Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Reflections by Roshi Genro Gauntt
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Call me Kamanzi. On our final night in Rwanda before returning home, Issa Higiro gave Fleet Maull and I new Kinyarwanda names. Fleet became Mugabo (Man) and I became Kamanzi, which can either mean hero or beautiful…….or …
The land of the thousand hills welcomed us back in late March with flowering trees and smiling faces. Many arriving in Rwanda for the first time expect to arrive in a desolate, grey and broken place devoid of joy and peace, still reeling from the Tutsi genocide of seventeen years ago. Rwanda surprises us as one of the safest and most welcoming countries on the continent. What a joy to be home again.
We check into the EPR guesthouse, a lovely lodge that is part of a Presbyterian Church and ministry located on the same hill as the president’s residence and the Hotel des Mille Colines (called Hotel Rwanda in the movie by the same name). It is a great pleasure to greet again the beautiful staff and to meet the security guards, Alfonse and Jerome, who, in short order I will be embracing at each meeting. By far this is the best kind of security. I have often heard the phrase “beautiful people” used particularly towards indigenous populations of the world. Having met Rwandans I begin to see that it means…beautiful inside, without artifice or substantial defense. When invited, the joyful, loving essence of these people just bubbles up and touches our hearts palpably. ET’s heart-light is simply real.
Our first days are busy with meetings and preparation for training and the bearing witness retreat. And the next days and the next. Our schedule is so brimming that in the three weeks we are there we will be moving, meeting and constantly engaged. Our meeting schedule was a retreat within a retreat. Introducing ourselves and the three tenets of not knowing, bearing witness and loving action is a constant awareness that to be present is the only prescription for healthy relationship.
At Urugo Rw’Amahoro (Friends Peace House) we meet dedicated people that originally served the orphans of the genocide after July 4, 1994, locating their House on the road to the garbage dump where children and adults would go to find means of survival. At IBUKA (remember, the genocide survivors umbrella organization) we prepare to do a three-day training for 65 trauma counselors working with the constantly emerging traumatic memories of survivors. We meet with Dr. Simon Gasibirege, the saintly head of a small organization that shares deep transformational trauma healing work with families and communities in villages throughout the country. His daughter Gabrielle from Montreal will join our retreat.
Visiting AERG and GAERG, networks of student survivors we meet bright and energetic young Rwandans who, having lost their parents and families create families among themselves in high schools and at universities. The families are commonly 20 or so in size with members taking on roles of mother and father and supporting each other in living, surviving their histories, study and building lives. The families have names such as “Troop of the King,” “Heroes,” and “Esperance or Hope.” There are a staggering 40,000 members including families in foreign countries. Family weddings and celebrations are BIG.
For three days Fleet and I lead training at IBUKA for trauma counselors. Included are 25 from IBUKA, Members of AERG and administrators of TIG, the work camps for genocide perpetrators who have admitted their crimes, named their co-conspirators and told the surviving family members where to find the bones of their loved ones. A total of 65 between the ages of 25 and 35. Young. We start in a large circle that will, as time passes, grow more and more intimate as we listen from the heart, speak from the heart and spontaneously share what is arising. We introduce practices for being present in body, breath and mind sharing the dharma without name.
Postures move from leaned way back to leaned way in. Studying the self is no easy matter, but, once engaged, is the ultimate flight to freedom. We ask someone to lead the circle in song. And the group is suddenly alight with rousingly energetic and delightful singing and dance. There is something about the even-pitched melded African voices that simply entrances. From presencing and awareness work we move to introducing Uruziga Wa’Amohoro, peace circles, or as we often call it, council. It is our hope that if this process can be deeply transmitted, it can truly help penetrate the trauma, pain and suffering confronting the population on deep levels. We mix and re-mix the Peace Circles giving each an opportunity to facilitate. We sing, we dance and we share. Graduation is a joyful process. Something is happening. We will now re-form the group in the next months and continue the process of training and implementing the circles around the country.
