History Will Teach Us …?

3 weeks.

3 weeks of trying to make sense of things I saw on my last day in Rwanda.

This was after the 18 operations. After packing up the theatre. Around the same time as the intensive care was being decommissioned. A few of us went beyond the hospital to visit sites significant in the genocide of 1994. We came to play a small part in improving the lives of kids whose hearts would otherwise fail them before they’d really learnt to run into the world. We came to help with futures. But there were histories to learn.


The Million

In 1994 I registered the genocide like the insular teenager I was. Since then I have learnt numbers. 100 days. 1 million dead*. But numbers are both overwhelming and incomplete.

We drove up through the hills of Kigali then into the eastern areas. Our stop was at a local Catholic church that is just one of many sites where the stories of those who died are told in the hope those stories won’t have further chapters. There have been too many already as it turns out violence against the Tutsis started many decades before. At least as far back as the 1950s.

Through many outbreaks of killings where the Tutsi were the victims, Catholic churches offered safety. So Ntarama is just one they came to. 5000 of them. They were all killed.

Today there is a quiet garden gated behind the red dirt of the road. No photos are allowed inside the churches. I do not know that a photo of rows of skulls and other bones would help anyone else absorb the scene. Pictures wouldn’t really catalogue all the piles of clothes left from the victims.

5000 people.

When we leave three kids stop us to play a game in the international language of clapping. Inside there is the room where Sunday school took place. And a wall of dried blood where children were slaughtered.

The gardens at Ntarama

The gardens at Ntarama

*               *                 *

Around the time we were leaving this first church, we were missing a morning with our patients. They went down to the lawn to fly kites. I’m told the kites wouldn’t get up into the air. No one cared.

*              *                  *

After the first church we went to another. Here we could hear kids at the local school playing games as we walked amongst more piles of clothes. 10,000 died in one day here. 50,000 are buried in the graves. Our guide, again, was a survivor of 1994.

We drove back to the genocide museum in the city of Kigali. Here 250,000 are buried. They are still receiving remains.

There is a gallery at the top where photos of kids hang. They have the slight blurring of a small photo blown up to take over the memory. Each one has a story. Something like:


Favourite toy: His football.

Favourite food: Chips and ice cream.

Best friend: His mum.

Age at death: 7.

Killed by machete.”


I stand still for a long time before I leave.



Richard Flanagan, the much awarded Australian author, has no doubt spent much time thinking about how people come to view other humans as less than human.  His father was a prisoner of war and his Booker prize winning novel spends much time in the harsh jungles of Burma.

A while back he reflected on how you get to such a point, a point where war crimes are possible:

“… it begins years and decades before when terrible ideas are let loose upon a society that some people are less than human. And once you allow those ideas to take hold, at a certain point crimes like the death railway become inevitable.”

The genocide in Rwanda didn’t start in 1994. It started decades earlier. Is the curse of history that it is so vast that we struggle to take the lights it has left us to see the path in front of us? Or even where we are right now? Could the people who started burning the homes of Tutsi in 1959 see how much the flames would consume? Do we have the imagination to see where that first moment where we value another’s humanity as less than our own might lead?


I live somewhere that swelters in its own advantage. We have a proud narrative of believing in a fair go for all comers. Back in 1994 I do recall thinking that such barbarity defied all experience of the place I grew up.

Last week, a politician in Australia introduced the idea in parliament that he should have the power to decide in secret whether someone seeking an asylum can ever make a claim for protection under a definition of character or national interest known only to the relevant minister. It frees the local government from any pretence of obligation to the Refugees Convention. Anyone can be deported anywhere, without any consideration of whether they might be returned to danger or torture. Or even if it is known that is likely. There is no meaningful means for review or oversight of any of these new powers.

This is apparently to stop boats leaving foreign shores. Except they’re not stopping. At most they’re less visible from our beaches for now. Faced with the possibility that the parliament might not agree to these measures, the involved politician played a new card. He told others in the room that if they said yes, he would release children in detention from one offshore site, Christmas Island. He has had that power any time in the last 15 months. Of course if they said no, the children would stay locked up.

So I now live in a country where uses children, trapped in horrifying conditions described in terrible detail by  experienced paediatricians, are used as hostages. You could not treat someone you viewed as human like this. The ideas are loose.

So the other politicians said yes. And we are told children will leave Christmas Island. But not the other detention centres. There we continue to imprison children. Where will these decades lead us if this carries on?



After the museum we returned to the hospital. King Faisal Hospital wasn’t quite open when the genocide began. Within a short time up to 6,000 sought safety on its grounds. The first operations performed there were undertaken by aid staff treating the wounded.

In the corridor on the ward, an infant is chasing a pink balloon. Unsteady on her feet, when she picks it up and turns, her naked chest wears a broad white shield. It is the dressing over the sutures and wire holding her mended breastbone together. Decades later there are smiles to hold on to.


A day later I’m part way through the hop-step-and-jump of a broken journey back to Australia. I have a day in Johannesburg and time to visit the street in Soweto where both Mandela and Tutu have lived. I’m not sure what I expected Soweto to be but it wasn’t this place where I cross between luxury cars and the minimalist concrete of modern restaurants. Why didn’t I expect change from the events of history?

On the way between the school where children marched and Mandela’s house, there are words on a wall:


They are worth believing.






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