Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Land of outlawed plastic bags...1000 hills...and genocide

by: Holly

A week in Rwanda was filled with a handful of meetings with people working on reconciliation or transitional justice issues. I met with a couple of local NGOs, folks from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a Gacaca judge, and a victim's rights advocate. Besides the meetings, I had the sobering privilege of spending a few hours in the genocide museum/memorial and visiting two of the genocide sites in more rural areas outside Kigali. It was a time of reflection on the 800,000 lives that were ended during 100 terrible days in 1994. Appropriately, I was disturbed by much of what I saw. Not in a despairing way--because throughout the time there was a deep sense that I was witnessing something which had past and that today is a different day.

In the genocide memorial, perched on one of the thousand hills Rwanda boasts (and they should be proud, the hills are truly lovely)I noted the way the information was presented. Much of it I knew but I enjoy seeing which details are given priority and speculating about the interests involved in those decisions. Looking at photos--babies in bathtubs, young couples wedding, grandmothers bouncing toddlers, cool looking young men sporting the latest fashion, business men, farmers--I felt the value in being a witness to what happened to them. Somewhere in the exhibit the genocide was called, "the worst excesses of human behavior." A quote on a wall read, "There will be no humanity without forgiveness. There will be no forgiveness without justice. But justice will be impossible without humanity." Yollande Mukagasana. Another one said, "If you had really known me and known yourself you would not have killed me."

Before I walked out on the gardens and mass grave on the hill I went through a section devoted to children. It was full of portraits and bits of information about the kids, including the way they died. A photo of a girl with big pretty eyes, cause of death: stabbed in the eyes. A baby with curly hair--my mind flashed back to earlier in the day, I saw a little boy that looked just like him while I was drinking coffee, cause of death: smashed against a wall. Chanelle was 8 and her favorite song was, "My Native Land Which God Chose For Me." She was killed with a machete. Surely, that's not what God chose for her.

What a strange world this is, where I can witness such grave crime and suffering and an hour later be pleased with a coffee cup that was warm, served with whipped cream and good customer service unheard of in Uganda. Where I look forward to a week of luxurious celebration on white sand beaches on my 5 year anniversary trip. Is this really the same planet where babies are smashed and dull machetes end the lives of our neighbors at our own hands?

Many people were killed in churches where they had crowded hoping to find santuary. I visited two churches, Ntarama and Nyamata. In Ntarama church five thousand people lost their lives. The woman who showed us the place spoke broken English. When I walked in the door immediately in the entrance are shelves of skulls and bones sorted and stacked. The late afternoon sun cast light through the doorway and two windows--expanded by the grenades used to enter the church during the genocide. The woman said, "This was church."

I looked at the remnants of the congregation--the dry bones and I thought, "yes, this was the church." I felt sick and didn't know if it was the thoughts in my head imagining that day or the smell of lost lives that somehow still hangs in the air and clings to the musty and bloodied piles of clothes removed from the dead.

In Nyamata church ten thousand people died. Though it is more sanitized and the bones kept in glass cases, there are blood stained walls and the altar cloth remains. I could hear birds in the trees outside and the voices of children too young to remember the terror of those 100 days running home from school. How did this alter cloth soak up so much blood from the church floor with the statue of Mary looking on?

Outside the church I went into a hole in the ground, a deep hole with the bones of another 40,000 people who were killed in the town surrounding the church. I could barely breathe. It is a valley of death. I didn't think I could do it, I felt like I'd be suffocated from the pain. But out of respect for the survivor that was showing us the place, I descended the steep concrete stairs. Another grave was put for 100 people who were thrown in the pit latrines. The place had cleaned up death. I hope they never sanitize the first church. Genocide can't be made more palatable for the comfort of our memories. We need to see it for the nightmare it is.

In the memorial, looking at the portraits of children, in the churches, in the graves--I just kept wanting to apologize. A constant, "I'm sorry" was in my mind and on my lips. And then I asked myself, "who am I saying sorry to? the dead? the survivors? the families? God? humanity? And on behalf of who? the genocaidaires? the international community? humanity?" I realized there was no who. The distinctions and independent units seemed somehow irrelevant. Instead, this happened to us--it is our story. We have killed. We have been hurt. We have been killed. We are broken.


Anonymous said...

It's really heartbreaking. I am very proud of you and my heart is with you.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry too. " . . . forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Sometimes easy words to repeat, but to restore our hearts is far more difficult. Thanks for being part of that process for so many. I love you.

Anonymous said...

holly, thank you for sharing your story. i'm a friend of marika christy's and found your blog through her and dale's as she mentioned meeting you. blessings.

vania (from portland, or)