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 designated cockroaches, 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.
……….Read more and/or register for the upcoming Bearing Witness Retreat in Rwanda.