July 4th: Rwandan Liberation Day


Happy Fourth of July!  I hope you are enjoying a great day with barbecue, fireworks, family and friends.  I have happy memories of this day from childhood:  my brother loved setting off fireworks, and he always had a choreographed performance for us on the back porch, before we climbed up on the roof to watch the big displays around Denver.  I also remember our old ice cream churn–you know, the ones that needed dry ice on the sides–it was lots of work for pretty bland, watery ice cream, which couldn’t begin to compete with the Baskin-Robbins down the street!

Today, however, I am thinking about another nation’s celebration:  did you know that July 4th is the day that Rwandans celebrate Liberation Day?  It was on this day in 1994 that current president Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) finally took control of the country and stopped the genocide against the Tutsis by the Hutu majority government.  It is believed that somewhere around 800,000 people were killed, and countless more were raped, mutilated, displaced and wounded during the 100 day span between April 7th and early July 1994.

This is a complicated history of course, but the short version is that there had been a Civil War going on in Rwanda since around 1990 between the Tutsis and the Hutus.  The president of the country at that time, Hutu Juvenal Habyarimana, was pressured to implement a cease-fire, which occurred in 1993 along with the Arusha Accords, which laid out a plan by which the Hutus would share political power with the RPF.  It was a controversial agreement, and before it could be fully implemented, on April 6th, 1994, Habyarimana was assassinated:  his plane was shot down while coming into Kigali.  The killings began the next day.

23 years later, Kagame is still in office, and he presides over a radically reformed Rwanda:  there has been stability, economic growth, and even reconciliation [And, incidentally, did you know that women hold over half the seats in Rwanda’s Parliament?].  One of the things that I find so interesting about this, is that, in Rwanda, the celebration of liberation comes in a larger context of mourning for the genocide.  The national mourning period begins each year on April 7th.  The day is called Kwibuka, and it lasts until today, July 4th, Liberation Day.  The whole week following April 7th is an official week of mourning, called Icyunamo.

Liberation always comes at a cost, doesn’t it?  Here in Gettysburg, we just finished the commemoration of the battle, the deadliest on American soil, with somewhere around 50,000 dead in three days.  After going to the reenactment on Sunday with our Swedish cousins, we watched the movie “Gettysburg” (oh, are they good sports!).  I think the movie actually is pretty good–with a great cameo by the Seminary!, and certainly doesn’t gloss over the terrible human cost, the broken friendships, and the despair:  after three days, nothing dramatic was accomplished.  Sure, the Confederate Army was driven south, but they would fight two more years, until they really had no more men to lose and no more food to feed the ones they had.  I have to be honest: I understand living historians and their desire to dig into period characters and their lives, but I do not understand reenacting horrifying, costly battles.

So, on July 4th, I’m feeling mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I am grateful for the blessings that come with living in the United States, even under this president whom I neither respect nor trust.  [We will not be in this situation forever; time will march on].  Even as I am mindful of all those who do not experience the same blessings I have in this country as a white, middle class woman, still, I am grateful for abundant food and clean water; for the ability to study and work; for the ease of travelling on an American passport, which will get me quickly and cheaply into almost any nation in the world; for beautiful natural landscapes and safe cities to explore; for the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the freedom of the press–and the courage to fight for these freedoms every day.

but here is the other piece:  I am convinced that for Americans, Independence Day is not only something to celebrate but an ongoing call to work for an ideal, a promise that too many in our country see and experience only dimly.  The task remains before us, even as the fireworks go off; and without this aspect of our celebration and commemoration, we somehow miss much of the point.  Today, and every day, we can’t just look back in gratitude; we also need to look forward in commitment and hope.





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