HMDT Blog: Rwandan survivor Jo Ingabire – How can life go on?

This blog was written for HMDT by Jo Ingabire, who survived the genocide in Rwanda as a young child.

HMDT Blog: Rwandan survivor Jo Ingabire – How can life go on?

17 July marks the anniversary of the end of the genocide, when Gisenyi fell to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF set up an interim government in Kigali, officially marking the end of 100 days of genocide in which around one million people were murdered.

‘How can life go on after the genocide?’ I asked my mother. ‘It can and it must,’ she casually replies.

This is not the response I had expected from a woman who watched the murders of her three children and husband.

On the morning of 9 of April 1994, six men from the local police station knocked on the door, gathered my family and shot indiscriminately. In a matter of moments, we lost half of our family to police officers who had vowed to protect their community.

These were no strangers – they were men my father drank with at the pub, men we recognised in the streets and who, as children, we were instructed to greet with the due respect afforded to gendarme.

As the second Tutsi family on the street, it was no surprise to our neighbours that this catastrophe should befall us but it was a surprise to my mother that they chose not to come to our aid. The scale of the betrayal was staggering.

Neighbours in pre-genocide Rwanda were akin to family. My parents were in business with our next-door neighbours, Dad was Godfather to the boys two doors on the left, and the parents on the street took turns in driving the children on the street to the one local school miles away.

As children our best friends lived on that street, the teenagers dating amongst that small pool as parents secretly calculated the dowry price.

And yet in a single morning, they forgot the years lived in peace and camaraderie. They forgot the weddings, loans, school runs; my father’s godsons – my brother’s best friends since birth – were the ones who called the police and reminded them that our family was on the top of the kill list.

Revisit, rebuild

After a self-imposed six-year exile from Rwanda, I recently visited Kigali and the street where I grew up. It looked unrecognisable. Gone was the idyllic setting of my childhood. It was now a busy street linking to the business sector.

The red dirt road I crossed multiple times a day, running from house to house, was now a hot, black tarmac road popular with racing Moto drivers. There were no children loitering as we used to. The mango and avocado trees we climbed playing hide and seek had been cut down in favour of carefully trimmed, safe, front lawns.

There was a time I couldn’t walk down that street without having flashbacks of blood-soaked earth. I couldn’t bear the rage beating across my chest when I remembered returning home after the genocide to find our house emptied, then visiting a neighbour to have them serve me with Mum’s china from India as I sat on the sofa Dad bought from that shop in town that smelt of stretched plastic.

But those neighbours have now left; I don’t care to imagine where they are now. I wonder if they remember the street as I do. Do they view it in terms of pre- and post-genocide? Do they think about us at all or have they moved on too?

Everyone else seems to have. Kigali has moved on. Rwandans have rebuilt and pride themselves on getting on with life.

It’s incredible to me that there are neighbourhoods and villages across the country where victim and persecutor live next to each other in relative peace. Forgiveness and reconciliation are a mantra to the modern Rwandan – the future beckons... the past is remembered but visions of the future occupy many, if not all, minds.

The genocide happened when I was only five years old. Every decision I’ve made since has been linked to it in some way or other. First it was to move away from the house I loved because we had to buy food. ‘Dad is gone’, Mum explained. ‘We have to rent the house to eat now.’

Then it was sending my sister and brother to boarding school because being separate meant we wouldn’t die together if another war erupted. My siblings are scattered across the world still. As an adult I carefully choose what clothes to wear based on how much scarring they show.

How can life go on?

As I walked away from the street I grew up on, I realised that I wasn’t angry anymore. I held my new love’s hand and walked home knowing that I had moved on too.

On that April morning I discovered heightened feeling. Next to the pain of loss that won’t disappear is deep gratitude for the life lived since. I’ve learnt that when you’ve known great disruption and suffering at such an early age, you often compare any difficulty to that cataclysmic event, and in my case, it’s hard to imagine it could get any worse.

And so my imagination is reserved for all manner of the good waiting to happen to me. I think there’s a certain hope birthed by catastrophe, a hope that you’ve been hardened to the worst.

A hope that looks much like courage and defiance, quietly convinced that because you’ve survived, you’ve looked death in the eye and won, you’ll live, you’ll win again.

You can, you must.

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The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.