What We Are

June 4th, 2008 | 0 comments | Posted by Jen

In Rwanda, from where I’m writing, it’s illegal for citizens to ask one another what they are. By “what” I mean, Hutu or Tutsi. The reason why it’s against the law to make ethnic distinctions in Rwanda these days is rooted in the genocide that took place here in 1994. That year, Hutu militias, on government orders, conducted a brutal 100-day extermination of 800,000 to 1 million people, most of them Tutsis. In Philip Gourevitch’s account from the survivors’ perspective, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, he estimated that the murder rate during those 100 days was 6 people per minute.

Tutsis were the minority then (around 15% of the population) and now. But the difference between Hutu and Tutsi has always been, from what I understand, a false distinction. There wasn’t a perceived difference among Rwandans between Hutu and Tutsi until the late 19th century, when European colonizers (first the Germans, then the Belgians) insisted on that ethnic divide for their own political gains. In the 1930′s, the Belgians went so far as to issue ID cards to all Rwandans identifying them as belonging to one group or the other. In ’94, Rwandans still carried such cards. And if yours said that you were Tutsi then, it soon became your death certificate, too.

Yesterday, I visited a genocide memorial in the town of Nyamata, outside Kigali. The memorial is in what was once a Catholic church where an estimated 2,500 Tutsis were massacred in April 1994. The Nyamata church is virtually untouched from the time of the killings, with the exception that skeletal remains have been removed. Blood staining the altar, bricks walls, and rafters has never been washed away, and bullet holes perforate the tin ceiling in pretty constellations. The ground is carpeted with the dirt- and blood-soaked garments of the victims. You literally can’t walk through the church without stepping on a murdered person’s clothing. Outside, behind the building, there are two mass graves, tombs you descend down into that hold the skulls and bones of 41,000 people killed in the area (according to our guide), laid out neatly on shelves. In some cases, you can picture exactly how a person died, because there’s a huge gaping hole in their skull or it’s hacked nearly in two. It’s one of the saddest fucking things I’ve ever seen.

Nyamata, before the removal of skeletal remains


What’s any of this got to do with me? Or you? I wondered the same thing all yesterday, feeling destroyed by the human capacity for evil on display at Nyamata. Words withered on my tongue. Every thought that I had struck me as gilded and frivolous. What did I know about tragedy? What did I know about loss?

I write a silly blog with one of my best friends. We crack rice jokes and make puns with the word “asian” in them sometimes for the sole purpose of entertaining ourselves. Our bread-and-butter is in the making of ethnic distinctions, and also in taking the piss out of them. We take pride in the cultures from which we sprang, in the ways of our ancestors, in who and what we are. We do this and no one dies because of it. It’s unclear to me why we should be so lucky.

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