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Faculty of Law
UNB Fredericton

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Reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide

Becky Noble visits Rwanda

When second-year law student Becky Noble touched down in Kigali, the capital city of the Republic of Rwanda, she had little idea how the coming weeks would change her life. Noble was selected as one of ten Canadians to visit the Central-East African nation as a member of the 2019 SHOUT Canada cohort.

Founded in 2008, SHOUT Canada is a non-profit organization dedicated to the cause of genocide education. Each year, they organize an educational program, Reflections on Rwanda (RoR), for a small contingent of Canadian students and young professionals to learn about the 1994 genocide. Participants visit memorial sites and speak with Rwandans about the ongoing processes of restorative justice, peace, and reconciliation. Participants have the opportunity to learn about national and international judicial responses to the genocide from legal professionals, academics, and governmental representatives.

The program aims to inspire the citizenry and leadership that Canadians need in the twenty-first century. In a time when genocidal ideology still exists, the need for future advocates and young professionals to bear first-hand witness to the impacts of genocide remains imperative. The program acts as a springboard for students to engage with social justice issues and share their knowledge from the trip.

An interview with Becky Noble

What was going through your mind as you sat on the plane?

I certainly had a lot of time to reflect. It took four separate flights to get to Kigali. I left from my hometown on Vancouver Island and flew to Toronto, where I met the rest of the group at the gate. We flew to Brussels and then to Kigali. In total it was three days of travel, 22 hours of which were in the air.

I felt a mix of apprehension and excitement. In 2011, I’d spent six months backpacking solo across sub-Saharan Africa, traveling through South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. The memories of that experience and the people I met came flooding back. I spent a week in Rwanda at the tail end of that trip so I knew a little bit about what to expect. I was anticipating some of the difficult things I would be seeing but I was eager to learn more about, and try to understand, the country’s past, as well as to see how Rwanda had developed over the past eight years. I was also looking forward to the group aspect of the program—it’s not easy witnessing this stuff on your own, and I knew we’d have some more exclusive access to people and places.

What do you remember seeing and feeling as you exited the plane in Kigali?

I was in a daze from 72 hours of travel. We arrived around 8 p.m. so it wasn’t hot. The Rwandan climate is quite comfortable. The country sits at a higher altitude than the surrounding countries, so it cools off at night and for the most part, there is no oppressive heat during the day. Stepping off the plane and walking across the tarmac I remember the smell of the tropical vegetation mixed with smoke and diesel, the faint lights and the sounds of the city in the background.

Can you describe the format of the ROR program?

The program was divided into two phases. Week 1 provided a first-hand account of the history of Rwanda and the horrors of the genocide. We explored what happened in 1994 and the decades leading up to those events. We traveled across the country to official genocide memorial sites and met with survivors and rescuers. The first week was taxing mentally; we heard powerful stories of survival and visited locations where tens of thousands of Rwandans had been murdered. Grenade and bullet holes still mark, and blood still stains, the walls of these sites—sadly, almost exclusively schools and churches.

Week 2 was devoted to Rwanda’s future. We learned how the country was rebuilt from scratch, the legal mechanisms that had been put in place, and the ongoing reconciliation efforts. We were based in the capital city of Kigali and met with both government and non-governmental organizations, including the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG), the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace, UN MICT (International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals), UN Women, and the Rwandan Ministries of Justice and Defence. We had incredible access to these organizations and institutions.

We learned about the two main legal responses to the genocide: The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), established by the UN Security Council operated in Tanzania, and the gacaca court system implemented in Rwanda. Gacaca, loosely meaning “justice on the grass,” was a traditional communal justice system resurrected and modernized in an attempt to deal with the nearly two million cases clogging the decimated judicial system. It was estimated that it would take well over 120 years to process the cases before the courts, raising all kinds of due process concerns. So gacaca was Rwanda’s grassroots transitional justice “experiment” in a way—decentralizing the judicial procedure to different levels of society, involving lay judges and facilitated by the general population. As you can imagine, half a dozen Canadian law students had some serious questions about this unorthodox process!  We were told first, that the masterminds and architects of the genocide were dealt with through the ICTR exclusively, not gacaca. Second, the gacaca process had five primary goals: (1) establish truth; (2) accelerate legal proceedings; (3) eradicate impunity; (4) reconcile and promote unity; and (5) administer justice based on Rwandan custom.

We were also familiarized with a few cases related to the genocide litigated before Canadian courts, including the SCC’s 2005 decision upholding the deportation of Léon Mugesera, a Rwandan politician (and now convicted genocidaire) who had fled to Canada and had been teaching at Université Laval in Quebec City.

Near the end of the program, we attended an International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Conference hosted by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). Beyond the crash course in IHL, it was a great opportunity to hear from Rwandan students and academics during the Q&A period. They asked hard-hitting questions, demonstrating passion, skepticism, deep insight and lived experience. For me, the conversation made clear the tension that exists between IHL theory and reality, and between the European-based institutions and the many Africans who call them out for their repeated inaction in times of need.      

We met with academics, including the Dean of Law at the University of Rwanda, a journalist, and a contemporary dancer and a painter, both of whom are using their art as a vehicle to help others heal.  

How were you received by the people of Rwanda?

The people of Rwanda are very welcoming and incredibly generous. They appreciate visitors and were elated that we were there to learn about their country and their history. It didn’t matter who we spoke with—taxi drivers, government officials, genocide survivors—they all expressed the same hope that we would return to Canada as messengers to share our experience. Their past is very difficult, but Rwandans are proud of where the country is going, and they want the world to see their country beyond the genocide. Visiting in person, this isn’t hard. It’s a gorgeous country with a spirited people that will humble you beyond words.