Each day is a short story. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to view from the point of a new-comer. It’s all fresh, bright, full of wonder and amazement. It’s hard not to get whiplash just looking around! The Rwanda Historical Museum is located in Butare, a two-hour mountainous drive south from the capital Kigali.
We have a lovely guide who escorts us through the geographical and environmental realities and the archaeological remnants of the Rwandan kingdom that ended in-essence with the advent of the German and Belgian colonial masters. Government, culture, agriculture, art-in-application, village planning, architecture, education and society, religion, song and dance were all harmoniously functioning. God was called Imana, and their Christlike figure was Yagombe. Milk was a sacrament, drums were protected and carried on palanquins, abundance was a fact and survival was not an issue. Restorative justice was actualized in gachacha (community court-on-the-grass).
The colonial scout / explorers found all of this so enlightened that they deduced that it must have come from somewhere else – like Ethiopia, where it would have been influenced by European culture……….but it did not.
The same day we meet AMI, Association Immaculate, an NGO working to promote peace building, and building the right inner power to actualize peace, healing and ubuntu (human-ness). The three main principals of right inner power are 1. Assurance and trust in life and all people (Tutsi, Hutu and Twa) without condition; 2. Resilience by putting the tragedy behind with a positive attitude toward living better and 3. Non-exclusion by excluding exclusion in the light of “We are all One”. They are actually working now in village settings in programs working with survivors and former prisoners coming out of the TIG prisons who are forced by circumstance and history to live in close settings where skeletons continue to rattle and roar. Weekly radio programs teach peace in thought and action. Spiritual training and material aid are turning the water wheels of compassion.
The Bearing Witness Retreat starts on a Sunday afternoon. We are 35 Rwandans representing 20 different governmental agencies, school and NGO organizations and, for the most part, survivors, joined by 18 internationals from Canada, Uganda, Sudan, and the U.S.A. Immediately after the organizational and preparing the ground introduction we view a film called “The Long Coat” made by Edward, a young man of Hutu background who is joining us on the retreat. It is a moving story of a young man who finds out that his father has killed the Tutsi father of a young lady he has just met and his deep struggle as the child of a non-repentant genocide perpetrator. For most of our Rwandan survivor retreat participants, it is a massive revelation to meet a repentant, struggling, open and heartfelt child of the perpetrator side. Icyizere……Hope.
The next day we tour the Kigali Genocide Memorial
where the recipe of how to cook and execute a genocide is told in starkly revealing word and image. To divide and conquer a single people sharing a single culture, language and religion, simply create divisions where there are none. The simple, permeable, pre-colonial difference between Tutsi and Hutu was that the Tutsi had ten cows and the Hutu had less than ten. The colonialists went as far as eugenics (measuring skull size etc.) to falsely factualize genetic and racial differences. Administrative power and European education were bestowed to the minority Tutsis while the Hutus were de-valued. Ethnic identity cards were issued in the early 30’s and division was escalating.
Soon there was a movement to empower the Hutu driven by a co-operating Belgian progressive labor movement by the Flemish. Hutus were beginning to be trained as priests in the Catholic Church and given more and more governmental roles. In 1948 Swiss Monsignor Perraudin created what later became the radically discriminatory Ten Commandments of the Hutu in the social revolution of 1959 – when Belgium gave Rwanda independence. Hutus (85 percent of the population) took power and “ethnic” division was acted upon. That was the end of education and participatory power opportunities for Tutsis, and mass population relocations and trial genocides began. Vast numbers of Tutsis fled the country. Hate and fear were common currency. Tutsis were referred to as snakes and cockroaches. Civilian militias known as interahamwe were created. Arms dealers in the early 90’s imported massive stockpiles of pangas (machetes) and by 1994 the arms had been distributed to accompany traditional spears, clubs and maces. Rwandan President Habyarimana had made agreements to integrate the Tutsi back into empowered society at the U.N. sponsored Arusha Accords held in Tanzania from July 1992 to August 1993. His plane also carrying Burundian President Ntaryamira was shot down over Kigali crashing into the presidential residence on April 6, 1994, and with the intentionally inflammatory radio announcement “The Tutsis have murdered our Father, let the work begin.” the genocide was on.
