Rwanda, Part 6: Carved In Stone

This is the third in a three-part series on the Rwandan Genocide. The first piece can be found here.

I don’t notice the scars.

I don’t notice the scars because I never notice things like that. This woman has been showing us the country all week, bumping along dirt roads in sweaty buses, and I never see them until someone else mentions it to me. But there they are, sharp lines that could only be from a dull machete, marked on this woman’s neck. Remnants of a time I don’t dare bring up. Maybe she doesn’t even see them anymore when she looks in the mirror. Maybe she’s forgotten they’re there.

She can’t have forgotten. But maybe she’s trying to forget.

When you travel in Rwanda, it is immediately apparent that you are visiting towns and people that live in the shadow of the genocide. People can’t stop mentioning it, and yet, when you try and reply, you find that there are only so many questions you can ask that have answers. You can feel around for stories, prod carefully for details, however you like; all you will discover is the “how,” never the “why.”

The only thing you can ask is about the now, the Rwanda that you currently stand in. One that likely seems markedly different from the one you imagined.

I’ve been struggling to write this last piece because on some level, this piece is supposed to make sense of the other two pieces. And I don’t know how to do that; because there simply isn’t any way to do that. All I can do is talk about what it was I found there, and what I found there wasn’t devastation. Instead there is…

I don’t want to finish that sentence. It sounds flat and inadequate to write it down, to try to measure it in Christian buzzwords. There was death and now there is this, and what this is is… unity. Resiliency. Hope. We use that last word so often, and it means nothing most of the times we say it. But not here.

You forget what hope, real hope, feels like until you feel it up close again. There is something palpable about hope. It fills a room.

We meet a young man named Emmanuel, whose life is a sad story entirely typical to this part of the world. His parents were killed during the genocide; his older brother abandoned him because it became too difficult to care for them both. He was, for all intents and purposes, left to die.

ZOE Ministries – the ministry we have come to work with – found him, years later. He was starving and sleeping out on the dusty paths that make up his rural village. They had him draw his dream out on a piece of paper, and he drew a picture of a bag full of food, with “50 Kg” inscribed on the outside.

The smile on his face as he leads us into a storeroom packed with hundred-kilogram bags is bigger than the room itself.

His older brother came back one day, destitute. He pleaded for money and – I was stunned to hear – received it. While I listened to Emmanuel speak about it, I had the distinct impression I was much more resentful towards his brother than he was, even though I knew nothing about him; not a face, not a name. But the younger brother seemed to have no room for bitterness in his life, as if his troubles weren’t a wound that nearly all men would choose to take to their grave.

The next day we meet Clementine, an orphan girl newly adopted into a ZOE group. She is tiny, wafer-thin, but seems smaller even than her diminutive size. She shrinks as we enter the room, until we fill the space and she is reduced to nothing at all.

She keeps her eyes averted, staring blankly at the wall. Her one-year-old daughter, Ellise, clings to her neck and stares at us curiously, while just off to the side, her 12-year-old sister Faith stands with her head respectfully lowered, listening as Clementine tells their story.

At 19, Clementine and her sister were working for a family and sleeping in their front room. The family’s 25-year-old son raped her, and when she became pregnant, the family forcibly removed her from the house. Some of the ZOE orphans found her a few months later, sleeping in a banana plantation and stealing food to survive. They brought her into their group and adopted her, teaching her how to find work and to learn to fend for herself.

She speaks in a mumbled monotone; and in my efforts to snap pictures surreptitiously, it is a long time before I notice the tears that are running freely down her face. Her eyes occasionally leave the blank space on the wall that she is staring at, but only to look down at the dirt in front of her. She chokes back sobs and struggles to breathe, but she keeps plowing her way through the story.

I am conscious, then, of how many of us are in this room, listening to this grueling story; we are packed in sardine-tight. Speaking to a group of strangers in conditions like this must be terrifying for this poor young woman.

We should leave, I think. We should cut this short. This is too much for this girl to handle. This is wrong of us; we don’t need to see her pain up close in order to know her story. But I am pulled up short but what she says next.

“She is very grateful that all of you have come so far to visit her,” Our translator, Jermaine, relays. “She has never had visitors before.”

Never? I think. That doesn't sound right.

It won’t be until that night that I learn the significance of this statement. Orphans in Rwanda are viewed as subhuman – more akin to dogs than neighbors. The fact that a group of Americans had traveled to her village just to visit her will raise her standing within the community exponentially. She will come to viewed as human, with actual value – an opinion that, from what I’m told, perhaps even Clementine herself does not currently hold.

Sharon, one of the women in our group, is sitting on a stool in front of Clementine, leaning in closer and closer as she speaks, hoping to catch her eye as she talks. “Can you tell her how proud we are of her?” she asks Jermaine, her eyes never leaving Clementine’s face. Jermaine relays the message, and a revolution seems to course through Clementine’s spine. Her shoulders move back from their slumped position, her head slides up. It is miraculous; she is a different person. She finally meets our eyes, just for a moment; and then her gaze drops back to her feet once more.

