the 1990s, it forced the international community to face and define the degree of their support for such large scale, massacres in places like Africa, the Baltic, and South America.

This month is particularly meaningful to people my age, the millennial generation, because it occurred when we were too young to follow current events, therefore making it one of the most recent international conflicts we studied in college.

It’s human nature to translate events covered by the mass media into your personal timeline, so when I learned about President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane crash and the ensuing slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus I did the math. Months shy of my sixth birthday I was understandably not tuned into CNN, but was lucky enough to be raised in a family that chose to inform their children.

My parents explained apartheid, later they gave us “Kaffir Boy,” and told stories of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie charging airplanes wielding only swords and riding on horseback. Imagine the bedtime stories!

In addition to introducing a young history major to international conflict, refugee migration, and UN relief agencies, the reason I chose to reflect on the anniversary of this genocide is proximity.

Civil wars pit neighbor against neighbor and throw a country into a fatal fever. I wish, with deep sincerity, if it were reversed, and I had been an almost six-year-old Rwandan child who witnessed genocide, I would have the courage and the bravery and the hope to face my attackers the way these survivors have.

Pieter Hugo’s “Portraits of Reconciliation” is a beautiful tribute to the ways in which Rwandans have overcome the atrocities of 1994 and the grim truth that, for some, those days will never be forgotten.

The accompanying text by Susan Dominus explains that each portrait contains a Hutu attacker and their Tutsi victim.

It reads: “The people who agreed to be photographed are part of a continuing national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent), a nonprofit organization. In AMI’s program, small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counseled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.”

The strength these survivors showed, standing side-by-side with those who were once their enemy, is remarkable. Forgiveness is something that comes differently to everyone, but as Cesarie Mukabutera, one of the survivors said, “It took time, but in the end we realized that we are all Rwandans.”

It is paramount not to be paralyzed by fear. We call those whom we fear “terrorists” because this is their goal, to terrorize our past, present, and future. Knowledge of current events; even those that do not involve our race, creed, or religion; and coming face to face with those who have hurt us and whom we fear most is how we overcome.

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