All Photos by Ola Kwiatkowska
Monday, April 14. We’re at the EPR, the Presbyterian Church’s well-known guesthouse in Kigali, seated on chairs assembled in a circle. Downstairs a children’s choir practices for the Easter weekend services; they will sing for us tomorrow at our orientation. But right now we’re 11 Council facilitators, 6 “internationals” and 5 Rwandans. It’s supposed to be 6 Rwandans.
Where is Albertine?
Death in family.
No, Noella corrects, speaking in English very slowly in a clear, mellifluous voice: They discovered the whereabouts of the remains of her family members and the family is preparing to receive them and prepare them for burial.
Are remains still being found even now, 20 years later, I ask our host, Dora Urujeni, and she explains that prison inmates are still revealing the whereabouts of those they killed so long ago. Someone else is assigned to take Albertine’s place so that now we’re what we should be, 6 and 6, and can continue the preparations begun last January when Jared Seide, Director of the Center for Council, flew to Rwanda and trained a group of young Rwandans to become council facilitators and lead, in their words, peace circles. Out of that group Jared chose 6 to co-facilitate during this retreat. But Albertine’s absence casts a shadow over our small group, a micro version of the vaster shadow hanging over Rwanda in April 2014: the almost 1 million Tutsi men, women and children who died over a period of 100 days starting April 1994.
That year, Easter fell on April 3 in Catholic Rwanda. Five days after mourning Christ’s crucifixion and three after celebrating his resurrection, Rwandans started killing each other. And no matter where you go, whom you talk to, no matter how green and pastoral the hills (Rwanda is known as the Land of One Thousand Hills) and how bountiful the rains, the pain is there: in the keening and wailing of women during the annual ceremonies, in the testimonies of survivors, in the memorial piles of skulls and bones, in people’s eyes.
“It was the bad policies and Satan that caused me to do this,” says Dora, translating for Emmanuel Ndayisaba, who chopped off half the arm of Alice Mukarurinda with a machete.
We are sitting at another church-owned facility, this time Catholic, a 30-minute walk from the genocide memorial at Murambi, near the city of Butare in southern Rwanda, a small hilltop topped by what was once a technical school with dormitories, where 50,000 Tutsis—men, women and children—were sent for safety, only to be shot, hacked to pieces, stabbed repeatedly, and stoned, between 3 and 10 am on April 21. 50,000 people in 7 hours. Over 800 corpses, their bones preserved in lime, lie on long wooden tables in those small rooms, some with fragments of clothing or tufts of hair. There are rooms of children, babies, and women, preserved as they were found, holding their arms to protect their faces or else clasping them in a final prayer. The sweet, sickly smell of lime is everywhere; I seem to smell it constantly on my hands and fingers.
Participants from 10 countries and 4 continents spend four days together, bearing witness to the tragedy that started some 60 years ago with small-scale massacres and Tutsi families fleeing across the border, crested in 1994, ripples even now as visibly on Rwandans’ faces as their wrinkles and smiles, and continues to cause havoc in neighboring Burundi and Congo. We start the day with small, diverse council groups and spend the rest of the day in Murambi itself, meditating along the crypts of the dead, walking slowly among the dorms in back and along the slopes where bodies were thrown into mass graves and wedged so tightly that not enough air circulated to cause their disintegration, enabling many of them to lie preserved in the dorm rooms themselves.
But now it’s evening, after dinner, which means it’s time for Testimony. We sit in a large, handsome room in a double circle. Emmanuel and Alice sit across from each other. He talks about the many people he killed before he came across Alice; she tells of how he cut off her arm. He recounts how he asked for her forgiveness, and she tells us how she came to forgive him. And then he says: Satan caused me to do this.
Later I hear from other participants that at that moment they felt like killing him. I didn’t. How else to account for how someone gets up one day, picks up a machete, spear, or sharp-edged club, goes to the house next door and starts hacking people he’s known for years into pieces? Yes, I know the historical details. I know that the campaign to murder Tutsis goes as far back as the 1950s when Tutsi families began to flee to neighboring Uganda, Burundi, and Congo. I’ve been to the genocide memorial museums and listened to the propaganda, heard commonplace words like cockroaches and vermin to describe Tutsis, the Hutus’ Ten Commandments prohibiting all connections with Tutsis, and the radio stations barking out orders to kill. This went on for decades, followed by registrations of ethnicity, prohibitions against attending university or getting certain jobs, building the edifice brick by brick along the lines of Nazi Germany, culminating in the genocide of 1994.
And yet . . . Neighbors assaulting neighbors? The massacre at Murambi where more than 7,000 were murdered on average per hour on one relatively small hilltop? Children’s heads smashed against a church classroom wall, still bloodstained after two decades? If Auschwitz/Birkenau terrifies through its vastness and meticulous, efficient design, Murambi is a reminder that genocide is possible in the far more modest and intimate environment of a town and village, even of one’s own family (in certain cases of intermarriage Hutu husbands killed their Tutsi wives and children). Worse, it doesn’t depend on someone dropping canisters of Zyklon B and then going away for a cup of coffee while people suffocated to death undetected underground, but can happen with face-to-face weaponry, up close and personal. So I can see why Emmanuel believes it’s the work of Satan, of some sudden virus that entered his bloodstream and made him do things he’d never dreamed of before.
