Kigali at noon in mid-September has blue, hot skies draped by rain clouds, which at times dissolve and at others turn into thundering rain, as they did just an hour after we arrived. We’re met by Dora Urujeni and Issa Higiro, co-founders of Memos-Learning From History, our hosting peace organization. There are three of us on this trip: Bernie Glassman, Paco Lugovina, and me.
Sitting on the small porch of our guesthouse, I recall our meeting with Dora and Issa at our home and their passionate invitation to visit Rwanda and bear witness to the effects of the Rwanda genocide, in which over one million men, women, and children were brutally murdered in a period of one hundred days beginning on April 6, 1994. That averages over 10,000 people a day, a rate of mass killings that could only be the result of a pre-planned and well-organized campaign. Through the efforts of Ginni Stern, Both Issa and Dora have been at the Zen Peacemakers’ Auschwitz retreats. The two, along with Ginni, Fleet Maull, Genro Gauntt, Mike and Cassidy –, and others, began to make plans for a similar retreat in Rwanda.
The persecution of Tutsis began in the late 1950s and continued throughout the decades before the genocide. As a result, many Tutsis escaped to neighboring countries. Issa’s family fled to Uganda; Dora’s family to Congo. While they’re completely Rwandan, they also feel strong connections to the countries of their birth and are at home with multiple cultures. Dora returned right after the end of the genocide looking for the remnants of her family and found almost no one alive.
We go downtown briefly, just long enough to notice the incredibly clean streets and the large traffic circles filled with cars, motorcycles, and bikes. Foreign investments are visible in shopping malls and big banks, and Wi-Fi is more widespread than in our Pioneer Valley back home. Mobile phones, of course, are everywhere. The country seems to be prospering and change is rapid, you could smell it in the air.
In the morning we see the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. What stands out?
Rooms full of photos of those who were killed.
Several shrines with large photos of bright-eyed children and even babies. Their names are there, followed by their favorite drink, snack, what they loved to do, last words (“Do Hutus also pray?”), and what they died of (tortured to death, stabbed in eyes and head, burned to death, machete while in mother’s arms). Often the last thing they saw was the death of their own mother.
Mass graves holding thousands of bodies, built into the hillside beneath enormous slabs of stone.
Newly discovered bodies continue to be added to the mass graves. Several years after the genocide, with a land in ruin, hundreds of thousands of killers in prison and an outdated court system, the government decided to use a modified version ofgacaca, an old tribal form of settling differences, to hasten the process of justice and reconciliation. If inmates were prepared to face their victims and beg for forgiveness, they would serve a minimal sentence (emphasizing civic education programs) before returning to their families. Over a five year period, gacaca helped dispose of most of the cases. Of course, no one knows what lies in the hearts of people who committed one of the century’s most terrible atrocities, but one great advantage is that the perpetrators reveal to family members where they hid the bodies of their loved ones, so that the survivors have the great comfort of giving the bodies a burial.
People almost incidentally tell us their story. Immaculee works in the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace, emphasizing research on the genocide as well as poverty (56% of Rwandese live below the poverty limit, which is $2. per day). Slowly and softly, she starts speaking about the village she came from. It was far from Kigali, far from much of the violence that had begun in the late 50s. “No one knew who was Tutsi and who was Hutu there,” she insists. Only at at the end of elementary school, when one finished tests and received a certificate, you were asked to write your affiliation. By then quotas had been put on Tutsis’ admission to secondary schools and college and she had to work hard to qualify. She did well in school and came up to Kigali (pronounced Chigali by Rwandans) for college and work. Married with a child when the genocide started, the family was hidden by someone in his Kigali home. She didn’t think anything would happen in her village, where no one knew Tutsi from Hutu, but the registers had been checked and the village Tutsis were murdered, including her parents.
She wouldn’t return to the village. Her brother, who had joined the RPF (the Tutsi army that invaded Rwanda and ended the genocide), had gone back and reported that no one said anything to him, no one would even meet his eyes. She refused to go to the gacaca proceedings, afraid she’d be overwhelmed by rage. She got very depressed and had to stop her graduate studies midways. What finally saved her, she said, was going to a retreat in Switzerland where she could finally come to terms with her feelings.
