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Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Day #3

After our morning small group councils, in which are Rwandan friends are getting more comfortable sharing their hearts each day, we travelled by bus to the closing ceremonies of the official government commemoration week, which took place on Rivero hill, a memorial site where the moderate politicians, including the Prime Minister, who supported the Arusha peace process were murdered in 1994 by the hardliners who perpetrated the genocide. We were special guests of the organizers, the National Commission on Unity and Reconciliation, sitting just behind the dignitary section. The outdoor memorial with individual graves of the politicians and a number of mass graves of another 14,000 victims who were murdered in Kigali hospitals breathtaking, situated on a long sloping lawn looking out over Kigali, the valley and surrounding lush green, verdant hills. Beautiful white tents lined with white and purple bunting (purple for mourning and white for hope, surrounded the memorial on three sides, and there were at least four thousand people in attendance at this nationally televised event. Banners on flags whipped in the wind. The guest of honor was the President of the Senate. There was a wreath laying ceremony and several speeches interspersed with musical presentations. At one point the army band played “taps,” which was heart breaking and beautiful. The President of IBUKA, one of our partner organizations and the main umbrella NGO for all the survivors organizations and projects in Rwanda gave a very tough speech warning of the activities of genocide perpetrators still active outside of Rwanda, reorganizing their forces in the Congo along the border with Rwanda and finding support for their activities in a number of European countries. He called on the international community to stop tolerating and supporting these elements and their ideology of genocide.

The Minister of Culture and Sports who also spoke at Nyanza the night I addressed the gathering there, gave a stirring speech calling on current and aspiring politicians to transcend the politics of personal ambition and special interests and to instead embrace political office as a vocation in service of all the people of Rwanda. The President of the Senate also gave a strong speech, calling on all Rwandans to continue the work of healing trauma and supporting survivors, while continue to fight the ideology of separation and genocide. He stated clearly the Rwanda would not be dragged back into genocide by these terrorist elements operating from the Congo and elsewhere and assured everyone that the same army that liberated Rwanda from the genocide perpetrators would protect the country from any attempts by these groups to incite new instability or genocide in Rwanda.

After enjoying our box lunches at the IBUKA offices at the Nyanza memorial site nearby, we headed out into the countryside to visit two churches that are important genocide memorial sites, Ntama and Nyamata. At Ntama, a small mud walled church where almost 20,000 Tutsis were murdered, the clothing of the victims hangs from the walls and rafters and the skulls and bones of the victims are arranged on racks. Otherwise, the church has been left as it was found. In one room, there is a 5 feet high and five feet wide blood stained areal on the wall where the genocide perpetrators smashed children’s heads against the wall.

At Nyamata, a much larger Catholic church, the pews are covered with the clothing of the victims and on the altar lay a collection of machetes and other traditional weapons used to murder the victims. We climbed down into one of the mass graves where thousands of skulls and tens of thousands of bones lay on rows of racks, five racks high. Climbing down into that mass grave felt like descending into hell, until I managed to focus on the fact that each of these skulls was that of an innocent human being who perished at the hands of the genocide perpetrators. I just stood there underground amidst the racks of skulls and bones and tried my best to open my heart to all those beings, praying for their release, as well as the healing of the survivors and the transformation of their murderers. 18,000 were murdered in this church, but about 45,000 are interred there, all victims from the church or the surrounding areas. We spent considerable time in silent prayer and contemplation with the remains of the murdered Tutsis, and then laid a wreath on top of one of the mass graves. We spent about an hour with a survivor of the 1992 genocide, a trial run apparently. He gave us a detailed account of the events leading up to the 1994 massacre at this church and the massacre itself. Scholars now agree that the 1994 genocide had been planned and prepared for since as early as 1959 by Hutu hardliners and extremists.

Somehow on the hour long ride back to Kigali, we managed to recover our energy and spirits, engaging in conversation and song with each other. At the guesthouse, we held our evening council with the whole group. We are now nine international participants and nine Rwandan participants (several more Rwandans may join us tomorrow for the rest of the retreat). We really have no idea what the Rwandans are experiencing as we visit the memorial sites on this retreat, but we know there experience is much different from ours. Many of our new Rwandan friends lost most of their family in the genocide. Because of this, we decided to do a witness council this evening with the nine Rwandan participants sitting in an inner circle doing council practice, while we sat in the outer circle witnessing. Our Rwandan friends did one round of council with each other speaking in Kinyarwanda, their native tongue. We had no idea what they were saying, but it was clear that this was a liberating experience for them to be able to share in the council format in their own language. We then formed on large circle and did another round in English.

Tomorrow morning we leave early by bus for Murambe, a memorial site 3.5 hours from Kigali. It is another major genocide site and powerful memorial and museum. We are deep, deep into the plunge at this point. Not knowing and bearing witness are inescapable.

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