I wonder how many moments like that one it takes to make someone a whole person again.

When the genocide ended, the country set about rebuilding itself. It soon became clear that the current justice system wasn’t going to be able to handle the massive amount of trials – most of the judges had been murdered or fled, and there were only 50 lawyers left in the whole country. So the country set up the Gacaca trials, where defendants were paraded, lawyerless, out into the open for their day in court. Over a million people were tried in this fashion before the courts were finally closed.

There is a video in the genocide museum of one of these trials. An inmate stands in the courtyard of his prison, telling the story of his crimes to the panel sitting at a table there. He mumbles it dispassionately, as if it is something he memorized for school, giving the whole narrative a strange, almost disembodied feeling. It is as if he is describing a dream he once had, watching the action through his own eyes but never creating it.

I went into the house of my neighbor, Mihigo. I hit him with my machete, and he falls to the ground. He reaches up towards me, but I hit him again with my machete and he dies.

One of the men at the table interrupts him. “Speak up!” he says. “Face them!” His tone implies that he has heard all the inaudible confessions he can stand for one day. The man reluctantly turns around and faces the other direction. The camera cuts away, and the video now shows that the hill behind him is packed with people silently watching the proceedings. There are in lawn chairs, or perched on blankets, umbrellas shielding them from the sun. It looks like a cutaway at a cricket match, save for the grim look on the spectators’ faces.

The man continues, raising his voice but not his head.

I walk outside the house, and I see the other men have Mihigo’s wife, Akaliza. They hold her down in the street. I cry, and I say to them, “Stop! We must not do this! This is wrong!” But they kill her anyway.

The video abruptly fades to black, then starts over again, playing the same confession, a constant loop of muttered penitence. I wonder how many confessions they actually heard that day, how long the people sat there. Were they there for hours out of anger? Or to see justice done? Or were they there to hear just one story, for one last bit connection to someone lost?

I wonder what I would have done in their stead. Would I want the mumbled explanation? Would I want to see the face of the man who killed my family? I don’t think I would.

But I also don’t think I’d be able to help myself. As I watch the video again, I realize my face would have been on that hillside, too.

It’s an inauspicious way to start to rebuild a country – a public shaming, a release into the public while wearing a colored jumpsuit, a functional scarlet letter.

But they did rebuild, and in ways I never thought possible. The inmates returned to their towns and went to the families and friends of those that they had murdered, and somehow, those people forgave them. And they didn’t stop there; they welcomed these people in, they made them part of their lives again.

A man I met at our hotel told me about the villages he goes out to visit all across Rwanda, villages created by the families of the slaughtered, and the men who slaughtered them. He’d just returned from one where the two leaders of the town were a woman who had lost her whole family during the genocide, and the man who had killed them. How is it that even possible? Who has that much forgiveness inside them, anyway?

The orphans we worked with lost their parents in the tragedy, in numbers so staggering they defy all understanding. In a country of only five million people, a full million of those were cut down in just a hundred days – 800,000 of them with machetes. The streets literally ran red with blood.

When the killing was done, the men dropped the machetes in the fields and moved on. The orphans took the machetes from the fields and used them to chop wood, to fashion shelters, to harvest food. They rebuilt their lives out of the instruments of death that had destroyed it.

When we talk about how people live in other cultures, we often do so in demeaning terms. And so casually! The same phrases always pop up. These people who have nothing else shows up a lot. Grateful for so little. The word simple gets used in every possible context. We act as if we are jealous of them, envious of their existence, but we are not. We are emotional tourists, and we want to get in and we want to get out.

But more than that, we want to give ourselves a reason why we don’t measure up to these people. Our faith is lacking because of the culture we come from, not because of any deficiency on our end. We can’t help where we were born, who could?

We want to have our wealth, our health, our comfort, and still be better than these people. And deep down we know it.

Visiting places like this, we find that we are laid bare, and we are embarrassed of our nakedness. We say we want to keep some of that feeling with us, but we don’t. We want to leave and not feel this way again, unless we are glossing it on atop a bubble of self-righteousness.

I can’t claim that I’m any different. I can’t claim I’m even trying. I’ll go home and I’ll forget, because when I look in the mirror tomorrow, I won’t see any scars, I won’t have anything to remind me of what happened here.

I want to go home and raise an Ebenezer to what happened here, to mark the words above my doorway in stark uppercase letters. Never forget. Never again. But I won’t. We aren’t built to remember, we’re built to forget. We’re built to move on.

I wonder if Christ left the scars on his hands and feet and side because without them, we wouldn’t have any way to believe what happened before. The past is always the past, and it carries no weight in the present if we don't want it to.

The Rwandan people are smart to carve their dreams for the future into stone. I can only hope to scratch it lightly on the back of my mind, and hope it sticks. And so for the moment, the words sit there, emblazoned behind my eyes.

Never forget.

But I will.