Rwanda, Part Four: Our National Heroes...

This is part one in a three-part series on the Rwandan Genocide. A link to part two will be at the bottom of the page.

We can’t get away from it. Even in the most remote villages, even in the furthest reaches of the country, the bus jolts and rocks past another reminder – usually, another mass grave, encircled by a spiked iron fence, a wobbling arch above the entrance. On each arch, the same bold letters: “Never Again.”

Around seemingly every corner, we pass another, a mirage of ribbons and close-cropped grass in the midst of scraggly banana plantations. Never again. Never again.

We talk about it, of course, not quite in whispers, but in quiet tones. New facts wriggle up and down the bus. The genocide is still ongoing – a revenge killing, usually… they still find bodies… there are people still missing.

And then the stories get more personal. The boy we are visiting is an orphan of genocide – he watched as his parents were murdered in front of him… our guide today lost both her parents and five of her nine siblings during the genocide…  It is everywhere. It is all around us. I drop my eye contact as I speak about it to the other people in the bus, my voice dropping lower and lower. I’ve become afraid of saying anything to anyone, for fear of reopening wounds in the clumsiness of my words. I am too blunt to be here, to speak about this. I feel as if I have bee dropped in the midst of a minefield that stretches from border to border.

But even after a week of memorials and whispers, I am not remotely prepared for the genocide museum when our bus drops us off at the gates. I suppose it would be hard to be prepared anyway – has anyone ever wandered through Auschwitz and thought to themselves “Now this? This I get.” – but I thought I grasped the events well enough not to be surprised.

That assumption didn’t even make it to the front door.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Center is an exceptionally well-assembled institution, and every Rwandan I had talked to that week about it spoke highly, even proudly, of its contents. At first glance, though, there wasn’t much to the place. It’s a pale concrete structure, roughly circular, with a pleasant but unremarkable overlook of the city. Understanding the gravity of its contents, it does its best to ease visitors in as they arrive. You are given headphones as you arrive, and a guided audio tour takes you on a slow circle of the building, through a series of small, well-maintained gardens. The businesslike male voice on the recording dispenses with each in a few sentences.

This is the children’s memorial. The fruit trees represent the children lost during the memorial, cut down too soon… this garden represents the women lost during the genocide, and those who gave their lives to save others… this is the garden of the states… this is the garden of remembrance… this is the rose garden…

I stop in this last one, as the voice explains to me that each rose that blooms is dedicated to a different victim of the genocide. The garden is bare except for two paired roses, bobbing lightly in the breeze. I snap a picture of them with my phone, wondering whose names and faces and stories have been bestowed upon them. A brief, fading dedication to two people who must have left a much more lasting wound somewhere.

It is then that I first hear the screaming.

There is a woman in the next garden, flat on her back, wailing in grief. Four employees are there, each one stationed over an arm or a leg, holding the woman physically down so that she can no hurt herself as she thrashes about. Her cry seems to extend eternally, never pausing for breath, closer to the call of a banshee than the voice of a human. 

I heard someone wonder once if the reason we sing in praise of God is because singing is so primal. Professional mourners used to wail and sing dirges to honor the dead because the deepest, most intrinsic parts of us are only expressed by our wordless cries.

If that’s true, then mourning like this is the most terrible of all songs. It is the sound of rending.

I slip past her as unobtrusively as I can, not daring to look down and perhaps make eye contact with a grief so immense. Instead, I leave the path entirely and circle around the small elephant statues that dot the garden. These elephants, the guide tells me, signify the Rwandans' dedication to not forgetting the events of the genocide. The long memory of the elephant is a symbol of the country's desire to never forget the lessons learned.    

The elephants seems to stare me down with their rough-hewn eyes as I pass by. Never forget, the eyes say. Never again.

I hurry through the gate to the next garden and find myself atop a plain cement slab, with a row of small bushes bordering the edges. To my left, there is another just like it, and another like it after that, all the way down the hill.

“Excuse me, sir,” says a polite voice behind me. A woman stands there, holding a camera in one hand and indicating a small sign I had unheedingly hurried past with the other. “You aren’t supposed to stand out there.” 

