I managed my grueling experience at the genocide memorial by dividing it into two parts: intellectual and emotional.
Intellectually, the site is incredibly well done. It shows how the Germans, then the Belge, followed by the unconscionable inaction of the rest of the world, set Rwandans up for the genocide; the historical background of the clans, of which distinctions like Hutu and Tutsi were occupational and not tribal/ethnic at all, yet how the white people’s obnoxious, flagrant, unrepentant racism distorted and perverted everything about this beautiful, ancient people into “us versus ourselves” mentalities.
Of the most enraging images was a priest, for God’s sake, a priest measuring Rwandais’ heads and categorizing them ethnically for the registration cards of 1932 as deemed necessary by the Church and King Leopold, one of the great nutters of all time. These registration cards were doomed to become one of the worst props in the history of the humankind. As these ethnic differences were spurious to begin with, the church had trouble distinguishing Hutu from Tutsi, so they would ask random questions like “how many cows do you have” and decide for the people ‘what they were.’ Once the massacres began in 1994, these cards were the delivery system of death for over one million people.
The memorial, in a balancing act of the highest order, does not stoop to blaming the outside world, but rather in a straightforward way simply tells the story of how over decades the west’s racism, abuses, extraordinary sins of ommission and commission let 500,000 women be raped, a million people be butchered, and for hundreds of thousands of secondary deaths to occur; for there to be complete civic destruction and a cascade of ancillary tragedies and upheavals (refugees, for example). There are photographs of Hutus preparing to kill with French soldiers supervising the proceedings, examples of major media (NY Times, Times of London) newspaper stories reporting killing sprees that were well orchestrated rehearsals for mass murder, and the pleas of the UN peacekeeper leader in Rwanda begging for assistance, predicting what was coming, and saying how very little he needed to avert it. And finally there is the stone walling silence of Kofi Anan, heads of state around the world, and us, normal citizens who should have stopped our everyday lives to prevent this doom.
The grief is debilitating. I would walk and feel my legs becoming heavier, almost immobilized, as I slowly moved through the mass graves. At times I was close to passing out and I’d have to sharpen up mentally and re connect with my breath. At other times I felt hyper alert to the point of panic and had to slow my breath down, it would be coming in heaves. I would feel pain so deep the rest of the world ceased to exist and I would be swallowed entirely in it. If I had been able to think in those moments I would have thought my life was over, nothing else was possible, except maybe to crawl silently to somewhere quiet to sit, to hide, to huddle. Three women with a faded color photograph gripped in their hands staggered through the graves. One fell to her knees and her sisters stood alongside her as pillars. When she recovered slightly it was the other two women’s turn to keen. I wanted to run to their group and throw myself on them, like we were a pyre, sobbing, howling, “I am so sorry, I am so sorry.” Perhaps they would have appreciated such a validating outburst of communal sorrow, perhaps culturally that would have been wildly out of order. I barely restrained myself as I passed by them, brushing one lightly on the back. She said, “thank you.”
I am mazunga, a white person. I wish I had gone with my instinct and reached out more to the women. Part of the pain about the genocide is the lack of validation from us.
Prayer did help as I was sucked inexorably further into the memorial. When I would start to lose my mind I would start to pray for the souls of the dead. (I haven’t started to pray yet for the perpetrators, the way Archbishop Tutu’s daughter has taught me to, but I will. I will.) May you rest in peace. May you rest in peace. May you rest in peace. One million and more times, may you rest in peace.
One of the round rooms of the exhibit had victim’s clothing suspended in mid air by filament. The arrangement of the clothes uncannily suggests the posture of the body that had occupied them; the empty garments expressed surprise, violence, pitiful and useless self defense. The clothes were all sizes, and I stood, weeping and haunted, in front a child’s colorful sweater, filthy from where the body had lain in the muck. At that little child’s age, that would have been my favorite sweater, it was so cheerful. It reminded me of the rainbow painted on the entrance to the tunnel from Marin County to the Golden Gate Bridge, so optimistic! Next to it was a tattered superman sheet. God have mercy on us all. Was the person sleeping and hacked to death in her bed? Had a family tried to flee their mud hut, the sheet grabbed in a mindless fit of modesty? Had a wildly panicked mother grabbed the sheet to tie her youngster to her back so she could run from her rapists?
Another room had horizontal rows of filament, to which survivors pin photographs of their loved ones. Rows, rows, and rows, images from family parties, official documents, snap shots of reluctant looking elderly which perhaps an amateur family historian took to have for future generations. The room is devastating in the absolute. It is almost unbearable. Murder, murder, murder, it silently screams.
