Tuesday, August 2, 2011

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

I think we’ll call this the penultimate blog entry for my time in Rwanda.  I start the 30 hour trek home tomorrow afternoon, and it’s bound to be a rough process.  Here’s to hoping that I don’t get stuck in a middle seat, and that there are no complaints about leg room from the peanut gallery on the ride home from Detroit. Also, I’m under the impression that there’s a certain female waiting for me, so here’s to hoping that she doesn’t mind awkward tan lines, 30+ hour unbrushed teeth, and a face that hasn’t had a thorough washing in four weeks.

Anyway, we’re still here to talk about the past couple days. Yesterday was the first really planned and organized event we’ve had in a while and essentially the last we’ll have on the trip. If you remember back, we kind of started our visit with the Kigali Memorial Center, and we pretty much wrapped up the visit with some more memorial sites.  We first met up with Ernest, an expert on the genocide, following our visit to the Kigali Memorial Center, and we met up with him again as we headed to the church at Ntarama.

The church wasn’t anything fancy; just a long room with pews, on a compound with a one room Sunday school building, an office for the traveling minister, and a garden.  The only real catch was that there were still holes in the walls from grenade blasts.  And the walls and rafters were covered with piles of rotting clothes hanging toward the floor.  And there were skulls and bones on shelves in the back of the sanctuary, with skulls in rows and the rest piled on separate shelves. And the Sunday-school room had a large stain on the wall where the heads of children had been smashed.  It’s actually not an uncommon approach to memorials here in Rwanda, and it’s undoubtedly more effective than just bulldozing the place and tossing up a monument.  We actually visited a similar memorial a short walk from CHUK for the ten Belgian soldiers killed at the beginning of the genocide.  While they have an actual monument set up there, the main power is held in a bullet-riddled building with grenade damage in a corner and clearly threatening messages in Kinyarwanda preserved on the chalkboard. 

The Catholic church in Nyamata had a similar story.  We entered and clothes of the dead were piled on every pew.  The tin roof let in tiny beams of light where grenade shrapnel had pierced it, essentially looking like stars dotting the ceiling.  The barred door to the church showed signs of being blown open, and there were once again blood stains on the wall, with a splatter pattern reaching the ceiling, where the skulls of children had been smashed open.  Churches had been a place of refuge during the bursts of massacres (pogroms) stretching back to the 1950s, but they essentially became slaughter houses in ’94.  Priests even played instrumental parts; in the case of Nyamata, asking people packed into the church to provide their names, promising it would be used to recruit help, but instead turning over the list to the Hutu Interahamwe. 

From a logistical standpoint, I was particularly impressed with the way Naymata was preserved and presented.  The ceilings were covered with clear Plexiglas to retain the effect that the shrapnel had caused, and a basement had been created to house bones and some possessions of those killed. At an even deeper level, serving as a memorial to the thousands of victims of sexual violence during the 100 days of genocide and only visible through glass, lay the coffin of a woman who had been raped at least 15 times, with a sharpened pike eventually shoved through her vagina to her head.  Behind the church were two mass graves, one of which was opened for us.  While the guide explained that one approach to mass graves is to pile twenty-some sets of bones in a coffin and bury the coffins together, this one had rows and rows of skulls and piles and piles of bones, from floor to ceiling.  Using the flashlight on my phone, you could see various methods of death on skulls, from the crushing of a club to the chopping of a machete. 

Outside, Ernest spoke some more on the topic of genocide, particularly the long lasting effects on individuals and society.  He addressed the gacaca court transformation set up to try the hundreds of thousands of accused perpetrators (over the course of seven years, only 3000 people had been tried in court for acts of genocide, so these local courts used for petty crimes/civil suits were converted to help clear up the massively overpopulated prison system).  He also pointed to a woman we had seen sweeping the grounds when we entered the compound, explaining that she did not work for the memorial site but was instead the widow of a man buried there (keep in mind that she’s done this every day for 17 years now).  This led to the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder and its increasing effect on people in the country.  We also discussed the long road ahead of the country, pointing out that there were still death threats written on bathroom stalls in 2001 when Ernest was still in university.  The occasion of Hutu marrying Tutsi is also still somewhat of a rarity, pointing to increased level of education as one thing that seems to alleviate these perceived differences. 

I still contend you wouldn’t realize genocide happened hear less than 20 years ago if you weren’t looking for the evidence, but it takes me back to one of my early blog entries: the country and its people have moved on because they have to move on. There are still plenty of issues lying under the surface, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future, particularly as Kagame nears his term limit.


While the memorial for the Belgian soldiers uses the damaged complex to powerful effect, they also have a nice monument set up.  Composed of ten pillars, each pillar represents one of the soldiers killed on day one, with pillar height reflecting soldier age. 

Unrelated: While not appropriate for the above entry, we had a goast roast tonight.  A couple butchers were brought in, and thehy (along with our guard, Jonas) killed, cleaned, and gutted the goats on site.  We then ate goat brochettes (kabobs) from 6:00-9:00, with a seemingly constant flow of food (when we weren't eating goat, they were bringing out grilled potatoes or plaintains).  It was a really good time and quite the way to go out on the trip.  A number of people from AMU were here, along with Ernest and some others.