I keep waiting for inspired, insightful B to pop out and organize all my thoughts and experiences about our last two weeks in Rwanda. Instead, famished B jumped out and ate 5 million pastries for a week in Europe, and then exhausted B slept it off, and rain-logged B wasted all our time outside planting flower boxes when we came home and it was 85 and sunny, then bug-hating B felt compelled to clean all the floors so we could spray for spring bugs, freezing B just wants to drink hot chocolate and wear sweatpants and shiver since it’s all 55 and rainy, and professional B is preparing to leave for Cambodia in less than a month.
Indulge me in this very public form of therapy while I go in there and find her, okay?
Part of the tucking-away is that we spent the last two weeks in Rwanda in a fog of institutionalized mourning. You might think you can imagine this, but it’s really hard to describe. It was entirely opposite of all our other bright, cheery experiences in Rwanda up to that point, and the somberness of it all moved in quickly over the country like the shadow of a storm front. Literally the skies turned to rain and clouds, the streets emptied, everything closed—businesses, grocery stores, restaurants. Music was not played during memorial week and TVs remained off in public places. Armed guards appeared at roundabouts and other random places.
We noticed when we first arrived in the country that almost nobody used the word genocide. Most people spoke in terms of “the event” or “the tragedy” or “our country’s history”. Nobody refers to a differentiation of any ethnic group ever and, in fact, doing so can be considered genocidal ideation and is cause for arrest depending on context.
But during the memorial period, which lasts 100 days beginning April 7th, the phrase Genocide against the Tutsi was everywhere. Banners, signs, ribbons, etc. It’s almost like the entire country functions as normal 265 days of the year and reserves all of its collective grief for the months of April, May and June. Even the weather follows this pattern, as the genocide occurred during the long rainy season, and each year the rains and gray skies come in April as they always have.
During the first week, the government hosted country-wide memorial conferences facilitated by local government and church leaders. People were off work, kids were out of school, curfews were enforced, and everywhere we looked groups of people were huddled in buildings, parking lots, tents, schools, soccer fields and parks. Most were listening government leaders speak on different topics like justice, forgiveness, unity, and self-reliance, which (we learned from survivors) was difficult for some. The people who facilitated the genocide were the government. And although this is an entirely different government, the fact that the government is facilitating reconciliation can be a trigger in itself. It’s institutionalized programming. It must sometimes just feel eerie.
Foreign involvement in the different local services is tricky and requires special permissions and security, considering varying feelings of foreign abandonment and the fact that the country continues to process in the presence of such an international community.
Amazingly (as we were initially told this would not be possible) the country director of ALARM obtained special permission from the government leaders in our neighborhood to bring us to one of the memorial services in our district. We understood in advance there would be no pictures, no translating, and the service would be entirely in Kinyarwanda. We would be flies on walls there, and we agreed.
We pulled up to an empty field and parked under the solitary tree. There were four sections of benches forming a square around two giant speakers in the middle of the field and a microphone. There were 500-600 people sitting in all the benches and crowded in rows behind the benches. People hardly made any noise, even the kids. It was 3pm in the blazing sun. Quiet, calming genocide music played with an airy woodwind instrument and lyrics that said things like: Never forget the genocide of the Tutsi, as people sat and listened reflectively.
We approached the set-up from across the field, and as people turned to look at us, I can say with certainty: I have never felt so uncomfortable or out of place in my entire life. What are we doing here, I whispered to Jeff. We should never have come. This is not our memorial! But as they ushered us to a seat and we waited for the program to begin, it occurred to me that attending an event that commemorates the violent killings of a million people should probably not ever feel comfortable—no matter who I am or whether or not I belong there.
The service was 4.5 hours long and in the blazing sun. The site was surrounded by four armed guards, and the first speaker was a Commander in full uniform speaking about security, followed by the Vice President of the Senate and the former coordinator of the Civil Society in Kigali City. The theme of the 19th Commemoration was Self-reliance, and the speakers encouraged each individual person, family and village to be responsible for their own security—food, shelter, safety—in their own villages and homes. Poverty leads to dependence and reliance on others, both at a personal level and as a country on an international level, which leaves everyone vulnerable. Rwanda is on a fast track toward development post-genocide.
