By Susan McMillan
Eric Habineza said people in his home country, Rwanda, try to remember the horrific genocide that happened there two decades ago without letting it consume them.
“April is the month to commemorate the victims. That’s when you really feel the genocide thing coming back,” said Habineza, a student at the University of Maine at Augusta who was born in Rwanda. “But the whole year, people continue to live their lives. It’s a big thing in our history, but we’re trying to move forward.”
Forgive, but don’t forget. That was the message from Habineza and others during an event Tuesday at UMA commemorating victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. About 20 students and staff members led a “Walk to Remember” around campus and past the Augusta Civic Center, then shared a lunch of Rwandan food and watched a documentary about the reconciliation process that followed the genocide.
As many as 1 million people were killed between April and July 1994, and today survivors live alongside people who murdered their neighbors or relatives.
Grace Gakuba, another student from Rwanda, said her grandparents and many of her cousins were killed in the genocide.
“What happened was horrible. We live every day, but it’s something that you’re not going to forget,” Gakuba said. “Even though you live with people that committed the crime, and you know them, you forgive them.”
The Walk to Remember is an international event started by students in Rwanda in 2009. UMA has held one on Saturdays in years past, but this year they scheduled it on a weekday for more public visibility.
UMA student Kristel Thyrring, of Augusta, said she hoped that someone seeing the group in their Walk to Remember T-shirts would do some research and learn more about the genocide.
“I was alarmed to find out how little I actually know about the Rwanda genocide,” Thyrring said. “I consider myself a fairly well-read person, but it was glossed over in all my history classes, all my social science classes.”
Gakuba said that since she came to the United States in 2010, she has discovered that few Americans know much about the genocide other than what they saw in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” She said she wants people to learn from what happened in Rwanda to prevent similar atrocities elsewhere.
Robert Bernheim, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, which is at UMA, noted that April is also the month to remember the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide.
The Rwandan genocide has special significance for UMA because of students such as Habineza and Gakuba, Bernheim said, but its lessons about memory and reconciliation can be applied to other incidents of violence. Bernheim said one example from Maine’s history is the oppression of American Indians by European settlers.
After the documentary, “As We Forgive,” Habineza talked briefly about attitudes in Rwanda today.
Habineza, who came to the U.S. in 2011, fled Rwanda with his family just before the genocide, when he was 3 years old. They went to live in the Democratic Republic of Congo after a grenade was thrown at their home.
He said that put him in an unusual position when he returned to Rwanda several years later. He said people are still labeled as victims or killers, even if it’s based on the fate or crimes of a relative.
Habineza said it’s important to discuss what happened but not “get too deep into it.”
“I wondered, am I involved in this since technically I’m not a survivor? Do I take a stand for somebody, or just stand in the middle?” he said. “That’s one problem we have as young people. We don’t know if we should carry on with what the old people did, or should we just start living ourselves?”