I paused at the memorial guest book. I couldn’t see the page for my tears blearing my sight. What do I say? How do I tell the survivors of such horror anything consoling? How does one apologize to the dead? Feeling useless and incompetent I wrote, “I am sorry, I am so sorry.”
This genocide was unique in history in that a small government incited millions of regular people, including the educated classes, to slaughter their family members and neighbors with their bare hands in their homes and in places of sanctuary. It was intensely personal murder. The swing of a machete once wasn’t enough; hacking and hacking, with 400 different acknowledged forms of toture, burying people alive amongst them. it is unfathomable yet it must be fathomed.
Afterwards I was asked to say a few words to our local staff and the media. In the morning, I had thought to talk about the Rwandais government’s extraordinary action in re building itself, a veritable Phoenix rising from ashes, and to salute NGO’s and initiative’s like President Clinton’s, which have accomplished so much. It was not, however, the right time; this needed to be about genocide, regret, accountability. In this moment I found the division between the intellect and the emotional in order to be able to speak in public and not simply wail. I took responsibility certainly for my government’s indefensible inaction, pledged to do my part as a citizen to ensure no genocide happens again, and to serve Rwanda’s people as living amends. I also mentioned this Chinese ship full of arms that was trying to dock in Zimbabwe earlier this week. Are people out of their minds? Nothing, absolutely nothing good can possibly come of such arms coming to Africa. Are we forgetting, even as this memorial exists, that the genocide was committed with .50 machetes from China? I vowed to call my legislators and you bet your a***I did. That ship needs to go back from whence it came, thank you very much.
These writings will not be entirely about the genocide, but today’s is. It inescapably informs everything in this country, and most certainly Population Service International’s public health mission here. It is the background, acknowledged if unspoken, it has set Rwanda’s stage.
We also visited an infamous site, Ntarama church, where on April 7, 1994 10,000 children, women, and elderly were slaughtered. In the mayhem of the bloody free for all, a group had fled to the church, naturally expecting some protection. Instead, they were tortured. The Hutu madmen began by throwing grenades into the packed throng (the church is not big, just one open room, 10,000 people in it inconceivable). The shrapnel damage is still in the church’s tin roof, letting small bits of sun come through. Over a short period of time, the 10,000 were hacked to death, one brutal, agonizing death at a time.
Rwandais society held a special place of honor for its elderly, but in the genocide they were treated with a particular cruelty. Everyone was, really….the Hutu just found different twists on the same fundamental insult: the elderly had breed cockroach Tutsis, women gave birth to cockroach Tutsi, men married cockroach Tutsi, and so on and so forth. But I feel a singular grief at what was done to the elderly. No more so than children, but….it’s a different aspect of the pain. Maybe because I spend a little time each day honoring my grandparents, thanking them for my life, coming to peace once more with the fact they are with me in spirit but not in the flesh. That someone would set out to ruin an old person’s life, when I long each for more old people in my life, hurts.
I haven’t said much of rape, but it happened (and continues to happen, especially in the so called Democratic Republic of Congo, en masse). A typical example of rape as a tool of genocide happened in this church. A woman was strung up, crucifixion style, and raped over a period of days by hundreds of genocidaires, until she expired. Her bones hung on the tortured scaffolding until recently. What remains of her family asked for them to be interned just recently, They had had enough of her bones as a historical teaching point.
The church is breathtaking for all the wrong reasons. Upon entering the grounds, “We will never forget” is spelled out in a lovely and restrained planting of small shrubs. Then, upon entering the church, I was thunderstruck by the flabbergasting site of the clothing of 10,000 people piled onto low, backless benches, which once served as pews, and by the rotting stench of the defiled bodies that have been removed, piece by piece, from the clothing. I cannot even begin to describe the shock of this.
I moved in transfixed horror between the benches, studying the piles and piles of t shirts, pants, jeans, dresses, baby clothes, sweaters. Everything is dirty, and it’s easy to discern blood stains from life’s wear and tear. I kept stopping every few steps to turn slightly; it was relentless from every angle, 10,000 people, 10,000 people, 10,000 people, butchered in this small room, maybe 20 by 40.
Within the church is an opening in the floor, a set of stairs that leads down to a basement. Oh my God. The basement is very simple, going from right to left with only a very narrow footpath path. Its walls are lined with shelves that go from the floor the ceiling. Oh my God. These shelves are stacked with bones. Human bones. Skulls, femurs, fibulas. Stacks upon stacks upon stacks of bones.
