Saturday, July 3, 2010

Rwanda - Liberation Day

For those of you who don't know me well, you may have never read my blog about visiting RwaNDA. I went with an amazing group of folks to find out first hand about this wonderful country. We were about as different as can be. FROM A YOUNG COLLEGE STUDENT, TO A MASSEUSE, TO A JEWELER, TO A PHYSICAL THERAPIST, TO A COUPLE OF TEACHERS, THE ONE THING WE HAD IN COMMON WAS A LOVE FOR IMMACULEE ILIBAGIZA, THE AUTHOR OF LEFT TO TELL. IMMACULEE AND SOME new friends TOOK US ON AN ODYSSEy THROUGH the heart of africa.

In case you don't know, there was a massive genocide in Rwanda 16 years ago. Immaculee is a genocide survivor with an amazing story of love and forgiveness. Trapped in a bathroom for three months with seven others, forced to be completely silent and only given barely enough food to survive, Immaculee came out of that ordeal a changed person. July 4th is also their Liberation Day. I was honored to be there three years ago to be a part of their celebration. Over the next week or so, I am going to republish from that old blog - and intersperse some recent reflections about that time, those amazing people and what a life changing experience that was. If you would like to read it (or reread it) in its entirety, go to

You may want to start at the beginning to get some of the context, but that isn't entirely necessary. What started out as a travel log of sorts became a long letter to Heidi Mills. No apologies, that's just what it is. I'll start with my very first post and then cut ahead to the Liberation Day posts.


This is a picture of Immaculee at the airport in Belgium.

In July of 2007 I went on an amazing trip. At first I wasn’t sure exactly why I was going. Maybe I’m still figuring that out. The opportunity. The adventure. Experiencing something new, a place and a people I have never known. Immaculee Ilibagiza. Along the way I may have discovered my purpose for going.

So, here is my story. Part of it. It was written in a composition notebook. The kind with the black marbled cover. 100 sheets. 200 pages. Wide ruled. Because this was a letter/journal, the grammar is not exactly textbook. Lots of fragments. Lots of strange usage. It’s how I write in this context.

These are my memories. Often I recorded ideas and impressions quickly into a pocket notebook as words or phrases. Later that day or early the next morning I wrote out the ideas in more detail. I know that many words, especially proper nouns are misspelled. I may have mistakenly changed some numbers. I made judgments about the feelings of others I was with. I may have come to some wrong conclusions. I’m sure I got some facts wrong.

It is rambling. It is first person. At first it was sort of a “Dear Diary” kind of thing. Little focus. Before long, as I missed my family and my dear Heidi and it became a long extended letter to her. So, mixed up with the observations and recollections is a love story, a story of longing. I don’t apologize for this. It’s what it is. It’s also a discovery of God for me.

Not the kind of God who sits-on-a-thrown-throwing-thunderbolts at those who displease HIM. But God in the mango juice, in the morning mist, in the smiles of a beautiful people… in forgiveness. Neither do I apologize for this. Having gone to a Catholic school for 10 years during my youth, been an altar boy, read the Bible, received structured Christian religious instruction, attended a traditional Methodist church for years, played in a praise band for several years, etc. I have been on a search for God. Someone else on the same trip, on the same mission certainly wouldn’t have had the same personal experiences, the same conclusions. Me? I learned more about the meaning of life in Rwanda. Is that God? I think so.


Thursday 7/4/07

I miss you so badly today. Fourth of July is one holiday we have always spent together and one we enjoy so much. Not so much because we think of or honor our independence. Just because we make it special. The fireworks, the boat, grilling out… family.

Today is the thirteenth anniversary of the end of the genocide. Today the Hutu and Tutsi celebrate the end of real madness and the beginning of goodness coming back into this country. Before the genocide the Tutsis were mercilessly persecuted. When they were mocked, compared to cockroaches, threatened, beaten, raped, even killed – they could do nothing. Just look away, just hope that it didn’t get worse. Just pray. Then there were three months of Hell.

Today, things are not right in Rwanda but they are getting there. Thirteen years ago well over a million people were killed in the worst ways imaginable. Thirteen years ago Immaculee and the others were praying in the bathroom they had been in for months. There was no government, police, social services, transportation – nothing civilized except for the unbelievable daring of some selfless people who risked their lives to save others.

The Soccer Field

Paul Kigame enters the futbol stadium on Liberation day

Independence Day in Rwanda is remembered by the people here to celebrate real independence. The ceremony at the soccer stadium was surreal. Because we were with Immaculee, our little eclectic group was seated in the VIP section. Parade. Business, military, dignitaries. It lasted for about four hours. Paul Kigame’s speech was pretty amazing. He would like to see Rwanda’s image go beyond malaria, AIDS, poverty, third world status and, especially, the genocide. It was all about individuals making a huge difference in the lives of their countrymen.

Boring at the time because it was in Kinyrwanda but it was later translated for us by Richard and Immaculee. The president was only a short distance from us when he gave his address to the country. Before going into the stadium we met some important dignitaries and men in the military. The head of all of the military in all of Rwanda set us up with the nice seats and the invitation to the reception with the president afterwards. I can’t remember his name (James ?). He’s one of the most powerful people in the country.

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