Due to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, Rwandans will today begin the seven day commemoration of the 27th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi where many will remember their loved ones within the confines of their homes.
During the commemoration preparations last year, the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG), Jean-Damascène Bizimana, said that every commemoration is different but mourning during a pandemic was something that required adaptation.
“No two commemoration ceremonies are alike but preparing to mourn during a pandemic is particularly different,” he said.
A re-worked format
This year has been no exception and once again, the commemoration week will be impacted by a number of organisational changes.
As was the case for last year, no community gatherings will be allowed during this year’s commemoration.
Although the weekly programme to commemorate the genocide is normally fully packed with activities, this year, there will only be 3-day official activities.
A programme issued by CNLG indicates that the activities will start with laying a wreath and then lighting a flame of remembrance at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
The flame is a reflection of remembrance and is lit to honour the more than one million victims and to signify that their memory still lives on and burns bright.
After this, senior government officials, diplomatic corps and other selected dignitaries will converge at the Kigali Arena where the ceremony to officially launch the day will be held.
At the event, the guest of honour – President Paul Kagame – is expected to give a general address.
Locals are expected to follow the proceedings on television, radio and social media platforms, a far cry from the norm where they converge in the national stadium or meet within their villages.
Although it is normally part of the April 7 activities, just like last year, the ‘Walk to Remember’ has been cancelled.
On April 9, a youth talk show on the history of the genocide and the youth’s contribution towards conserving it will be aired on the public broadcaster. The show can be followed on social media platforms.
Also cancelled is the annual commemoration event that is usually keyed in for April 11 at Nyanza, Kicukiro to remember over 2,000 people who were killed after the UN withdrew its peacekeepers from the former ETO-Kicukiro (now IPRC-Kigali) compound – where they had had taken refuge.
However, though no physical activities will take place at Rebero where they are buried, the commemoration period will officially come to an end on April 13 with a talk show aimed at remembering Hutu politicians who were killed for their refusal to be involved in the atrocities.
Although the official activities have been reduced significantly, Bizimana says that visiting memorial sites or burying loved ones will be done in line with Covid-19 preventive measures.
“People will be allowed to visit genocide memorials to mourn their loved ones but Covid measures will apply. They will follow the normal guidelines in place for burial,” he said.
Change in personal rituals
36-year-old Regine Kazayire who resides in Kigali City was born in Nyanza District, Southern Province. She says that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed up her annual ritual that she follows to remember her parents and siblings who were killed during the genocide.
“Normally on April 10, my friends and I sit in a van and head to Nyanza where we clean my parents’ grave, pray and then converge and talk about my family. I have done that for the last two decades. I wasn’t able to do that last year and I won’t be able to this year,” she said.
63-year-old Caroline Mukandori says that her plan this year was to finally bury the remains of her young sister who was killed at 24 and buried in a pit latrine.
However, this will not happen due to the restrictions put in place to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
“I have been trying to have her buried for the last one year but it has been a little difficult due to the pandemic. I am yet to get a coffin but I am also not sure if I want her to be buried by only 20 people,” she said.
Mukandori said that her annual routine, which involves attending memorial vigils, including the one in Nyanza, Kicukiro has been greatly disrupted.
“I am old so I am at a high risk of contracting the virus. It makes me sad that I will stay indoors but I must think about my health first,” she said.
The Executive Secretary of Ibuka, the umbrella body for genocide survivors’ organisations, Naphatal Ahishakiye, told The New Times in a telephone interview that though it may be hard to adapt to the new routine, it is also an opportunity for family units to sit and openly discuss what happened.
“Obviously it is tough, but it can also be seen as an opportunity. A man, woman and their children should see this as an opportunity to have frank conversations about how we got here and what to do so that such atrocities never happen again,” he said.
Addressing the survivors directly, Ahishakiye said that although they may find it challenging to deviate from the norm of how they usually commemorate their loved ones, it was important that they put their health first in everything.
“I would like comfort the survivors and also tell them that the people that they lost would want to see them put their health first so that they are able to continue fighting on. As we remember during this pandemic, let’s have a thirst for life, give it value and protect it,” he said.
He called on them to keep an eye on each other especially in communities where there are people with mental health challenges.
“Although we may not be able to be there for each other physically, let us use the resources that we have, like phones which we can use to call and text, to hold each other up especially the ones with trauma,” he said.