Thursday, July 28, 2011

"If you knew me and you knew yourself, you would not have killed me."

This quote is an excerpt from a poem by Felicien Ntangengwa. It was written in memorial of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. As a warning, this post is meant to be a witness of the atrocities I learned about the genocide. Just know that it is darker than other things I've written and not very easy material to stomach.

Last week, my family, the Allreds and the students traveled to Rwanda and visited several memorial sites for the genocide. The first site we went to was Ntarama church, just outside of the capital, Kigali. It's hard to put into words the stomach-turning shock of walking into that church and seeing an entire wall lined with four shelves, completely full of human bones. It stopped my brain in its busy tracks. I couldn't fathom what I was seeing. Numb, I turned to face the rest of the church. The rafters, the walls and more shelves were full of dirty, stiff clothing. Dresses, shirts, pants, I looked closer and saw the bright colors through the dirt. Bright colors like the ones I'd seen on the people living outside the site. Spotting baby clothes and miniature shirts was a lower blow, knocking the wind out of me. I walked very slowly down the aisle between the pews, trying hard to breathe and digest the scene.

Our guide informed us that the victims in this church were all women, children and the elderly. At the time the men and boys were out in the bush fighting the Interhamwe, the Hutu militia. The women and children came to the church because they believed it would be a safe haven; because in the minor genocides of 1992, churches remained untouched and sacred. But not this time.

We went into a house on the church grounds and our guide showed us hundreds of books left by children. He read to us from a spelling notebook of an eight-year-old girl. 8 out of 8, 7 out of 9, 9 out of 10, this was a bright little girl. My heart ached to think that she would never get to go to school again and learn that sometimes i doesn't come before e or that there's only one t in "gate." In the Sunday School building our guide told us that this was where they massacred the babies by smashing their heads against the wall. I had to walk away so as not to vomit. I was very glad that Abi had excused herself to the garden before he told us that.

After lunch we went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, where an astonishing fact our guide at Ntarama told us was reinforced. The 1994 genocide was not as spontaneous an act of violence as we sometimes think. It wasn't just in the works for years beforehand, there is evidence that genocide was actively being planned for at least a decade. The amount of detail the government put into the genocide was just sickening. The fact that a contained genocide was executed in 1992 to test whether or not it would be successful country-wide is so in-cold-blood.

And really that's another monstrous thing about this genocide. While the Nazis industrialized death, the Interhamwe distributed it with machetes, through community members. Neighbors were murdering neighbors and doing it in messy, personal ways. It's nauseating to think about. And because the killing spree involved members of every community, the death tolls reached over one million in only 100 days. That's 10,000 people murdered per day. Rwanda is a small country, and one million people in 1994 was one-sixth of the population.

This means everyone was affected. My mom asked the manager at our hotel, who drove around with us during the day, if it was hard for him to talk about the genocide. He said yes, but we have to. Then she asked if he would be willing to tell her how the genocide impacted him. After a second Peter responded, "My whole family was killed." Kigali is a much different place than it was in 1994. Kagame, the president, has greatly improved the infrastructure and no one in Rwanda is required to state their ethnic group. But still, the genocide only happened 17 years ago. It was unnerving and mind-blowing that the people you saw on the street, the market vendors and farmers were all alive then and affected by the genocide. Some of them had loved ones killed, and some were the ones that did the killing. And it made me cry, standing there in that memorial center and staring at the hundreds of pictures of those who were murdered thinking, you should be standing on the street trying to sell me fake Ray-Bans or smiling at your children as they yell "Muzungu!" and wave at my bus. You should not be dead and gone.

To finish this emotional day off we had dinner at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, which for those of you familiar with the movie Hotel Rwanda, was the hotel where Paul Rusesabagina saved 1,268 people from being killed in the genocide. It was ridiculously expensive and terrible service, but it was an appropriate finish to a day of remembering.

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