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Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Day #2

(warning: contains highly disturbing descriptions)

After our first morning council groups, two groups of nine each, both including international and Rwandan retreat participants and staff, we spent the entire day at the Kigali Memorial Centre, one of the principal genocide museums in Rwanda, where 250,000 victims are buried in mass graves. After laying a large wreath of flowers on one of the mass graves, we proceeded to tour the amazingly detailed and well laid exhibits, depicting the history leading up to and the events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Additional rooms depict other genocides –the World War II Holocaust, Bosnia, Cambodia, Armenia, Namibia and Assyria. A third exhibit area focuses on young children who were murdered in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It took our group over three hours to move through these exhibits, including a darkened room with glass cases full of human skulls and human bones against the background of life sized images of victims on the walls. One thing is painstakingly clear after going through this exhibit, and from all the reading I’ve and the other retreatants have been doing – the Rwandan genocide was not some kind of aberration or spontaneous eruption of mass hysteria. It was a carefully planned out “final solution” perpetrated by a radical, hard line ethnic faction determine to gain and maintain power by exterminating the Tutsis in Rwanda. They nearly succeeded. The complicity of the colonial powers and the failure of the international community to respond and protect the innocents from slaughter is a shame we all now carry in the west.

By the time we made it back to our conference room at the museum, where we were to listen to the testimony of several survivors, my heart was completely shattered. My mind was no longer functioning – just blasted into not knowing. Despite all we know about the causes and conditions in which genocide occurs, the reality of it is still incomprehensible. My mind always wants to ask, “How is it that the perpetrators do not suddenly become self aware as they hack their way through piles of corpses looking for more living beings to kill, or burning piles of mangled corpses on the open ground when the crematoria were overfilled, and suddenly realize the insanity of their surroundings and their acts?”. A few do … one reads of this, but most don’t; and even those who do usually continue on blindly, driven either by a kind of numb momentum or the fear of reprisal from their fellow killers or their leaders. Plunged deep into not knowing, I had to trust the only faculty I had left … my broken, devastated, grieving heart. I was on the edge of sobbing and wailing.

We spent the afternoon in a conference room at the Memorial Centre listening to two young survivors tell their stories, Veneranda, a 25 year old woman who was a 9 year old girl when she survived the 100 day of genocide in 1994, and Francois, a 20 year old man who was 4 years old at the time of the genocide. Veneranda witness her whole family being slaughtered. She survived by hiding and then by climbing trees. She witnessed her own brother being slaughtered below her tree perch hideout and had to withstand his calling out to her when he saw her in the tree above. Later she witnessed his corpse being eaten by the dogs who preyed on the corpses. When vultures began attacking the corpses she came down from her hide out to protect the corpses only returning to her hide out whenever the interahamwe killers returned. She was eventually rescued by the rebel army (RPF) that finally drove out the killers and stopped the genocide.

Francois survived the genocide because his brother bought his freedom giving him to a Hutu man among the killers. He then witnessed is older brother being hacked to death. He was raised by the Hutu family before eventually escaping and moving from orphanages to the streets and eventually learning to survive on his own. As a young man he finally realized he needed to come forth as a survivor and engaged in the Gacaca court process in 2007, which awarded him the properties his brothers killers had stolen as well as monetary compensation. Before he could collect, the family who had killed his brother attacked him and attempted to burn him to death, dousing him in gasoline and setting him on fire. He survived after four months in the hospital. In 2008 on a business trip to Uganda where he buys goods for import back to Rwanda, his brothers killers attacked again and again he barely survived. His case has now been taken up at the highest levels of government, the lead investigatng officer sitting with us in the circle today.

The amazing thing was the both Vernanda and Francois, both of whom had been suicidal at times in the past, had not given up. They were both fighting on had had hope for their lives and their country. Veneranda is studying in a graduate hotel/restaurant management program and Francois is again trying to build his business.

We held a council circle together their at the Memorial Centre sharing our hearts with each other and then spent the last part of the afternoon in silent contemplation in the gardens and at the mass graves of the Memorial Centre. At 5 pm we returned to our base at the Presbyterian Church Guesthouse and held another large council with the entire group, followed by dinner. The council was powerful, with no one holding back. At dinner I witness people paring off in twos or threes deep in conversation with each other.

Tomorrow morning we will again begin with our small council groups and then participate in the closing ceremonies for the National Genocide Commemoration week, which began on April 6th. In the afternoon we will travel by bus into the country-side to visit two churches that were massacre sites and are now preserved as genocide memorial sites.

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