Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Left To Tell

If you know me, you know that five years ago I went to Rwanda with a bunch of brilliant people who taught me about a part of the world I was just coming to understand.   I had read Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza.  When I was finished, I read it again.  It was so compelling, so real and it contains lessons for a lifetime.

Then I had the chance to go to Rwanda and explore this beautiful place, meet these wonderful people.  The Fourth of July means so much more to me now.  July 4th is also Liberation Day in Rwanda, the day when Paul Kagame, the rebel leader of the RPF, came into Kigali and rescued Rwanda from a genocide that had lasted 100 days.  One million one hundred seventeen thousand people were killed.  I had the chance to meet and hang out with the survivors, visit sacred burial sites, to see the places of tragedy and miracles.

While I was there I took pictures and kept a writer's notebook.  My notebook was a long letter to Heidi, a travel log, and a journal.  When I returned I posted my thoughts on a blog.  Below are a few blog posts I wrote on Liberation Day in Rwanda, five years ago.


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 Kagame 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 Kagame’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.

The Military

Paul Kagame delivers his Liberation Day speech.

One of the surprising things for me was how much the military/violence/weapons were glorified during the parade and ceremony. It’s just that it wouldn’t be all that acceptable in our country. Lots of demonstrations of hand-to-hand combat, bayonet drills, hatchet-knife-pickax-and machete throwing demonstrations, etc. Different sections of the military part of the parade were devoted to showing off different weapons. A hundred guys would march with M16s.

Then another hundred with

Then grenade launchers. The VIP section was about half military men in camo-type uniforms. It only stands to reason that the military would be held in such high esteem since it was what stood between genocide and eventual peace, madness and civilization. It is also what keeps their enemies at bay (the Interahamwe – extremist Hutu – are all around in neighboring countries). I’m sure this was just as much to show their enemies their military strength and resolve as it was to give the people of Rwanda peace of mind. Still it was kind of spooky. Same with all of the heavily armed police and military presence around Kigali. Lots of guns. Big ones.

The Reception

A soldier prepares his speech at the Liberation Day celebration.

The reception was also surreal. It was in the office compound of the president. He was socializing and having his picture taken with dignitaries. I never approached him, although I wanted to. He is so brave, so selfless. He saved this country in its most desperate hour and he presides over a peace and reconciliation process like the world has never seen. I am in awe of him. But I couldn’t approach him. So much heavily armed security – of course.

Beautiful women in traditional dress, high powered government officials and officers in uniforms, huge tents open at the sides – a full bar in every one, exotic food, wonderful traditional dancers. They were beautiful/mesmerizing/haunting/enchanting/sensual. Large hollow animal skin drums and chanting. You would have loved that part. They danced the land; swaying grass, long horned cows, the wind, the savannah, the rainforest. There was so much power in that compound. It was kind scary (beginning to see a pattern?). Not so much the awe-of-the-elite. Just knowing how much blood had been spilled by the men in that place. Also the suffering many of them had to endure. Men with machete scars across their heads, bullet scars, slash marks. It wasn’t bad. It was exciting, intense. 

It was also a little creepy leaving because we headed out to find the cars and drivers without exactly knowing where they were. There was a lot of desperation there. Soldiers with machine guns everywhere. People driving crazily (which is pretty average here). Lots of poor people asking for money.

We ended up going to a soccer game in that same stadium where the president spoke. Weary. Long day. I miss you more than you can know. I love you.


Unknown said...

What an amazing opportunity that was. I would think it had to have been life-changing, or maybe life-affirming. We were only in Ethiopia for a week and that was not nearly long enough to get a sense of the country, the people, or the history. Maybe one day?

I really do need to begin reading your Rwanda blog from the beginning.

Chris Hass said...

Oh, and I also love that you wore a tie while in Rwanda.