Friday, March 13, 2009

The Kigali Genocide Memorial

Earlier this week I was working with my teacher friend Tameka and her lovely class of fourth graders (my former second and third graders). We were practicing responding to writing prompts, the kind that the students had to face later in the week for the standardized tests. Tameka and I were coming up with practice prompts for the children so everyone would get in the habit of organizing their ideas with an outline or prewriting notes.

One of our prompts was, Think of someone who is a hero to you. Why is this person your hero? What did he or she do to make you think that way? (or something like that). We were pushing ourselves to respond quickly, to write fluently and clearly. We only wrote for about five minutes before we stopped writing and shared our ideas.

As with all writing assignments or simply free writing periods, I wrote along with the kids. Tameka wrote too. While I had no idea who I would write about when I sat down, my mind went quickly back to Rwanda, Africa. It was in Rwanda in the summer of 2007 that I encountered the bravest people I ever hope to meet.

I recorded most of this trip in a black and white composition book and nearly filled it. What started as a travel log became a long message to my wife, Heidi. When I got home, my good friend George thought I should post my journal entries on a blog. It took a while, but I did as George suggested on a blog called A White Boy In Rwanda.

When I was sitting in that fourth grade classroom a few days ago, my mind raced back to the weeks I spent in Rwanda with Immaculee Ilibagiza, Roger Remera, Bishop John Rucyahana and my many friends from the US. These brilliant people lost their families and their loved ones in the Rwandan Genocide now 15 years ago. Yet, they thrive. They forgive. They have moved on to do wonderful things. They must the bravest people I have ever known.

In the post that follows, I have drawn an excerpt from that notebook. I wrote it in a few scattered chunks over a couple of days. Late in the night, a night heavy with insomnia, and early the next morning. This followed a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial where there are the remains of 250,000 people. It is still almost impossible to imagine. During those 100 days well over 1,000,000 people were killed.

Immaculee and Roger took us to the memorial because they knew that we needed to see it, to experience it. This piece begins after we returned from the memorial and sort of rewinds to the experiences there.

Sunday 6/30/07 11:50 PM

Tim (Immaculee’s friend and agent) talked us into going swimming after dinner. Hilarious. He is such a salesman. The water was cold and we laughed until our faces hurt. Everyone came back, at least part way, from an emotionally wrenching day. I didn’t know what to expect from the Genocide Memorial. Thousands of innocent Rwandans in a mass grave. I took some pictures, just a little video but nothing will be able to describe the power, the sadness. Most of the visitors were Europeans, a few Rwandans, a few Americans besides us. One of the drivers was there in the room with the photographs staring at a picture of his own family.

Outside, large cement slabs – maybe ten yards by twenty yards, covering hundreds (thousands) of bodies each. A large black wall, not marble or obsidian, concrete. Black, stark, simple. Hundreds of names on small plaques were attached to the wall. So many of the ones buried there remain unidentified. A perpetual flame. Simple. There are several mass graves across Rwanda. Official graves. They are still finding bodies. There were some flowers. The black painted wall. A perpetual flame. Many names.

Inside a man told us in a very quiet voice a little about the genocide. He must have said the same things many times. He was reverent. When we entered the memorial we saw an enlarged photo of an unnamed Rwandan child. A boy. Maybe ten years old. It was ripped and scratched. Stained with blood. He was just a child. It was found in the pocket of an unidentified victim. His eyes were looking into the lens of the camera. Into our eyes. Just a child.

The guide left us there. As we walked through the maze of stone walls and rough cement or brick floors there were pictures showing the history of Rwanda from the early days before it was a colony throughout its history. Photos of leaders, ordinary people, military. Pictures showing the persecution of the Tutsis. The text was in Kinyrwanda, French and English. It was detailed, honest, brutal. The farther we went the quieter everyone became. We cried softly as we saw the horror of everyday people, simple good people, killed by their neighbors, coerced by their government, betrayed by their friends, their religious leaders. There were videos of survivors telling stories of what happened to their families. Too horrific to write now. Rape, physical torture, families made to watch their loved ones brutalized, killed. We cried. Occasionally we stopped to reflect, to talk softly, to pray, to cry.


