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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Memorial week

Today Rwanda marked the 16th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide. It was intense. During breakfast, an eerily low fog blew through town, first making the valley behind the center look washed out and then blocking our view of the cell tower just 50 meters away. As we walked through Nyanza the sun burned through the fog and the day grew very hot.

We joined a group marching towards the stadium; many wearing royal purple kerchiefs as a symbol of mourning. Next to the stadium is a mass grave. Perhaps hundreds of these can be found in Rwanda: a compound surrounded by a wall, bearing some sort of monument or marker, in which anonymous bodies of genocide victims are buried. Nyanza district had one of the highest death tolls in the country, and this particular mass grave contains 40,000 bodies, which took two years to bury.

We stood in a crowd of several thousand stood in the outside the mass grave, listening to a speech I did not understand. Rwandans, we have been told, do not cry, and certainly not in public. Today was different. One woman began to wail, and was lead away from the crowd by another. We then made our way to the stadium and were seated in the stands, which stretch across the east side of the field. For several hours, local speakers alternated with mournful music, and finally they closed with the radio broadcast of the president’s speech in English and Kinyarwanda.

When the music was playing, some women broke down and were led or carried away from the crowd to privacy across the field or behind the stands. It wasn’t always clear that they wanted to move, but they were removed from the stands. You could see that some were clearly having flashbacks: one woman ran from the stands carrying a baby, pursued by several well-intentioned people who wrestled the baby from her hands as she screamed. They did this to protect them, but the scene was reminiscent of so many that must have played out 16 years ago. It was incredibly hard to sit there and hear people’s grief, to not cry myself, but I felt like I had no right to cry. Many others in the stands cried a few silent tears or wiped their noses while no tears fell.

While there were 5 men around the stadium wearing Red Cross jerseys, I was struck by how inadequate the mental health services were today. People were retraumatized, or were overwhelmed with grief, and they were carried away from the crowd whether they wanted to be or not. I’m not a mental health professional, so I only can say that more mental health services are needed here.

For one week, Rwanda will observe memorial week. Businesses will close in the afternoon and there will be various lectures and events. The week will close, as always, on the 13th, with a commemoration of the politicians who were killed due to their opposition to the genocide. This year’s memorial week honors those whose bodies ended up in the water or were otherwise not given a proper burial.

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