To move through the museum is to bodily and mentally absorb a massive human tragedy.
One of the last exhibits is one of pictures of individual Tutsi children with titles including their age, what they liked most to eat and what their dreams were.
That evening we heard testimonies of survivors, incomprehensible tales of witness to terror and killing of family, friends and community, improbable escape, terror and survival.
Each morning and evening we did Peace Circles, spontaneous listening and sharing from the heart what was moving through us in safety and confidentiality. These circles of bearing witness to each other and ourselves form a deep ground for the retreat experience. In the mornings they were smaller – with facilitated groups of ten to twelve.
Sometimes the circles involved the entire group. They engage us in each other as we move through an impenetrable experience.
In the next days we visited powerful memorial sites of massacres in the Catholic churches of Yamata and Ntarama, attended two National memorial services at Nyanza and Rebero and visited the Murambe memorial site where 50,000 Tutsis, assured of protection, rushed to in trust and days later, parched and hungry were massacred.
Bearing Witness asks that we put aside personal views, judgments, opinions, patterned thinking and conditioning to operate moment-to-moment from a place of Not-Knowing. It sounds unapproachable from an intellectual standpoint, but, confronted with the stark and brutal realities of this Rwandan genocide, it comes naturally. The mind can’t touch it, capture it or deal with it, and this unnamable space of not-knowing is to where we naturally retreat. Then we Bear Witness, experience the reality of the moment that is our experience now in sight, sound, smell, taste touch and thought, all flowing in intimate immediate relationship. And from that Loving Action, wisdom in action as compassion naturally arises as the flow of our awareness. Somehow in the midst of bearing witness to these massive and incomprehensible tragedies, with their wrenching personal stories and their accompanying deep suffering, when encountered in the contained space of these Three Tenets, there is healing.
We walked through the Marambe memorial, where the corpses some 800 of the 50,000 murdered there were preserved through lack of oxygen at the bottom of mass burial pits.
These recovered bodies were treated with lime and are now on display, lying on low tables in what were to be classrooms in a technical school that was under construction when the genocide erupted. They are not only difficult to look at as one can still see arms, legs, torsos and faces of adult men and women, children and infants in various postures of agony, but the smell is powerful. This place is hard for anyone to witness, but more so for Rwandans and Rwandan survivors, as the reality of this personal tragedy is vividly real. More than one of our group suffered strong reactions and the remainder of the rooms subsequently rushed us, as the guides are fearful of heavy traumatic reactions.
Afterwards we did council as a whole group. Several of our survivor participants who had never told their stories now related them, and, supported by the group, some were able to taste tears that had never been allowed to flow. It is one thing to visit a cemetery, battleground, memorial site or genocide ground, see the place, hear a guide and leave. It is quite another to visit…….and to stay with the place, the reality and oneself without turning one’s attention away. Real presence and staying-with-it in the midst of even the most difficult of situations can actually be accompanied by the current of deeply moving peace. For one of our group, it was simply too much and too hard. They are OK and we are in touch.
In our days after the retreat we met with some of our partner organizations once again.
Our reception, always cordial and welcoming had moved to a place of deeper relationship. It was more than meaningful that we had come back after last year and that we now vowed to return again. We are now in a position to serve deeper and farther. They want us to return, they want to personally participate in the retreat and they want us to train their staffs so that the seemingly increasing trauma reactions during the annual memorial period might possibly be somewhat lessened, and some of the bearing witness and trauma healing methodologies that we carry might begin to get to the people.
Thank you for listening,
Grover Genro Gauntt (aka Kamanzi)
Many thanks to:
Memos Learning from History