The government reminds people that they’re Rwandans first and anything else second, and asks them to reconcile with their neighbors even if they were killers. In some way, what choice do they have? In the genocide some Rwandans killed over 1 million other Rwandans; they’re all Rwandans and must learn to live together again. In that sense Rwanda may be a unique experiment of coming to terms with the legacy of genocide, and rather than fleeing from it, learning to live with it and integrate it in a big effort at reconciliation. But this is not easy on a personal level.
Jen, who owns the guesthouse where we are staying, is also a trauma counselor. Counselors work with survivors, ex-perpetrators, ex-army soldiers, prison inmates, and children of survivors, she reports. Right after the genocide Rwanda lay in ruins, with no counselors or therapists; now they train counselors and social workers to work even in the most remote rural villages. We would see examples of that during our trip. There is an overwhelming need to grieve and mourn. For that reason, Rwanda has a three-month commemoration of the genocide every year, beginning in April.
Issa says that everyone in Rwanda has a piece of the “cake” that is the genocide: as survivors; as perpetrators; as refugees in other countries; as those, like Dora, who returned to Rwanda in search of living family members; as those living in homes and wearing the clothes that once belonged to others; as teachers who deal with surviving students and children of survivors–everyone has a piece of the cake. The trick, he says, is to see this and own this.
Dora takes us to visit the memorials at the churches in Nyamata. In the persecutions before the genocide, people who took shelter in churches had been safe, so Tutsis naturally assumed they could count on this again. Also, the radio and authorities told them to gather in churches where they would get water, electricity, and food, and people listened. Many still assumed that the civil government could be trusted to take care of them, but in truth, the intention was to trap them all in one place. Priests, ministers, and even bishops colluded with the killers. As a result, many churches became memorials and sites of mass graves instead of sanctuaries.
When Tutsis hid in the church the killers would attack with grenades and guns, then finish them off with machetes. In one there is a classroom where the children assembled for Sunday school, evidenced by the very low benches where they sat. There is an enormous stain on the wall up front from blood pouring out of the children’s heads as these were slammed against the hard walls.
In one big, beautiful church, the low benches are draped with the clothes of the people killed there. They are rags now, more accurately–shrouds. Up front is the strangest altar I’ve ever seen. A big wooden cross lies on top, surrounded by weapons of killing: machetes, knives of all kinds, and sharp nails inserted into the machetes for more killing effectiveness. In fact, when I later see the skulls, many are cracked where the machetes smashed into them.
Outside are the mass graves that one can see all over Rwanda. Some are 8-10 meters deep and house tens of thousands of bodies. A tall, good-looking woman in white is sweeping the grounds. She tells Dora that three years ago she finally testified about what she’d seen and endured during the genocide. That very night, as she slept, men came into her home, struck her head with a machete, and robbed her blind. She woke up in a hospital after being in a coma for two days, with no memory of what happened. The night of her attack, two other Tutsis had been killed and a woman raped.
A short flight of steep stairs brings me down inside the crypt, where, on both sides of a narrow, musty, and dark aisle lie multi-level pallets filled with skulls and bones. There were small piles of clothes among them, including a pretty piece of white fluttering lace.
I feel as if I’ve gone to hell. But I will discover that these displays of skulls, bones and even skeletons are widespread. A young man is down there with me. “So terrible,” he repeats again and again in broken English. When I ask him about his family, he says nothing and begins to cry. He adds, “Some people say this never happened. Some people deny. That is most terrible thing.”
We drive down to Butare, in southern Rwanda, across shining emerald hills and broad, smiling valleys. Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills; Rwandans tell you that’s a low number. Eighty-five% still live in villages, where neighbor killed neighbor and where support services are harder to come by than in Kigali. The women wear gorgeous bright prints and carry large baskets of bananas on their heads, while the men pull up bicycles heavily laden with yellow jerikans of water. Here, in the rural areas, I feel we are closer to the pulse of things.
