It is the last day of the retreat; I am walking with Claudia (name changed for confidentiality), a new Rwandan friend. Earlier in the retreat, she asked for guidance in meditation to help with painful thoughts that won’t stop. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some guidance.
On this day she tells me about the killing of her parents and four of five siblings when she is about 6 years old. A Hutu man protects her. Later he is killed by other Hutu’s angered at his kindness. Luckily she meets her one remaining elder sister who can take care of her. Being with this tender young woman, bearing witness to her courage, pain, intelligence and life-forward intention my heart is deeply touched.
Zen teacher Bernie Glassman has created forms for bring the practice of sitting meditation into social action. The “Bearing Witness Retreat”. For more than 20 years, the Zen Peacemaker Order (ZPO) has been conducting these retreats at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the concentration camps in Poland. About 6 years ago members of a Rwandan reconciliation group, Memos-Learning from History attended the retreat and asked for something similar in their country. This retreat grew from that request.
ZPO has three main views or tenets: 1) Not-knowing (putting aside all opinions, conclusions, and certainties), 2) Bearing witness (being present with all the joy and sorrow within the situation you are in and 3) Loving actions (if some beneficial possibility arises to offer your care).
At Auschwitz the practice is to invite healing by being present with the suffering of all beings: prisoners, guards, survivors, the dead and the land itself. Through meditation, chanting of names of the deceased, respectfully walking around the entire site, the history is recalled and experienced with tender, open and broken hearts.
In the unique situation of Rwanda, where every person is carrying the trauma of the recent past (see previous writing), sitting with the intention of Bearing Witness is a huge challenge. Our group of about 56 was equally divided between Rwandans, plus two Congolese and westerners from seven different countries. We went every day to the Murambi Memorial Site, a place where 50,000 people were massacred.
Each day we would start “council” sitting together around a candle and some sacred objects with the intention of speaking from our hearts. Being in the presence of authentic, heartfelt, truth telling allows an intimacy and trust to grow. Bearing witness to ourselves and to each other creates a healing environment. The power of humans connecting from their hearts cannot be underestimated.
Each person, African or westerner, was processing deep personal and societal wounds through the power of the Memorial site. In numerous rooms, lying on wooden tables, there are many skeletons including babies and children that have been preserved in lime emitting a sickening stench. The smell lives in my nostrils. The bits of clothing and tufts of hair make this so indelibly real. The idea is to make the reality undeniable. As with the German holocaust, there are those who will deny or minimize the horror. We must create conditions so that humanity never forgets that this is possible.
In the first days we meditated by the mass graves sometimes in silence and at other times reading the names of the dead. It took some time to realize that this was socially inappropriate and very frightening for the Rwandans. The next days we sat in a more neutral setting at the Memorial Site and spoke the names there. For me, saying and hearing the names was very important. As I said in my previous writing, I cannot process a large number of deaths, my body goes numb. With each name, I can sense this one individual and my heart gets torn open. Maybe this kind of remembering brings some kind of solace to the soul of that person, this I do not know. I do know that in the process of remembering, in experiencing our heart connections to unknown people, we become more human. I had the added potency of reading names on Good Friday, recalling the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross in this Christian country added a whole other level of meaning.
In the evenings we would hear “testimony” from members of the three groups: Survivors, Perpetrators and Rescuers. Hearing the stories of people who I was getting to know was the most compelling, heart wrenching part of the whole retreat. People just like you and me went through these experiences. I could feel my deep inner connection to each person and each story. Each individual is part of a whole family of tragic stories.
Through the eyes and words of one person, their relatives also somehow appear in the room. This experience lives deeply in my heart.
(In the following examples from our group, I altered their names for confidentiality. Some of these stories are very challenging to read, some readers might choose to skip this section. I offer them not to shock but to awaken our hearts. Listen well to your inner life and take breaks as needed)
Anna tells her story of hiding in the marshes, crawling in the mud with snakes for many days. Dead and dying bodies would surround her. Teeming with lice and desperate with fear, she experienced the daily struggle to survive. As she spoke, sitting nearby was Aaron the man who cut off her hand and helped kill her family. Aaron expresses sorrow for his actions yet his testimony, which includes various deflections, does not satisfy many of the Tutsi’s who are present. Is the greatest expression of human compassion, forgiveness, even thinkable?
Rosanne, a Hutu sat with Theodore, a 31 year old Tutsi man who she saved when he was 11, at the immediate risk of her own life. Her husband was scared and angry that she was saving Tutsi’s. Theodore’s family had been killed while he escaped by running and hiding. After 5 days without food or water, Rosanne came upon him. Rather than turning him in, she sheltered him. How does one person find such courageous kindness when almost all others cannot?
Jeannette, participating in the retreat with her 21-year-old daughter Paula showed us the place where she hid 20 years ago holding Paula to her chest. She had watched as her husband and two sons were killed nearby. She was attacked with rocks and barely escaped. What lives in mother and daughter after such an event?
Roland is an ex-Belgian soldier who tried to help in Rwanda gave his harrowing, tearful story for the first time in 20 years. What does it mean to help in such a situation? The Belgian government was part of the horrific, colonial history that created the great division amongst these people. What is our collective responsibility for the actions of our governments? As an American, I have my first experience of collective shame for the actions and negligence of my country as I sit with all these people.
Can we see that every one of us is a survivor, a perpetrator and a rescuer? Can such an extreme situation as Rwanda help us to reflect on our own life?
Within me is one who has survived challenging situations. I am also a survivor. Raised by alcoholic parents, my mom dealing with manic-depression, I witnessed some harrowing scenes. Attacked at gun point while counseling a distressed ex-convict at a drug rehabilitation center, my life was threatened. As with all of us, my list goes on. While my challenges were not near the level of my Rwandan friends, it is not helpful to compare suffering. Mine is mine. Yours is yours. Had I been born elsewhere I might have been one of the survivors in Rwanda.
I have perpetrated violence on others in my life. Whether through word, thought or deed I have violated others. At times I have asserted my desire to dominate others, through the use of my voice and intellect. As a young man I hit people with my fists. I have often treated the earth with carelessness as if I had dominion over it. Also, who has not violated their own bodies, by treating it as an object to be manipulated. Who has not violated their own inner life with vicious judgments? Our self- talk can be filled with much violence. For deep healing to occur these perpetrations must be seen, acknowledged and alternatives uncovered. From my point of view, we do not have the right to violate the sanctity of LIFE even when it appears to be OUR life. Life is a gift that requires our care. Seeing all this, I recognize that had I been born elsewhere I could have been a killer. It is the same impulse toward domination of life that exists in me acted out in another social milieu.
I have rescued others in my life. Who has not served as the dove of peace and healing in at least some situations? Who has not protected the weak, fed the hungry at least some of the time? I have been blessed many times in my life with opportunities to offer healing, solace and care. Had I been in born in another place I might have saved some threatened people.
In The Embodied Life work we speak of being present with all that arises in body, feelings and thoughts. I use the term ‘presencing’. This is the same as “Bearing Witness”. Holding presence for our inner world and/or our external situation is the essential ground for healing. Anything exiled from our care will remain unprocessed and therefore keep us from feeling whole. All that is rejected must be carried as a kind of tension in our bodies and will create a closing of our hearts. Opening to the entirety of life, to the inner and outer suffering as well as to the joy is our collective direction.
Integrating my experiences from Rwanda brings vivid questions to the fore: when do I turn my back on life? How do I turn away from the suffering within and around me? What in my inner and outer world do I exile from my realm of care? For me this is clear- bearing witness or presencing is the ground of true healing for individuals and for our world.