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Letter from Kigali

The film “Hotel Rwanda” tells some of the horrors of the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda, which in 1994 exploded in a bloodbath that left nearly a million people dead, countless others raped and mutilated. Lisa Goldstein, 21, a student at Johns Hopkins studying in Uganda, visited Rwanda recently. She sent this letter by email:

The genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, documents the buildup to the 1994 atrocities. It reminds me of Yad Vashem, of Germany in the 1930s; identity cards, propaganda against the Tutsis, discrimination. Things the world should have known to be on the lookout for, should have known would lead to mass killings, but did nothing to stop. The museum also gives an overview of the genocides in the twentieth century: Bosnia, Cambodia, the Holocaust, Namibia. It made me wonder how many times we’re going to say “never again.” Yet at the same time I also felt astounded at peoples’ ability to bounce back— at least on the surface.

Looking out over the city from the hilltop where the memorial stands, I could see no obvious evidence of destruction. But I did see cars along roads, people on bikes, shops with customers. At the same time, Rwandans acknowledge their horrendous history. They know that Rwandans committed these crimes against each other, and now must deal with the effects. Rwandans do not say “it was those Hutus, those other people, who did these things to the Tutsis.” No, they say “Rwandans did this to Rwandans.”

Rwandan prisons are now holding 120,000 people on genocide charges. Defendants are brought to trial in the communities where they allegedly committed their crimes. The accused sit before a panel of nine judges and a community council; there are no lawyers on either side. The community makes a case for the guilt or innocence of the person on trial, based on eyewitness accounts and the defendant’s own testimony. The crimes of genocide were committed so publicly, then so flaunted, that there are always some corroborating witnesses. This form of communal justice forces the perpetrators to go back to the community that they devastated. There have been many confessions. All convictions arc recorded with the name of the guilty party as well as the phrase “and the government,” because genocide in Rwanda was truly a state-sponsored phenomenon. The objective of the court system is to enable the Rwandans to live together as neighbors again; the guilty must be punished, but must then be integrated back into society. This is especially true for the convicted who are very young. There is an understanding of “collective madness” here, and a willingness to forgive what is unbelievable.