In a large meeting room in a church compound we meet four women, representing Ubutwari bwo Kubaho, which means the Courage of Living, an association of genocide widows and the wives of perpetrators. They’re dressed in their colorful Sunday best, with matching head coverings, though they eke out a hard existence on their small farms. They speak softly as they tell their story, their bearing tall, faces brown and lined, a courteous smile on their lips as consistent as the pain in their eyes.
Three of the four are widows who lost their husbands and children; many were raped. After the genocide they lost all desire to live; they had no energy to work their farms. At first they wouldn’t even go back to church (most Rwandans are Catholic) because they knew that many priests had colluded in the killings, making of their churches killing fields rather than sanctuaries. But the priest in their church earned their trust. Bearing witness to their pain, he asked them to come together in an association of widows, and seven women agreed to do that. He also asked a nun to join them. It was she who helped create a space of safety for them where they could share what they’d experienced and study the Word of God.
While this was happening, the wives of militia members who had been sent to prison for killing Tutsis would walk along the road towards the prison every day to bring their husbands food, and the widows would shout insults at them and throw stones. Slowly the nun persuaded the widows to stop their harassment, and, at the behest of the perpetrators’ wives, even suggested that the latter be invited to join their classes. It took a long time, but they finally agreed. They all came to church for mass and to listen to scripture. The priest spoke a lot about forgiveness. The two groups of women would do mass together sitting in separate sections of the church, but when it came time to give peace one to the other, they couldn’t approach the wives of their rapists and family’s killers.
Slowly, slowly, that changed, and they finally opened the association to include wives of perpetrators. One of the four women talking to us was that. When the gacaca process began, she said, many of their husbands refused to admit what they had done, were not remorseful, and even denied the whole thing had happened. But they told their husbands about their association and what the widows had shared with them. They persuaded them to go through with gacaca, confess their crimes and ask for forgiveness. Where they suspected that the perpetrators were not serious, they urged them to bear witness to the enormous pain they caused. As a result, many of their husbands agreed, served a shorter sentence and finally came home. Some even joined the association, so that it now comprises widows, killers, and their wives
They’re soft-spoken and respectful as they speak, little bright-eyed children hanging over window ledges to listen. They are convinced that this is God’s work. They have suffered so much that they don’t wish to cause such suffering to others. But there is pain in all their eyes
We go from forgiveness back to horror, for after lunch we visit Murambi. The car descends a steep, serpentine road down to a valley surrounded by hills, and in the middle is a green, broad, isolated hillock. The car parks below and we walk up the gravel path. In the lobby of the memorial we are met by Juliette, in a bright, summer yellow wrap. She looks above our heads, turning from one direction to another, as she recounts how 50,000 people were killed here between the hours of 3 and 10 am, after being sent here (once a vocational technical school) by the authorities. They lived here with no access to food or water for 2 weeks, so they were weak when the killers came with grenades and machetes.
She herself was a Hutu married to a Tutsi. He was killed with two of their children in front of her eyes while she held fast to her one-month old daughter, refusing to let her go even as the killers tried to separate them in order to kill the baby. She was allowed to live along with her infant. Juliette caretakes the memorial of Murambi, telling her story to strangers day after day. Being here where her family died day after day helps her find peace.
Once again there are mass graves dug along the hillside and the official mass grave under the heavy stone surface. Behind it are blocks that were meant to serve as dormitory rooms for the school’s students. They look remarkably like the surviving barracks at Auschwitz, only here the rooms contain pallets that hold hundreds of white skeletons. Their arms are outstretched towards each other and even into the narrow aisle, so you could bump into them if you’re not careful. The fingers are bony, the skulls gashed in by machetes. A few have a little hair left and there is a smell of decay. Worst of all are the skeletons of children and even babies, as tiny as dolls.
Juliette walks ahead of us in her sunlit wrap, and I walk behind her up and down the aisle of each and every room of skeletons. I have never seen anything like this. Over many years of mourning in our Auschwitz retreats we have learned to sing and even dance. Now I feel as though we’re back to the beginning, as though some process like that must start here, too, though I wonder if the sound of music could ever be heard in the middle of this charnel ground.
