Home CommentaryStudent Life After the Rwandan genocide: Canada as home

After the Rwandan genocide: Canada as home

by Archives September 25, 2007

Murambi’s genocide memorial center stands on top of one of the many green hills of southern Rwanda.
The building is surrounded by an infinite patchwork of terraces carved into bright oranges and jades, sprouting leafy plantain and banana trees, cassava, and potatoes.
Behind the memorial center are mass graves, deep pits where people’s bodies were hidden – not buried – and the schoolhouses, long rectangular buildings made of smooth red bricks.
Behind the schoolhouses, the mountains, serene and beautiful, roll into the morning’s blotted blue and grey horizon.
One catches the joyful sound of children and radios whispered by a cool breeze from the bottom of the hillsides.
These hills are the silent witnesses to the deaths of the estimated 50,800 Tutsis, whose skeletons now lie within the school’s walls.
The memorial center warden is one of the four remaining survivors. A crater on his shiny scalp was once a bloody wound from a bullet.
He wears a blue suit: the cuffs are ripped and tattered.
He holds himself with dignity: witness and survivor, everyday he brings curious visitors to see the school’s memorial site.
Beginning in a large hall, he points out the laundry-lines of dirty, blood-soaked, and mud caked clothing, that were taken off of the bodies of those buried in the mass graves next to the school buildings.
He then opens the door in one of the long rectangular buildings. A small and tidy room, there are rows of wooden tables loaded with the corpses of infants.
The smell is pungent. The children’s tiny skulls, the size of an adult hand, are cracked where the machetes hit, some have their feet cut off and their Achilles heels slashed.
There is one adult skeleton: a woman lying with her arm curled around the now imaginary form of her child, lover, friend or family member.
Bunches of colorful flowers bundled in see-through saran wrap sit on one of the wooden tables loaded with skeletons.
Meet Odile Sanabaso. She’s 22 years old, a Fine Arts student at Concordia University, well spoken, confident, and fluent in three languages.
She has a beautiful smile, long black hair in a thousand braids, and a kind, strong voice. She’s been living in Montreal’s Rosemont district since the age of 10, and says she enjoys the security of Canada and the positive attitude of the people around her.
The piles of skeletons at the Murambi genocide memorial represent a fraction of the violence and the estimated 937 000 deaths that make-up the Rwandan genocide.
It’s also a part of Sanabaso’s childhood.
Born and raised until the age of nine in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, Sanabaso was in the centerfolds of the genocide’s violence.
She lived with her family in Kigali: her mother, a teacher, her father, a businessman, and her four siblings.
Although Sanabaso said violence had been escalating in the country since 1990, she enjoyed a normal childhood.
She went to school, played with the neighborhood children and enjoyed the company of a large family.
But, telltale signs predicted the coming genocide, said Sanabaso. Two years before the genocide, children were aware of what it meant to be Tutsi or Hutu.
“It [was] annoying, but it didn’t really affect me directly, I would just know who I was talking to. It wouldn’t prevent me from playing with kids,” said Sanabaso.
She says her parents recognized the growing tension in Kigali where, in 1990, groups of Tutsis were incarcerated.
In 1992, her father was almost beaten to death.
“There was a strike of some Hutus and because we were living on big streets, they would just go into houses and kick people out.”
Sanabaso lost both her parents and three of her siblings during the genocide.
When the genocide ended in Rwanda, one of Sanabaso’s sisters – who had moved to Montreal a few years earlier – heard she was still alive and came to Rwanda to bring her back to live in Canada.
“We were ten, a really big family,” said Sanabaso, smiling, “and [my sister] heard that one kid was left. [My siblings in Canada] became my new parents and adopted me.”
When her sister came in October, they left to Kenya to gather papers for her adoption, arriving in Canada in 1995.
Her siblings living in Canada were shocked by the genocide.
“[My sister] was supposed to come in July [from Canada] and get married. She had the wedding over [in Canada], but the church was meant to be in Kigali with the family and parents, and [then she heard] that nobody is left, they’re all killed.”
She was the last member – old and healthy enough – of the family to tell the story.
