When Relationships Are Not Enough: Reconciling with Genocide

September 21, 2015

I just returned from Rwanda, where I had the opportunity to spend about 10 days with my delightful two-year-old grandson and his family. We also visited Akagera National Park, where we saw hippos, zebras, impalas, warthogs, baboons and elephants (up close and personal). My son and I had the indescribable experience of communing with mountain gorillas from a distance of about two meters.

We also visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which commemorates the 1994 genocide perpetrated against Tutsis and moderate Hutus, a tragedy that resulted in the slaughter of almost 1 million people in 100 days. The museum left me with an overwhelming sense of sadness, confusion and distress, as it raised deep questions that challenge many of my core values and beliefs.

What relationships make possible

As a dialogue practitioner and trainer, I have seen opponents recognize one another’s humanity, building an improbable bridge across differences in identities, core values and worldviews. I have witnessed participants listen to understand and for the first time, be able to see things from a new perspective. I have watched people move from a stance of certainty in their own “rightness” to entertaining the possibility that others might not be “wrong,” but might be approaching the issue from very different life experiences and values.

Dialogue holds the possibility of enemies transforming their relationships and finding ways to coexist, even as their differences remain. Dialogue makes possible the development and deepening of relationships, building of trust and mutual understanding that can lay the foundation for connection, coexistence, community, and collaboration. When people see each other as human beings, it becomes much harder to demonize, dehumanize, stereotype or do violence onto one another.

Where relationships were not enough

What I saw in the museum, however, challenged many of these beliefs. Hutus and Tutsis lived together, shared a common language, worshiped together, intermarried and watched their children attend the same schools. But from April through July, 1994, the “protective factor” of relationship did not prevent one of the most horrific genocides of the 20th century. The downing of the President’s plane triggered pre-planned attacks that quickly eliminated any potential opposition to the ethnic cleansing. Approximately 70% of the Tutsi population and 20% of the general population were slaughtered. Neighbor turned against neighbor; people were betrayed and killed by those whom they had previously trusted and with whom they had enjoyed long-standing relationships, friendships and fellowship.

How to reconcile with the unthinkable

I am left with the confusion of trying to make sense out of what was truly senseless. I still believe that relationships, connection, and trust lie at the heart of community and society. I still believe that while differences are inevitable, demonization, dehumanization and violence are not. We, as human beings, have within us the power to reach out, to connect, to respect each other even as we retain awareness of our differences. Equally challenging is avoiding the seductive pull of responding to difference with fear, which can overwhelm the “better angels of our nature” and lead to violence. What was so striking in the many accounts that I read and heard at the museum was how perpetrators attributed motivations and intentions to those whom they later destroyed. How tragic and ironic that they saw their victims as presenting the kind of threat that could only be responded to with deadly violence.

Why we must continue to foster mutual understanding

I still believe in the power of mutual recognition, of understanding and of connecting as fellow human beings. And I recognize that there will be circumstances in which this will not be enough. Each of us is called upon to act upon the courage of our convictions, to do what is right. To confront our awareness of difference, to look deeply within and to engage in ways that acknowledge our common humanity and interdependence. There were a few stories in the museum of incredibly courageous individuals who acted, at great danger to themselves, to shelter and protect their friends, family and countrymen. My trip to the Genocide Memorial included a visit to the mass grave where more than 250,000 victims were buried. It left me sobered by the thought that each of us has the opportunity and responsibility to work to try to heal this very broken world.