But there are souls here, just as there are at Auschwitz. Outside I see the surrounding hills, the generous earth full of green, the grass covering up the mass graves, and I feel that special energy that certain places around the world have, an energy that beg us to come and stay a while, that remind us there is work to do.
We do a full day of training for university students and counselors. The morning is spent in discussion of Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenets:Not-knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. Issa feels that these tenets are simple, direct, and very practical for Rwandans. In the afternoon we do council. They’re very eager to get as much training as they can, and I’m uneasy in the garb of an American expert. We remind them again and again that answers—if there are any–lie in them rather than in us, calling for confidence and trust in oneself and in life.
In the morning we travel past village after village. The children are much more ragged now, their faces soiled and dusty, the dirt roads deeply rutted broken by small log bridges over gullies. We are following Therese, a counselor who trains others to go to the most far-flung villages to help trauma survivors. Therese is a big woman who sits behind a younger male on a motorcycle as they speed on the dangerous roads, her face strong and beautiful. She had done council training with Fleet Maull and Genro Gauntt through Memos: Learning From History in the spring of 2011 and feels this could be very helpful in Rwanda, where it’s hard for people to express their feelings.
We arrive at a remote center with a trauma clinic. Twenty-five women are seated on benches set up in a circle. There are also a few men. Therese explains that these people are part of her trauma group. They are very poor and have probably walked for miles to meet with us, wearing their best Sunday prints with matching hair wraps, some with babies that they nurse.
One woman tells us that she was depressed for years. When the annual three months of commemoration begin, she is almost paralyzed. Another talks about how she used to hide her husband’s farm knives and machetes because of her fear, though after coming to Therese’s trauma group, she no longer has to do that. Another couldn’t stop crying. And as she says that, a young woman in burgundy and white begins to weep uncontrollably. Therese and a few others bend over her, offering precious tissues and tea. But she continues to sob softly for a long time.
Bernie asks if they feel anger or hate inside. The verdict is mixed. A few say this is not good, that having gone through the results of anger and hate, they have no wish to inflict it on others. Others, however, say that before they could reconcile with others, they must reconcile with themselves and with what had been done to them. I deeply admire their courage. I tell them that as I won’t have a chance to talk to each one, may we at least shake their hands? Their faces nod and break into big, broad smiles, and before we know it we’re engulfed, holding hands, hugging, talking to one another even as we can’t understand the words. One woman smells Paco’s after-shave and exclaims over how good he smells; others wish to hug and kiss him at great length, and we all laugh.
They ask us to visit their memorial with them. Here again is the big slab of stone over a mass grave of 42,000 bodies. We go underneath and find piles of coffins layered one over another, each large coffin holding many corpses. They say they must make room for new corpses that they find even now. There is a smell of mildew. During the commemoration months they spend nights here in grief. Next to the mass grave is the memorial itself, a large building filled with large compartments, those on one side containing lines and lines of skulls, while those on the other containing human bones. As I contemplate this, a woman who had been animated and full of energy and intelligence in the earlier meeting, tells me that her husband and two children are here, too.
What do they want from us? Support, to come and visit, to connect them with other genocide victims. As simple as they are, they have heard about the Jewish Holocaust and would like to meet their counterparts. When we leave they wave both arms in the air, and start laughing as Paco jumps excitedly up and down.
Finally, we meet two rescuers: Pastor Mitsinde and Anastase. Pastor Mitsinde is Pentecostal, a big man with a French translation of a book by Billy Graham. He hid 322 Tutsis in his church, and when he heard that they would be killed there he split them into small groups and found them alternative hiding places, including in his own house. When the militia came and demanded to know where he hid them, he lined up his wife and six children, stood by them and said that he, his wife, and children were ready to die before saying anything; he only asked them to kill him first. In response to my question, he said that he and his family had complete faith that if they had to die, they would go straight to heaven.
