One Million Dead, Infinite Stories To Tell

“My sister, with her last breath, crawled towards me, trying to say something. She died with her hand on my arm. How brave that even in her last moment she wanted me safe.” Nelson Gashagaza recalls.

As I read about the brutal death of my cousin Penzi, memories from my childhood come back to life. I grew up with Nelson and our other cousins. Like many children, we spent a lot of time at our grandma’s house. A picture of Penzi, hung in the living room of our grandma, was a constant reminder that she once was here, alive and beautiful. No one ever really talked about her- at least not when I was there. For what I knew, this was an off-limits topic with Nelson.

Like many people around the world, especially Rwandans, I have been reading stories on the genocide. Reports on the commemoration events are flooding in from all parts of the world. Friends are calling each other to offer words of comfort. Families are gathering to remember their loved ones.

With every year that I take part in the commemoration events – mostly by listening to those who were there – I come to a new realization. This year, I am struck with the powerful personal stories that honor and give dignity to the victims of the genocide.

Over the years, there has definitely been a shift in how the stories about the genocide are told. The path that survivors have taken, I believe, directly impacts this. Overcoming loss and grief with stories of empowerment and triumph has been key in the sharing of testimonies.

I remember growing up in Rwanda, and dreading the months of April through July, but more so, the week of April 7th to April 14th. The stories were mostly filled with gruesome details. They offered no closure. Usually abruptly ended. Survivors choking on tears. Commemoration spaces startled with sudden wails from a survivor recalling an event. Red Cross workers rushing those overwhelmed with trauma. Counselors swarming commemoration sites to offer support.

Today, I am incredibly fascinated by the ability of the survivors to tell their stories in compelling and dignified ways. It might be the time that is going by, and people have found coping mechanisms that work for them. Maybe, they are just, different stories.

A dear friend of mine, Rwabigwi, wrote a very compelling piece this week. After I read it, I told him: “I have a headache from reading it- a worthy headache though.” What he was describing was harrowing, and for the most part unimaginable. I was thinking about Ange, the girl whose story he wrote about. Though I don’t know her, the family members that she describes in her story became real on my computer screen. There is a story attached to their lives, a worthy account of humanity. A story of unending love beyond the limits of our universe. An unimaginably beautiful transcendence of life and death by way of trauma.

When I read Nelson’s story, and the things that he remembers about his loving sister Penzi, I was completely taken aback by her sudden realness. I now feel that I can think of her, beyond her being a part of the one million people who died. She has a story, she has a name, and she has someone who has her memory.

Many times, we hear names. Names and places. Most stories lie in the hearts and the memories of those who remember them. Stories are powerful. They give meaning to our lives. They occupy a space in a universe parallel to ours. Our bodies will leave this world, but the stories we tell will be passed down to generations to come. As I read Nelson’s account of Penzi’s last moments, she is reincarnated through this story. Her love for her brother and her symbol of “holding on” humanize her for me, more than ever before.

To those who have memories, to those who heard the last words, I ask: If you find it in your heart, tell a story. When years have passed, and the first account bearers of the memory of genocide are long gone, the world will have stories. Stories to humanize the numbers. And that is important.

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