What’s in a name?

Ntangari. Ntantege. Ntarama. It was an alphabetical list of names. At first glance, it appeared as the type of list you’d find at a school, or a concert lineup. But as the columns got more numerous, and the plaque revealed itself lengthier, it was clear this was something else– it was a list of names of those who were murdered in the Rwandan genocide. The ever-growing list memorializes a few hundred of the close to one million Tutsis slaughtered in 1994. The wall of names is one of many exhibits on display at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the genocide. 


With the several memorials, museums, sculptures and commemorative plaques around Kigali, it is hard to escape the memory of the events of 1994. Although it happened almost 25 years ago, its memory is still fresh; and it feels as though it still informs the way in which life is conducted in Rwanda. 


When I found out I had been selected for the IWMF Rwanda fellowship, I sought out to learn as much as I could about what happened in the genocide. I read about the historical events that led up to it and the reticence from international forces to step in. I had vague memories of watching the news on television, and not understanding what it all meant. To this day, it is striking to think that this took place in my lifetime. 


During our first meeting with our fixing team, they addressed how to talk about the genocide and the events of 1994 with the people we encountered. They recommended that we ease into the topic, and let individuals tell their own story at their own pace. They suggested avoiding direct questions, and allowing survivors to retell their memories as they felt comfortable. While these are standard reporting practices, they became crucial in this environment.  


We went to Rwanda to report on Malaria, but news of the genocide were ever-present. A co-fellow, Melody Schreiber, recounted passing a mass grave and stopping over to talk to the people digging for victims’ remains. She was so struck by what she saw, that she reported out a full story on the topic. 


During our trip to Rwanda, I was reminded of the importance of knowing the history of the place where you’re going. I learned that after the genocide, there was a countrywide community-building strategy that focused on fostering forgiveness and trust. Relatives and loved ones of those immortalized on the wall of names had to learn how to live with their neighbors in peace again, and pardon even the worst of atrocities. What stayed with me the most, was not what I read or what I studied, it was witnessing firsthand, that the road to peace is paved with forgiveness and compassion.