From a Ghostly Past, Envisioning the Future

The convent at Sovu

I recently had the opportunity to travel for a few days with Brown Professor Erik Ehn and a small group of artists from various parts of the world. We had a compelling discussion with an association of student genocide survivors at the National University of Rwanda in Butare, Rwanda’s largest and oldest university. All of these students lost numerous relatives and friends during the genocide, and many were orphaned. The survivor association organizes itself through a system of “families,” attempting to recreate the social structures that 1994 destroyed and rebuild new forms of social and emotional support. Within each family unit, university students assume the roles of mother and father, and high schoolers and other young survivors in the community are the children. Thus the children benefit from mentors and role models with whom they can share their problems and seek support, and the parents gain strength from the responsibility of being caretakers. The families are very close-knit, providing not only emotional support but social and financial support as well – in essence functioning as traditional families.  The survivor association also maintains a strong alumni network – students who’ve graduated continue to communicate with and advise students at the university level, creating a chain of long-term support and mentorship. The collective nature of the association promotes an environment in which individuals at various stages in life are deeply connected to, and accountable for, one another over long periods of time, creating a strong safety net and encouraging the continued growth and well-being of all members.

The overarching narrative the students conveyed to us was one of intense hope and motivation. Though they were deeply betrayed by their country and lost everything, they still feel a deep commitment to and responsibility for rebuilding a new Rwanda in which divisions do not exist anymore. Fidele, a student who lost his parents and eight siblings during the genocide, described Rwanda’s present moment as such: (pointing to his arms) “This is not a Hutu arm, this is not a Tutsi arm. We have right arms and left arms and with these we must rebuild our country, together.” This type of language is not unfamiliar; in fact, it appears to be the prevalent way of thinking about what “post-genocide” means. Their vision of peace and and unity is staggering considering what they’ve experienced – they appear to have rid themselves of bitterness and anger toward the perpetrators of the genocide. Our questions expressed our utter inability to comprehend the choices the students have made: how can one possibly stand up from such an experience and forgive, let alone envision a future together? But they continued to explain and emphasize that forgiveness and reconciliation is not a choice, but a necessity. “What else can we possibly do, but continue to live? We have to live together and move on. This is the only option.”

That night, we stayed at a convent in the rural village of Sovu. In 1994, the two head nuns of Sovu took thousands of Tutsis refuge in their barn and guesthouse and then turned them over to the Interhamwe (Hutu killing squads). The nuns continued to pray as killing took place in their presence for several days, and then provided the gasoline to burn the remaining Tutsis alive. After the genocide the convent was abandoned, but years later a few of the nuns who had actively resisted their superiors came back and reopened the place. Today it functions fully and shows no visible signs of being a site of horrific atrocity. Though as we heard about what took place while being served gracefully by today’s nuns of Sovu, the convent’s ghostly past was palpable.