Can you describe what was it like to speak to first-hand witnesses and survivors of the genocide?

It was difficult but rewarding. We had a Rwandan lawyer traveling with us (as well as a SHOUT Canada board member who spoke Kinyarwanda) and would translate as survivors and rescuers shared their stories. These were just ordinary people who witnessed unimaginable atrocities. It was humbling to hear their first-hand accounts. The rescuers we spoke with faced an impossible decision: risk their own lives and their family’s lives in order to save others, or save themselves and do nothing. I found myself questioning how I would react in this situation. I think it’s easy to say you would have done the “right thing,” but the truth is that the “right thing” isn’t always clear.  Hearing these stories reinforced this for me. It’s not always possible to get this kind of insight from a lecture or a textbook—that is part of the point of coming on a trip like this.

Was there a moment of the trip which sticks out as particularly difficult to witness?

Yes, a few actually. On the first day of the trip we were scheduled to attend an official 25th Anniversary ceremony on the eastern side of the country along the Tanzanian border. We were informed that a mass grave had been discovered a few weeks earlier and that the bodies of these missing Rwandans would finally be laid to rest that day. We arrived to see thousands of citizens in attendance. At first, it felt like we were intruding on an incredibly private moment, but the crowd welcomed us with open arms, scrambling to find enough chairs to provide us with a seat. Each of the coffins had a family member or representative standing next to it. One by one each person read their goodbye letter aloud. No translation was needed and few eyes were dry. We watched in silence as families said goodbye to their loved ones, something they had been waiting to do for a quarter of a century. Marching slowly alongside hundreds of locals singing a beautiful hymn down to the burial site, to lay a single red rose, was not something I’d ever imagined doing on this trip. We learned on Day 1 that the aftermath of the genocide is still being experienced today. 

One particularly difficult site we visited was the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, a former school which was one of the hundreds of locations where mass killings took place. This site contains the mummified remains of thousands of Rwandans. Although a more controversial memorial, the impact on the visitor is undeniable. It was incredibly graphic and overwhelming to see and smell the bodies of adults and children (preserved in lime) who fell victim to the slaughter, frozen in the fetal sleeping position (because they were killed in the middle of the night). For myself, and most members of the group, this was the most difficult day. Visiting the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country embroiled in active civil war (directly linked to the events of 1994) was also particularly hard for me.

How did you process these difficult experiences as a group?

An important aspect of the program was our daily debrief session. Every evening we would gather to discuss what we had seen and heard that day. It was hard at first, but necessary; most people aren’t used to sharing on such a personal and emotionally raw level. These sessions not only helped bond the group and allowed us to process the painful imagery and stories, but they facilitated thoughtful discussions. This allowed us to engage deeply with emotion as well as core theoretical and philosophical ideas, and I learned a great deal from my fellow participants. Debriefing was especially important during the first week as there were a great deal of emotionally charged visits and eye-witness accounts.

Why is it important for Canadians to understand the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide?

It’s important to understand not only what happened in Rwanda, but why. There is a lot of misinformation regarding the genocide. Many believe it was an isolated event which arose out of the blue and lasted for 100 days. In reality, there was half a century of events and planning leading up to April 1994, and its effects are still being felt today. We need to understand how genocidal ideology is created and how it can spread. Currently, we are seeing division in the US and many other Western countries. Dangerous political rhetoric is being used to stoke fear and create an ‘other’ on which to blame pressing societal problems. I recently heard a chilling radio clip from a political rally where a crowd was chanting “send them back.” In Rwanda, we learned that those same words were used by Hutu extremists portraying Tutsis as Ethiopian “outsiders” who needed to be “sent back” up the Nyabarongo River. Tragically, this incitement was taken literally in Rwanda, but it’s important to recognize where the potential for violence starts and how easily hate speech can manifest if left unchallenged.

I also see a lot of parallels between the intergenerational trauma of the Rwandan people and the experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls was released while I was in Rwanda. The report invoked “genocide,” which was a source of some controversy here at home. A lot of Canadians don’t realize, or perhaps don’t accept, that genocide can be used in a Canadian context. I think that kind of pushback can be dangerous. Genocide is not a Rwandan (or African) phenomenon, it’s a human phenomenon. The truth is that we are all more vulnerable than we’d like to admit to the insidious social conditioning and “learned” hatred that can lead to events such as those that occurred in the spring of 1994. All these lessons are very relevant to Canadians in 2019.

How has ROR changed you as a person and as a law student?

It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. These kinds of programs develop your core humanity and help you to recognize and appreciate the sources of basic differences and commonalities. I am still trying to wrap my head around everything I saw and the stories I heard. I am not going to process this is a month or two, or a year: it will be with me forever. That’s the depth and richness of something like ROR. Everything is the same here [at home] but you’ve had this profound experience and you try to integrate back into “normal life.” It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.

This trip will complement my education at law school, enriching and challenging it. Legal education can be quite clinical at times. These kinds of experiences force you to empathize, cultivate compassion, and confront the far-reaching and devastating impact crimes of this magnitude have. As a future advocate, but first and foremost as an engaged human being, I think that’s important. 

I look forward to sharing my experiences from Reflections on Rwanda and honouring the wishes of the Rwandan people by becoming a messenger to fellow Canadians. The conversation involving genocide is immensely challenging, but it's important. In a time when genocidal ideology persists in the world, I believe education and engagement are critical.

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