Not for the meek, weak, or weary

>> Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I want to preface this blog entry with a warning that the content will not be particularly pleasant to hear and with any help of reality, will be downright upsetting. Two weekends ago we visited the Genocide memorial outside of Butare and I wanted to give myself a week or so to process what I saw so that the emotions wouldn't override the factual truth of it, but even now, I'm not sure what this is going to sound like. First off, wipe the visualization of a memorial out of mind, because I want the image to be perfectly clear and often times I feel like we have a detached idea of what memorials are, seeing only the statues or flowers that have been made in memory of what happened there. This is not that type of memorial.

We arrived at this site and were given the following background information: this building used to be a secondary school. There is the main building and then there were strips of classrooms in separate structures scattered along the property. During the months of the genocide as it was getting increasingly hostile and life-threatening all across Rwanda, Tutsis [the targeted group] in all the nearby towns were told that they would be safe if they headed towards the school. They were told this by the Hutus in their villages.
So, 50,000 Tutsis gathered at the school and lived there for two weeks with no food or water but felt they were being protected. After two weeks, the hutu extremists/armies surrounded the school and killed them all. They had been denied food and water over the 2 weeks in order to weaken their resistance. The Tutsis tried to fight back with bricks and stones, but the Hutus had guns, and were stronger. But they weren't just killed with guns. They surrounded them with guns. They killed with machetes, garden tools, guns, and physical torture. Children, women, adults, everyone. They were all thrown in mass graves built on the grounds. The Hutu extremists also took the valuable clothing off the Tutsis before and after killing them.
While this phase of the killing of 50,000 people took place, the French army came in, and took up camp at the school in some of the empty buildings. Their mission was to protect the Hutu genocidaires [attackers] when they made their escape to the Congo border. The mass graves were covered with a volleyball pit built by the French for their amusement while they stayed there. After this phase, after I'm not sure what length of time, the bodies were dug up, preserved in lime, and put on display, as a testament to the atrocities that occurred.
This part we weren't told. We didn't know the bodies were on display until we walked up to a strip of classrooms that overlooked the beautiful, juxtaposed Rwandan landscape, and waited to see where they were leading us. I walked up to the first strip and when I got close to the first door, oh god, the smell. It's the most horrible thing I've ever smelled. And you walk into the room and you're surrounded by bodies. Human bodies. Baby bodies, still with skin, some still in clothing, broken limbs, skulls smashed in, tufts of hair still on their heads. It makes me physically sick to remember it. And every room, 6 classrooms next to each other and we went in one by one. And then we moved to the next strip and one by one they led us into them. And I was so sick so disgusted so ill at something I can't begin to put into words. I don't think there's an emotion for the feeling that overwhelms you in that situation.
The problem is that as humans, I think we form a natural detachment from things that we can't personally relate to. The holocaust, 9-11, any war, unless we have been personally touched by it it's near impossible to gauge the right level of horror to understand what people went through. And often, the events are far enough back in history that we're not expected to understand them well enough to empathize. But these people we see everyday, the people who train us, who live with us, who greet us in the street, who beg for money, every person in this country over the age of 16 has been effected by it and in turn, we see those effects. When someone we now know personally tries to fight a breakdown, it's impossible to ignore. When our host families confess how many siblings they had before 'the war' or how they simply live knowing their neighbors and friends who killed are being rehabilitated and eventually released back into society. How do they live. In the same place, the same house. How can they stomach to see those bodies, and the bodies of babies, of a head crushed in by machete, of limbs hacked off. I don't mean to be graphic or maybe I do, because it's too easy to displace the absolute horror that took place 16 years ago. If I had grown up in this country, if any of us had, we would remember how we lost our families. How do they live when it was their sister, their parents. How did anyone survive? As someone completely unattached to the event, it makes me sick. The court system, Gacaca, is a system that deals with the attackers and rehabilitates them through community work. We see them walking down the street in light pink prison uniforms, heading to the hillside to till the land. And they don't look any different, they're not hardened by the prison like people are in America. They don't look like criminals. They look like men who 15 years ago, were fathers and sons and neighbors and bankers and shop owners. I may have said this before, but I marvel at it and I don't trust it at the same time. I want to respect and understand it and at the same time I want to throw up. A whirlwind of emotions. And I feel like 90% of them are still inaudible.
There's no way to avoid it and no way to talk about it. So, people go about their day and their life like they do. Because they have to. So we will too. Because it has been 16 years, and life has to go on and it has. It doesn't change anything and at the same time, it does. Because the children are still happy and still eager to talk to you and the woman in the village are still well-dressed and friendly, and you can forget for a little while the despair that used to plague this country, but when a beggar with one arm asks you for money, it's difficult to displace that knowledge of where he's coming from.

**I want to add that normally I would have kept that experience locked up in my mind, but it was the request of the manager at the memorial that we share our experience with others. That's the reason for putting 50,000 bodies on display, isn't it? People say we learn history so that history doesn't repeat itself. But it always has. Genocide is not a rare or isolated concept. As an eternal optimist, it's difficult to acknowledge that it's prevalence is almost indicative of a quality of humanity. And if that doesn't scare you, I don't know what will.

More optimistic blogs coming in the very near future.


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