I step off the slab and inspect the sign, which informs me that the rectangular patch of concrete I had been standing on covers the final resting place of over half a million Rwandan citizens. I nod shamefacedly at the woman, who moves away with a disapproving look. I click the button on my electronic guide, and the recorded voice tells me that these bodies have been recovered from mass graves all across the country. More bodies are brought here every week, says the voice, in the curious, unemotional way that it does, as if the bodies as just a casual delivery, left on the stoop by a careless UPS driver.

The screaming has not stopped. I glance back at the woman, and see that she has at least stopped thrashing about. But the voice continues unabated, a steady, unstoppable howl. I find myself beside a small door leading into some random part of the museum, and I enter it without thinking. The door closes behind me, utterly failing to cut off the screaming.

By the time we leave the museum, there will have been three different women who are overcome like this, their screams sweeping insistently through the grounds. Even downstairs in the basement, sheltered by massive stone walls, there is no corner in which you cannot hear their voices.

My eyes adjust to the darkness, and I find myself in a long, narrow room, lit by thin windows, and strung with long lines of thin cable. Attached to each are dozens of photos, recovered from homes, each with the face of a smiling child in happier times. People move from picture to picture, occasionally picking up one and then dropping it again quickly, so the cable drops back down and swings awkwardly back and forth. There are too many pictures for each cable, the photos sometimes crowd and overlap each other. The pictures are light paper nothings, but the cables seem to creak beneath them. Each is heavy with death.

I have entered the building somewhere in children’s wing, at a point perhaps halfway through the exhibit. I seem to have come in through the “out” door, one of the many exits the museum has scattered through the building like a haunted house, an egress for those needing to escape the terror. 

Turning away, I deliberately walk the wrong way, back towards the beginning. I don’t know what I’m walking away from, other than a determination to not feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I will experience this on my own terms, somehow.

Another young woman brushes past me, helped along by two more employees. Or are they the same ones as before? I cannot tell, especially with my eyes so carefully averted. I slip past them into the dark room that they just came from.

I find myself in a much smaller space, devoid of all lights and windows. The only illumination comes from a pair of massive backlit black-and-white photographs on the wall across from me. The first shows a young boy, running smiling towards the camera, with his name glowing above his head. Patrick. A small, shiny plaque below his picture tells his story:

Patrick Gahugi Shimirwa

Age: 5

Favourite sport: Riding bicycle

Favourite food: Chips, meat and eggs

Best friend: Alliane, his sister

Behaviour: A quiet, well-behaved boy

Cause of death: Hacked by machete

I can’t breathe. I know that this plaque, this room, this building, is here to manipulate my emotions, but this one catches me off guard, an unseen left hook when I was looking right. It’s so clinical. Cause of death: Hacked by machete. Like a coroner’s report. Like a dusty fact from an ancestry site. Like it barely even happened in a way that mattered. Like I can’t see his smiling, life-size face running at me.

Next to him are a pair of girls, their photos blurrily blended together. Irene and Uwamwezi, aged six and seven. Sisters. Their favorite toy was a doll they shared. Died together when a grenade was thrown into their shower

The next room is the same. Aurore, aged 2. A talkative girl who loved hide-and-seek. Burnt alive at the Gikondo Chapel. Fabrice, aged 8. Loved chocolate, his best friend was “his mum.” Bludgeoned to death with clubs.

I want them to stop smiling at me. I want their lives to stop mattering to me. I want them to stop being real. I want to stop feeling.

I make it at last to the end, or the beginning, the point where I was supposed to enter but now can’t leave fast enough. A small glass plaque sits alone on an empty wall by the entrance, and I glance at it as I pass by.

“Children, you might have been our national heroes…”  it says. No source is given, no sense of where the ellipsis leads, past that of the reader’s imagination. If I’d traveled this exhibit in the order it was intended, I might have realized that I would find no answers here, only a great “what if.” There would be no understanding as to why.

But there must be, somewhere in this building. I have to go back to the beginning and start this experience again fresh, digging at the roots of the destruction. I descend a staircase to the basement to begin the exhibit where a visitor is supposed to, at a tall glass display marked with a shiny steel “1.”

The screaming, still unwavering, follows me down the stairs.