Anastase is a humble, shy man who looks down uneasily, never making eye contact. He was the watchman in a Catholic church and adjoining orphanage. Again and again he saw people coming to the church for shelter and watched the militia throw their grenades and machete people to death. Mothers often hid their children under them, and at night he could hear the children crying next to their dead parents. So he went in and removed the children. He cut their hair and dressed them in the orphanage uniform and put them in the care of the orphanage. Eventually, whenever he saw families fleeing into the church, he would convince them to hand over their children to him for safekeeping in the orphanage.
But it was only a matter of time before the militia arrived, demanding to know which children were Tutsi. He told them there weren’t any Tutsi children, there were only children. At that point one of the men bashed his head with a club and he collapsed on the floor. Another, however, was a close friend of his father’s and told the others that he would finish him off. When they were gone he shot a bullet into the ground and told Anastase, bleeding and hurt, to make himself scarce, because soon the Tutsi army would rescue them. And indeed, that’s what happened.
Anastase saved over 400 children. Every year they get together to commemorate that event; he is still invited to their weddings.
As Issa Higiro often reminds me, a unique experiment is taking place in Rwanda. After the Holocaust, most Jews left Europe. The Balkans were carved into separate countries for Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. In Rwanda both groups must go on living together, victims next door to killers. The government pushes for reconciliation because it recognizes there is no real choice in the matter. But how do individuals do this?
It is clear that Rwandans are proud of what their country has achieved since the genocide. Every last Saturday of the month communities get together to do community work known as Umuganda, including the President. Until recently, we’re told, Rwanda covered 60% of its budget and the remainder was covered through foreign aid, but when this past year much of the aid was curtailed due to the world-wide economic recession, Rwandans donated to their national development fund, in essence choosing to pay more tax. They have a deep sense of optimism and pride.
But how do they meet the challenge of facing up to the atrocities of the past, at the same time knowing that the only way forward is through self-befriending, befriending of the other, and finally reconciliation? How long will this take? The alterative, they all know, is to repeat the events of 1994. And those events are still so fresh in their minds that they will take many courageous, almost unparalleled risks to prevent them from happening again. And indeed, they often say, Never again.
Only the world has said that before.
People often don’t understand such a bearing witness trip. I have been asked why anyone would travel a long way to East Africa to listen to people describe a genocide perpetrated on them close to 20 years ago. Someone asked me candidly if I felt a peculiar attraction to terrible suffering.
I can only speak of my experience. Of course, as a member of a family that suffered from the Jewish Holocaust, I have a special interest in how another ethnic group of humans fared after being designatedcockroaches, or untermenschen. The two genocides share differences and similarities.
But more generally, I went to Rwanda to witness how these survivors are struggling with the question of what it means to be human. In some way many of us would say that we struggle with the same question in our own lives. But the Rwandans can’t fake it. They’ve seen their families wiped out and must find some way to move on, face the killers, and plunge into the inquiry of what to do: Remember? Forget? Forgive? Hate? Take revenge? Remember God? Forget God?
To me it doesn’t matter what the answer is; the question matters, the readiness—out of choice or lack of choice—to bear witness, to own completely one’s individual life and that of society. What loving action emerges may well differ from person to person, but what the people we talked to had in common was a readiness to fully engage with this most basic of human challenges.
Yes, they each expressed sincere appreciation for our coming there to listen to them. It’s crucial to them that the world wants to listen, to join in their pain if only for a short time. But to me it’s clear that I brought home something immeasurably precious: various soft, clear, courageous voices articulating age-old experiences of suffering and the quest to relieve suffering. Each person did this in her own way, with a simplicity that had no patience for the trivial but that only spoke of what was done, and now what is to be done.
Instead of running away, they had to face the killers. Instead of denying, they wished to walk down the streets of their village and meet the Other face to face. What else was left to do? In their own words, they had to reconcile with all parts of themselves before they could reconcile with the murderers of their families. And if, after 18 years, they could not do this, they had to reconcile with that part of themselves as well.
I make nine bows to each of these beautiful teachers with the shy smiles about the lips and the pain in their eyes. May they find a measure of peace in their lives, and may their hard work bring great benefit to the Land of One Thousand Hills.