It’s also a virus that eliminates basic points of safety we take vitally for granted: Yesterday I thought the government would take care of me, and today it’s promoting my slaughter; last week I thought the police were there to protect me, and now they’re abetting my murder; last Sunday I thought the village would come together around families that share their church and have lived there for generations, and now I know better; last night a friend and I had a beer together, and now he’s coming after me with a machete. This kind of turnabout is disorienting and traumatizing. The Rwandan survivors struggle to explain this to us much as Jewish parents tried to explain to their children years ago why they didn’t see the end coming: Yes, things were getting worse, yes there were signs, there were new laws and prohibitions, but—this! Who imagined this?
During the retreat I get to know Alice a little better, admire the colorful orange dress she alternates with a long, flaring navy skirt that cinches at her very narrow waist topped by a handsome jacket, see also the thin brown arm that ends in a stump 4 inches above the wrist which she never bothers to hide. So when Alice testifies about Emmanuel, I know from the start that he’s the one who cut off her arm. But she adds some details I didn’t know, such as how she stood deep in the swamp trying to hide from helicopters circling above her, how they found her and stabbed her repeatedly with knives and a spear, gashed one side of her head, and finally how they cut the baby she carried in half before Emmanuel hacked off her hand. I didn’t know the part about the baby, nor how she crept off to the bushes and lay there for 3 days, holding both halves of her baby, her severed arm oozing infection.
Satan caused me to do this. Tell me, what’s crazier, faith in the power of the devil or the knowledge that humans do these things? How many of us bear witness to the breadth of our own brutality, to Joseph Conrad’s The horror! The horror! I am reminded of how in the first Auschwitz retreat in 1996, Peter Matthiessen, who just passed away, rose to remind us that humans are great and terrible animals. Joseph Conrad said: The only legitimate basis of creative work lies in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous, so full of hope. They exist! For me, he’s not just speaking of fiction, he’s speaking of life.
How much easier it is to flee, to peruse the news, and drown in our Western comfortable, complicated lives. How much easier it is to remain silent. I had to forgive Emmanuel, otherwise I could not go to heaven after I die; so I forgave myself and then I forgave others. Alice says this quietly and simply, probably never dreaming that I hear it as a rebuke—not to my relative affluence—but to the mental and emotional layering that characterizes so much of my Western consciousness, the pompous, shallow preciousness of it all. Alice cuts through to the chase. If I wasn’t so leery of spiritual lingo I’d say she wields Majusri’s sword and shows how simple, so simple, the big heart can be.
We don’t just bear witness to Murambi and 1994, we also bear witness to the differences among us, representing many cultures. Is meditation the work of the devil? Do the talking pieces passed around in council make us powerless or ill? Is the candle witchcraft? Perplexed questions, too, from the other side: Why do some laugh when Juliette, a Murambi survivor, attributes her salvation to Jesus? Why can’t they follow the schedule and get to activities on time? Why can’t they bear to sit so close to the large crypts of bodies?
There are screams and anger: Why do we have to have perpetrators here, and if we do, why have them speak? Don’t talk about forgiveness, that’s nothing but denial! There’s the stuttering of long, voweled names in Kinyarwanda as we read the names of those who died, people adding lists of names of family members, an entire village, 160 patients and staff at a psychiatric clinic. The litany of Name Unknown that I remember so well from Auschwitz.
In the evenings those who testify get so emotional they forget to hold the mike correctly and their talk gets garbled. Or else they take a long time reconstructing the scene hour after hour, day after day: where Josephine Dusabimana, who rescued 13 Tutsis, went for beer for the men she was hiding, how long it took her to get back, what her husband said to her (Don’t bring any more of your Tutsi friends into this house!) A circle of 60 is big: The translation didn’t work! They talk so softly I can’t hear them. We lose power many times, the lights go off, and the rain pounds, pummeling the tin roof, and even then there’s controversy: It helps us forget; no, heaven is crying; no, God is angry; no, it waters the seeds of peace and helps them flower.
On and on, this work of not-knowing and listening, not-knowing and listening, this meeting with contending, forceful energies we didn’t know were out there, and now they’re no longer out there they’re in there, in here, in us.
So there’s the embrace, too: The first evening when 60 people introduce themselves by name and country, then jump to their feet to greet each other, shake hands, learn each other’s form of embrace (Is it kisses on the cheek or just cheek to cheek? Is it twice or three times?), stumbling from one language to another (It’s not Rwandese, it’s Kinyarwanda?), till they finally just stand together and look at each other with a big smile (Is it okay to look straight into people’s eyes in Rwanda?). And the last evening, when singers form cross-cultural duets, when one recites a poem while the other plays a strange, foreign instrument called a shakuhachi; when the hips of Congolese women dance back and forth while someone drums on a wooden chair seat; and internationals pour into the dance circle, weaving their arms up in the air, trying to emulate the graceful, raveling movements, feeling, as one participant put it, so so grateful for the differences.
So grateful to Rwanda, to the people who can’t forget their pain, who insist on life even as they fear that this can happen all over again. Beautiful, turquoise, stalwart Rwanda.
So grateful to all who were there; to the peace circle team and their trainer, Jared Seide; to Ginni Stern, who continues to build connections; to generous, hardworking hosts Dora Urujeni and Issa Higiro; to Genro Gauntt, diplomat and statesman; to Bernie.
This post is also available in: German