Being there with Immaculee brought it to another level. Getting to know her and seeing her memories flash back was… I’m blocking here… incredible, unbelievably sad. It touched my soul in a way I didn’t know was possible, as nothing else could. Her anger and sadness were palpable. At the end of the self-tour were other rooms. One was very dark. For a while I was in there alone. The only sound was a silken voiced woman reading the names of those killed. There are well over a million names. I could hear my own breathing, feel my heart pounding. My sinuses were clogged from crying. My head was throbbing. I was numb.

One case held long bones from legs. Femurs. Stacks and rows of femurs. There were cases of skulls. Some little, some really tiny. Some with machete marks. Some cracked open as if hit with a heavy club. One case in this darkened room held what must have been found on the bodies of the victims. Photos, pocket knives, a simple wedding band, hair clips, an earring. Just the stuff of a human life. The musical names were being read one after another. It would take thousands of hours just to read them all. Darkness. Bones. Pocket stuff. Names. Tears.


The next area was a small amphitheater. Survivors told their stories on large TV screens. Tiny alcoves with soft benches lay around the outside of the room. Cables with rings and clips held thousands of photographs. Tens of thousands? Some were blurry, taken with inexpensive cameras. Wedding pictures. Blank stares. Joyous expressions. Some were looking past the camera at the photographer with so much love in their eyes. Old men in their very best clothes. Young ones playing with simple toys. Messy hair. Patched pants. Blank stares. Some of the photographs were copies. Some were the actual photographs with the owners’ handwriting on the back. Someone’s birthday. Someone’s new coat. Someone at age four.

I wanted to see every face. My eyes were so blurred with a veil of tears that I could barely see at all. I sat alone in one of the corners. Alone with images of people just like Imaculee and just like Asha and just like Ali and Saniyo and Isha (our Somali Bantu friends - refugees from a Kenyan camp) and just like the Jews and the Gypsies and the Native Americans and like the women in Afghanistan under the Taliban and like the victims of genocide in Darfur, and those in refugee camps all over… And I was overwhelmed, Heidi. For a while I couldn’t breath. That was the room that affected me the most. Until I went upstairs. I thought I was overloaded then I walked up the stairs to a simple area devoted to the children.

The Children

There were large portraits of beautiful children (I know I’ve overused the word beautiful) from about two to ten years old. Simple statements in three languages were under their sweet faces… Favorite Animal: My cat, Favorite Food: Rice, Favorite Toy: The doll my sister and I share, Last Words: Why would you do that? You are my friend… All of these stories so terribly cut short. For the perpetrators these images must be ghosts.


In a crazy way I feel guilty. I am blessed to live in a free country. A powerful country. A country which chooses war over engagement. My guilt is about why I/we didn’t care that much. It was played down in the news but we did hear it. The news that was reported to us was at best incorrect and insufficient and at worst an outright lie and a cover up. Was it the O. J. Simpson trial or some other mind numbing distracter that kept us from feeling the intensity of what was happening? Something, that while it was happening (and certainly before) could have been stopped. Guilt implies fault. Was it at least partially our fault? Could I/we have done anything at all to save a child with bright inquisitive eyes or an old woman who lived alone or Immaculee’s family or the Bishop’s niece?

Monday 7/1/07 7:30 AM

I’ll pick up from where I left off last night. The rooms with the large children’s pictures were so sad – only a word like sad can’t really describe it. No words really can. It was something like reading Left to Tell but so much more. Immaculee said some simple words along the way, words I wish I had written down. Among these words was the idea that unless we take what we know now and do what we can to change the world then our trip here will have been for nothing.


The Kigali memorial is on the side of a hill. Looking down and across the valley you see very poor homes. Row on row, corrugated roofs packed tightly together. When we think of the poor in America it really isn’t like this. As we drove down the winding hill and through the streets people were everywhere. Women in brightly colored wraps carrying firewood on their heads, children in ragged clothes playing soccer with something – not a soccer ball. One old man with no eyes being lovingly led by a very little one, maybe five or six. Well dressed people too. Business suits, colorful shirts and blouses, high heels. Such a wide assortment. Just like everywhere I suppose. Most seem happy. That big old smile was everywhere. So many smiles here. Among the many unforgettable images that smile is the best.

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