“[My siblings in Canada] hadn’t seen our parents for three or four years. It’s hard, but you know, ten people could die and there would be nobody left, [but] when you see someone that [survived] it reminds you of them.”
She says that despite the grandeur of America and Canada as seen from Rwanda, it wasn’t as overwhelming as she had imagined. “It’s different, but there’s nothing we don’t have there [in Kigali] that we don’t have here.”
She describes her transition into Montreal as simple: she learned French, began elementary school, and lived in Rosemont with her siblings.
“Most people when they get to the airport they start crying, they have bad dreams, stuff like that,” said Sanabaso.
“It’s a sad period, but I was so young, it’s easier when you’re a kid to adapt. You just go to the next step.”
She believes that it’s the attitude of people in Montreal that changed her life – had she stayed in Rwanda right after the genocide, it might have been different.
“There’s a positive image. When you’re coming from a country where there’s so much trouble and the last thing you saw were people really mad and angry… When you get here people don’t have those problems,” said Sanabaso.
“[You] see life in a better way, because people are happy, there’s peace, there’s everything.”
As a child, Sanabaso never returned to Rwanda.
In 2000, she set foot in her home country for the first time in five years. She also returned this past summer.
Her impressions of the country are optimistic, saying that people were happier and reconciliation between the Hutus and the Tutsis was moving quickly.
It seemed that people were trying to move on from the past and re-build the country, said Sanabaso. “It was peaceful: more security, more of everything. People were trying to achieve. They had a really good image, a positive image.”
As for her impressions of the country’s leader, Paul Kagame, she believes he is helping to close the gap between Hutus and Tutsis.
“When I went back there [for the first time], I was a bit older, so I could see how people think, they wouldn’t differentiate so much. They’d still know this was a Hutu or a Tutsi, but they were trying to go beyond and not even pay attention.”
Sanabaso says the genocide has definitely changed Rwanda’s youth. “You become, not less humanized, but you feel that life has been a joke, you view life differently than others I think,” explained Sanabaso.
“There’s a lot of [youth] who are really frustrated right now, they had all that and they are still living a really bad life, they are poor, they don’t go to school, living on the streets.”
“It’s really hard to say I forgive… it’s hard to forgive. They are in a situation where there is nothing they can do. I don’t think they are trying for revenge,” continued Sanabaso,
“[Right now] they want to forget, and forget about the differences and all that, how that will affect them I don’t know.”
Sanabaso believes that inwardly, the death toll of the country and the loss of her own family has changed her perspective on life, saying that now she will cry for many reasons, except for death.
“It’s not because I don’t want to cry, [but] I’ve lost so many people now it’s one more person. It’s sad, but you get used to it so quickly. It’s really different [from here], but when you’re [in Rwanda] and you lose so many people around you it’s too much,” explained Sanabaso, “you went to the highest level, you can’t go any higher, the rest comes, but it can’t be worse than what happened before.”
In Montreal, the Rwandan community is growing. Sanabaso belongs to a group called PAGE-Rwanda.
They’re a group of genocide survivors who get together and organize memorials and dances bringing Rwandans together.
Although in Rwanda, the gap between Hutu and Tutsi is closing, Sanabaso thinks it’s worse here, not because it’s enforced, but rather because acquaintances created in Rwanda perpetuated in Montreal with little focus on reconciliation.
“Here, we’re still a bit behind, because reconciliation, is not that it’s not working, but we’re not working on it so much. We are together, but we still pay more attention to that difference [between Hutu and Tutsi] than people in Rwanda,” said Sanabaso.
“You know we have Hutus [in Canada] who’ve killed, but we don’t get to meet them, because we just don’t go the same places, they have their own kind of community, they have the groups and dancing, they have exactly like us. It’s not something that’s organized. It’s just like that.”
When asked if she’ll ever return to Rwanda permanently, Sanabaso says she’s not yet comfortable with the idea of staying.
“Maybe it’s going to come later on, but I think my family has the same opinion, they’ve all gone there, they love the country, [but] what’s the point in going since the whole family is not there.”

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