The VP of the Senate directed her talks toward the youth. She reviewed the history of the country and she narrated events leading up to the genocide from 1959 on, compelling the youth toward resilience and unity. She reminded the crowd that not all Hutu were involved in the killings. For the Tutsi to even have survivors, it was because there were moderate Hutu who fought tirelessly and courageously to rescue others and refuse involvement. She also reminded the youth that 100 years had passed (1894-1994) that Rwandans were not themselves. Prior to colonization we had a solid leadership, she explained. But colonization divided us. That was not who we are. The VP then challenged everyone to see everyone as human. Both sides. All we need to be human, she said, is to value each other.
We knew all this not because we understood it as it was happening, but because we got into the car when it was all over to a hearty round laughs and back-pats from our friends who said, Brooke and Jeff can now write a paper on how to persevere! Almost five hours in a field under the sun listening to speakers in another language on a tricky topic in the middle of a questionably welcoming crowd. And how to communicate in a language you don’t understand, another friend chimed in. They laughed and said something about praying for the gift of tongues, or at least the gift of interpretations.
In the end, when the VP and other government leaders, along with many of the people attending, came up to shake our hands and genuinely thank us (in English!) for our interest, attendance and respect despite all the barriers, we didn’t even know what to say. We had been a mix of fear, embarrassment, grief, sweat, and confusion. But it meant a lot to attend, for both sides, and we were so thankful to have been granted the opportunity. J and I breathed sighs of relief and looked at each other like, Did this really just happen? Such an intimate event in the lives of the friends we had met, and so hot!
In the car on the way back, along with the jokes about tongues and interpretations, the speeches were translated and our friends also explained that the attendees were a mix of ethnic groups, with more Tutsi than Hutu. Among the officials there were no Hutu. I thought this might be good, but our friend explained that when all the talks are led by one side (Tutsi) they sometimes have difficulty, even though it would make sense that the oppressed side would facilitate the memorials. Doing that is how the whole system was maintained in the first place, though. It’s better for all when the officials are a mix of both groups.
So. After memorial week, the rest of the 100 days is typically spent caring for the survivors around the country, visiting some of the other memorial sites, and for us, visiting the country’s pre-genocide historical sites, like the Kingship Palace, the National Art Museum and National Forest—these are the things that make Rwanda Rwanda.
And this is where I started to get a little bit lost inside.
I consider myself to be mostly aware of my limits, and I function with a relatively high emotional IQ, but seriously. I’ve been all confused and jacked-up ever since our last [death-defying] trip to the National Forest* wherein we didn’t actually see the National Forest, but the Murambi Memorial. Murambi: 900 bodies preserved in limestone exactly as they fell at one of the most horrific massacre sites in the country. About 45,000 Tutsis were killed at the brand new technical school, which sat on a beautiful and isolated hilltop, first lured out of hiding by the Bishop and the Mayor with promises of protection by the French Army, and then days later, two hours after the French Army left, locked inside and killed. Here’s where it gets crazy. The French Army returned after the attack with equipment to dig mass graves, buried the bodies at this site, then BUILT A VOLLEYBALL COURT ON TOP OF THE GRAVES AND PLAYED VOLLEYBALL to hide their negligence. I’m sorry, what?! And in the nineties? How does this happen? And how have we not all decided that a) we shouldn’t probably kill each other or allow others to be killed in our presence, but in the case that we do b) it’s totally inappropriate to play volleyball on top of the graves of the people we just implicitly killed.
We saw the graves, the actual bodies—two entire classrooms of children—the clothes, the glasses, the pens, the tufts of hair. And we saw the equipment. We saw these things on the exact date the Bishop and Mayor beckoned the community to the school nineteen years ago under the pretense of safety. You can imagine how eerie it was to walk from room to room to see the bodies and to read the storyboard of events with dates like April 16th –on April 16th! We also came home after the first church memorial in Ntarama to hear news of the Boston marathon bombing, which got all mixed up in the shadow of the horror we had just seen and would continue to see during the weeks at the memorial sites and services.
