Who am I to write about genocide? A foreigner visiting this country for a brief three months. I have very little experience with tragedy and I have no ties here except for the ones I’m creating now. And yet, I write. I write about what I saw, what I heard, and how it affected me. Because at the end of the day this is all we have. What we see, what we hear, and how we perceive it. I am trying to be a good ambassador.
The history of Rwanda is rich and complicated. We visited a cultural village that went into details of Rwandan culture before colonization and I was able to see the vibrant dances and different ways the people embraced the mountains and hills on which they lived. Visiting this village gave me more perspective on just how much colonization affected the country.
One of the first days we arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, we went to the Genocide Memorial there. It was an intense and overwhelming experience. I won’t go into detail about everything here but I encourage you to do your own research and learn more about the genocides that have happened all over the world.
One of the most important things I learned at the Memorial is that the Rwandan genocide was NOT a genocide rooted in ethnicity. After WWII Rwanda was given to Belgium. It was then that the population was divided up by economic status: farmers, the majority, were designated Hutus and cattle-owners, the minority, were designated Tutsis. Everyone was given an identification card that labeled them either Hutu or Tutsi. Belgium even brought over doctors and researchers who measured Rwandans noses to see which “race” was superior. They decided that Tutsis were superior and put them in positions of power. This shift in thinking created a tension and resentment that would eventually build to create a genocide mentality.
One of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around was the sheer number of killings that took place in such a short period of time. There were machine guns, but most civilians used machetes or clubs with nails….they used whatever they had. At least 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One-third of the population was gone, just gone. How can a person look at their neighbour and say, “The world would be a better place without you in it”? And yet, I hear this rhetoric in the States all the time.
One room in the Memorial was small and simple, with glass cases that contained the bones of victims of the genocide. You read about the word genocide and yet you do not understand. Even after seeing the bones I know I will never understand.
I stood at the entrance to this room for about 10 minutes; I found that I couldn’t move. These were people. These were bones. These were their bones. Eventually I went and sat on a chair off to the side. I did not walk around the room. I did not look at the skulls. I cried. I felt undone. You cannot image the murder of 800,000 people.
How do you look straight at death.
A few days later we went to visit a Church at Nyamata. It was to this church that 10,000 people had come for safety, and it was also here that they had all been killed. You could see the bullet holes in the ceiling and the blood still on the rafters. The genocide happened in 1994. In Rwanda they want to make sure no one forgets, that no one can say the genocide didn’t happen, so they have sites that you can visit to see for yourself. The clothes of those who had been killed were in piles. Outside there were mass graves that we were allowed to walk down into to see the bones. I didn’t know if I’d be able to go down there, but I took each step down one at a time.
Imagine walking down into a narrow, stone hallway lined with wooden shelves. You walk to the left and look at the shelves, one is at eye level, one is above and one is below. At eye level there are skulls, line upon line of skulls. And you can see on the skull how they died: machete or bullet. Above and below there are more bones. Piles of bones. They don’t smell like death, they are just there. You walk to the right and it is the same. Shelves of skulls and bones. And you can tell by the size which ones were children. The bones don’t want anything from you, they aren’t here to make you feel guilt or shame or despair. They are just here. Like I was there. I felt in my soul that they were seeing me the same way I was seeing them. And I was glad in that moment, that I could stand there and see them, that they were not forgotten. I see you. I felt more known in that moment than I ever have. I see you. I walked through the mass grave. I looked at the skulls. I did not cry. I felt whole. How do you look straight at death.
Rwanda has touched my heart. I hope that through my blog posts it will touch yours too. Before Friday I will make sure to post about the reconciliation village we went to visit, for this is where the true spirit of Rwanda can be seen. It still blows me away. Until then I hope you are well. If you can, try and do someone a kindness this week for there is strength in that.