I didn’t know if I should enter. I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t know if I would later have trauma if I did. I thought about my own bones, and how these women, elderly, and children were innocent. I decided they in and of themselves were not spooky; what was done to them was. I pressed on. From time to time I thought I was suffocating. I would stop, struggle to breath, look at the shaft of light from the church above, and re gather my determination to see, feel, and know the truth.
As far up as I could see were orderly, stacked rows of human remains. Some of the skulls are missing chunks were a machete had connected. Many were missing teeth.
Many were very small.
One skull was sticking out a bit from its shelf. The path is so narrow, I was already turning sideways not to bump into leg bones. I had a quick obsession flare up that someone would knock this skull off its shelf, and I really wanted to pick it up and set it somewhere more secure. I equivocated, a real life version of some childhood dare. I thought, oh, it’s just bone, I know what bones are made of, the soul has flown away, it’s not like there are maggots, it’s okay, do the right things by this skull….pick it up…..but right before I touched it, Papa Jack said, “Maybe in life he was a sticking out there kind of guy.” I laughed in an improbable celebration of this skull’s personality and left it as it was.
There are also caskets. They are filled with 20-25 bodies each.
The woman who was raped over a period of days is in a casket in a place of respect for the uniqueness of suffering, the additional brutality meted to women for being women.
Outside, with the stench from the clothes funnelled through the church door and canceled out any freshness from the rain, I visited with the woman who guides tours. She lives nearby and does this as much as she can, taking days off when it really starts to get to her. We talked about her crops (cassava and sweet potatoes right now), how I live somewhere that has 4 seasons instead of 2, and best agricultural practices. She was a tragic figure, and I took pleasure in helping her find a few smiles. We exchanged addresses and I look forward to writing her. Oh, she is a grandmother, and she lit up in the special way that grandmothers do when asked about their grandbabies. I was glad for her that she has them, even as I know lack of family planning is a serious crisis in Rwanda.
Believe it or not, when we got to talking about flowers, she went to the side of the church and picked me a bouquet and sent me home with it.
100,000 people were murdered every day for 100 days. 500,000 women were raped, with men who knew they were HIV+ taking the lead. Children were made to murder (and in the case of boys, rape their mothers and sisters) their parents, parents to murder their children, before they themselves were killed. Torture was sometimes lengthy before death. A refugee crisis was created as panicked Rwandans fled to the DRC and other neighboring countries. There were hundreds of thousands of additional deaths due to starvation, disease, and civil collapse, deaths due to things like cholera and typhoid, on top of malaria, etc. And in a strange twist that human rights groups and ngo’s have not yet discussed, when the Hutu fled to the DRC sensing their bloody glory was over, they were taken into refuge camps by human rights workers, and there were fed, watered, and tended to, while their victims were left in piles unattended and the living were abandoned. The Interwahme who still live on the DRC border would start this all up again in a minute if they could, in spite of the peace and reconciliation that Hutus and Tutsi have miraculously found at home.
There is no part of the Rwanda that was not under the rampage of genocidaires. The killing was not localized; it was spread over an entire country the size of Maryland. Human remains are still being found everywhere; in the church there was a blue tarp with a family of 19 that had just been discovered. It was sitting in a pile near a bench of dead people’s clothes. I guess someone will take care of them and gently place them on the already heaving shelf when they have a free minute.
Williamson County, Tennessee has a population of 125,000. If anything came through and hurt a portion, much less all of us, in the span of a day (or a year!), the state and federal government would urgently declare a state of emergency and descend with interventions and help. We had a tornado blow us around a bit this spring, and my gosh, we were untouched yet we received concerned telephone calls from all over the country, with people saying they were at the ready to get on a plane if we needed help.
Yet this genocide happened day after day for 100 days, with deaths and suffering and collapse of the highest order, and in spite of knowing exactly what was happening, we did nothing. A quote chosen for the memorial said:
“Quand il disait de L’Holocuste, encore jamais, parlait-il du tous le monde, or juste certaines personnes?
When they said of the Holocust, “never again,” were they talking about everyone? Or just certain people?”
They were talking about everyone but Africans. Just ask the Sudanese.
Day one — arrival
Day two — genocide memorial
Day three — the countryside
Day three — the PSI.org offices
Day three — malaria nets
Day four — you go, global girl
Day four — water purification
Day five — world malaria day
Day six — Women for Women International
Day six — Democratic Republic of Congo
Day six — heal Africa
Day seven — Sonrise
Day seven — Dushishoze
Day seven — reflections