Even harder was traveling to and from the sites and the forest with our friend who described how he had fled on these exact roads, hiding with his wife, infant daughter and two-year-old for eleven months, because although the institutionalized genocide lasted 100 days, attacks continued for a decade before and after the actual genocide! In 1997 a girls’ school was attacked, and 17 girls who wouldn’t separate into ethnic groups were shot and killed. We’re all Rwandan here, they said. A month before that? A primary school. It wasn’t until about 2000 or 2001 that many Rwandans felt safe and secure from Hutu insurgents sneaking across the border.
This was a very bad roadblock here, our friend would say as we drove toward the forest, or There is the house that sheltered us. Other friends told us from time to time, That river there was red from all the blood. We learned at the Murambi site that the pastor who married our friends was killed there along with his family. I wondered as we walked from room to room if any of the bodies we saw belonged to the pastor or his family. A genocide looks totally different when dealing with a specific face or name. This is why an entire room is dedicated to photos of each victim a the Kigali memorial. A million people were not killed during the genocide. One person was killed. And then another person. And another person. And another person.
I remember thinking after that week: I don’t have any words for this. I don’t have words for the 900 bodies I just saw OR for an 8-year-old who was bombed. I don’t feel like I can share all the thoughts or pictures or the things I read. But I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it:
If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.
Instead, I wrote a status requesting an antidote of baby monkeys dressed as humans. The baby monkeys never came (which is weird, because when I asked for one million cute puppies on a different bad day, people posted piles of adorable puppies on my wall for days…?).
What came, though, was so much better. It was a song, which confirms my theory that God moonlights as a DJ. At least in my life, God speaks to me in that way. I was at church the following weekend, a non-denominational service with a 50/50 mix of Rwandans and ex-pats, which means half the songs are in Kinyarwanda and half are in English. I’ve heard this song a million times, but for some reason it gave me a brand new hope that Sunday:
Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing… Remains
Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me
And On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains
In death, In life, I’m confident and
covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
separate my heart from Your great love…
As Rwandans and ex-pats lit 19 candles in remembrance of the genocide while simultaneously worshiping with each other—many alongside nationalities that not only didn’t help, but literally and figuratively played volleyball on top of their graves—I felt like I was witnessing a miracle. Humanity is a crapshoot, and God loves us anyway. Through His love, we somehow manage to love each other.
His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out.
It doesn’t run out after a genocide. It doesn’t run out after or a bombing. It doesn’t run out after a drug binge. It doesn’t even run out when you leave your 2 y/o on a porch at 4am (left field, I know, but it’s what a friend was dealing with on that day).
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
Did you know that?!
God’s restorative love is moving. Sometimes in Rwanda and sometimes right here inside. Sometimes like a torrent, sometimes like a trickle, sometimes in the survivor and sometimes in the offender, sometimes bright and sunshiny, sometimes quiet within the rain and tears, sometimes so intense it shreds us to pieces and splays us out there, and sometimes so tender it carries us and tucks us away.
For the feature article Life After Death, written about our entire experience in Rwanda before, during, and after memorial week, click here.
For a personal narrative of the Rwanda’s history as I understand it click here. It’s the very next post, and it’s in my own words, so nobody quote me! It’s important to include for the many Rwandans who long to be known for more than the country’s tragic history and do not wish to be defined by the genocide as the nation continues to develop and grow. Rwanda existed before and after colonization.
* You know, the 12-hour Lampoon-type trip where we were stuck driving inside an actual cloud up and down mountains around Nyungwe Forest in 50-degree pouring rain, our driver manually wiping his side of the windshield with one hand while driving the stick shift down the slope with his other hand, stopping every 15 minutes to ask a roadside stand for a screwdriver to fix the wiper. Every time we stopped the battery died, because it was disconnected every single car-swallowing pothole we hit- Jeff on one side of the backseat holding my neck steady to mitigate the nausea that started on our way up the mountain, and me crunched on his side too, because it was raining inside the car on my side. For the last two hours: pitch black with thick fog, driving through densely populated areas (a refugee camp, for example) with no visibility. Yes, that trip.