Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hotel Rwanda and Saddam's Mass Graves

My dear friend from grad school, Sara Farley, works for the World Bank and is also a consultant for the African Development Bank, with whom she's on the continent right now doing assessments. She shared with me her experience at visiting Hotel Rwanda--a chilling account and to me, a vivid reminder of the Kurdish mass graves I saw in Northern Iraq. We had to observe the graves during the period they were uncovered to collect data for Saddam's trial. A horrid scene--two of the estimated twelve mass graves were exposed--one of men and the other of women and children. The men were shot by machine gun and then bulldozed into the grave while the women and children shot at close range right at the back of the head. It's difficult to explain the emotions surveying a scene like that and now Sara has had a similar experience. I've included the poem I wrote about my experience below Sara's account.

Thursday, February 9, 2007

A driver told me on Monday that all roads in Rwanda lead to only three places: up the mountain, around the mountain, or down the mountain. Yesterday my hilly journey took me down the mountain, down to the very lowest possible place.

For two days I have been under the watchful care of the Dean of the Agriculture University within the National University of Rwanda. Through his contacts, I had 25 different interviews. I saw fish firms and met acquculturists, talked to coffee farmers and met the heads of farmer cooperatives, and spoke with the Dean of the only Medical School here. I even attended a celebration for the School of Crop Science (where I had to give an impromptu speech about Rwanda’s future crop scientists “…And may your harvests be bountiful!” I must have sounded like a Pilgrim). I even met luminaries—the Ministers of course, but more importantly, the first ever Ms. National University (think Ms. America but more gracious, enrolled in the crop science Bachelors program, and without the swimsuit), and the Pride of Rwanda—a young girl (she couldn’t have been more than 20) who has developed a perfect sense of taste for coffee. She works as something called a cupper on the big new Quality Coffee Cooperative. She tastes over 150 cups of coffee a day to score them and determine which export markets are likely to buy individual coffee harvests based on the level of quality her talented taste buds assess.

The Dean insisted, however, that my visit to Rwanda wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t go to the genocide memorial outside of Butare. I had wanted the opportunity, so I happily agreed to the trip between field interviews. What I saw there yesterday is something I will never forget, no matter that I already wish it were possible.

High on a mountain outside of a small village called Murambi sits a technical and vocational school much like any of the same such schools that dot the countryside across Rwanda. 24 class rooms still stand clustered near a large dining hall within an easy walk of the village. In April 1994 as the genocide was reaching a fevered pitch, Murambi became the site of one of the worst single events of planned killing. The chaos in the surrounding area meant confusion for most people—where to go, who to trust, how to find safety in the night for children and mothers. Officials told villagers the technical school would be used as a dormitory until peace came. Instead, machetes, clubs studded with nails, axes, and guns met the babies, children, men and women—55,000 in total—at Murambi.

“You must be strong to see this,” the Dean warned. “But you’ve now seen the good in Rwanda this week. To know our country, you must know the bad. You must know this.”

We were met by a stoic Rwandan woman who met our car to lead us to a large pit. She explained this was the site of the septic tank for the school. With the help of the French government, it was unearthed and opened to provide a receptacle for “the needs of the soldiers.” 600 bodies were dumped inside of it the night of the attack on Murambi.

Next we walked toward the classrooms. The Dean warned that unlike the Genocide museum in Kigali, Murambi is much more “unsanitized.” Since the people that were killed were not buried under ground, the bodies did not decompose. To remember the tragedy, they have been left the bodies in the classrooms for people to see. I felt my breath shorten as I walked across the bright green grass in the glaring sun toward the first bank of six rooms.

Bodies? How many? What will they look like? Are they covered? Should I be here?

We walked through the open door of the first classroom. Three rows of six cots 12 inches off the ground lay in the room. On top of each cot 15 maybe 20 bodies lay side by side. Covered in a white powdery preservative, the bodies looked more skeletal with creased dove-white leather skins than corpses. I looked at the first room fighting to maintain some kind of mental divide between dead people and these white-washed prunes that I saw. One room. Two rooms. At the third room I felt the divide I’d tried to erect in my mind crumble as I heard a moan and a loud gasp. The sound came from my own mouth as an almost autonomic reflex when I panned the bodies to find a baby on the cot nearest to the door—the white substance his tiny body was caked in hadn’t permeated all of his hair. The black tight curls looked so healthy, so real, so undeniably human.

“You see there where the machete cut his head?” asked the Dean pointing to another child lying next to the one I was staring at.

In a single second I was in a room of 100 brutally murdered people. Crushed skulls from axe wounds, missing limbs, fingers and mouths frozen in the terrified moments when a mother reaches to shield her child, a father grips his wife’s hand as death comes…

The woman escorting us through the memorial wrapped her arms around me, hearing the sobs I couldn’t contain. I cried in her arms surrounded by her dead friends, her dead father, her dead children. “I am so sorry, I am so sorry, I am sorry…” the only words that I could utter.

We walked through all 24 rooms, each one an above-ground cemetery. With every room, any iota of faith in human beings as “evolved creatures” capable of morality or empathy dribbled away and down my cheeks. After room 24 the woman escorted me to a tiny latrine and shut the door. I didn’t know what to expect. Did she think I needed to use the bathroom? With the door closed, was it her turn to cry? Time to wipe the mascara off my face? Yes, that must be it.

She took a roll of toilet paper from the cement floor and wrapped a long piece of paper into a little bundle. She knelt to the ground in front of me and began to wash my feet that had become speckled in dirt from the walk through the memorial. In silence, I watched her cleaning me—me this person who did nothing to deserve her compassion for my sadness. No words were exchanged between this woman and me. She spoke in Rwandan to the Dean, he would translate for me. But as we walked out of the restroom, she took my hand in hers. Something in that gesture and the foot washing felt to be as profound a connection as any I’ve had with someone I’ve only just met--empathy and understanding in its purest form.

Out of the restroom an old man met us whose head was horribly disfigured. I learned he was one of only FOUR people to live through the massacre at Murambi that killed 55,000. He began to cry when he saw me and took my other hand. The three of us walked together to a long formal grave. Here the bodies that were too disfigured or decapitated were buried under the ground, four crosses atop a cement slab above them.

I learned that when the French soldiers “arrived” at the site of Murambi they were quick to act: they erected a tennis court above the septic tank that served as the largest of the mass graves and plunged a French flag in the ground. There is no active French embassy in Rwanda today as the Rwandan people are still waiting for any acknowledgement or apology for the role of the French in aiding and abetting those who perpetrated the genocide.

As we drove away from Murambi, down the mountain, little children dressed in the bright blue national school uniform ran after our car screaming, “Mazunga! Mazunga!” (i.e., “Whitey! Whitey!”). We were stopped at a police barricade in the road, the children excited for the opportunity to wave and smile. The police interrogated the driver—“Who is she? Why is she here? Is she French?” The driver assured them that I was not French but rather American, here on an African Development Bank mission. The policeman bid us through the check-point and wished me best of luck in my mission.

I wished him best of luck in his.

~Sara Farley
Hotel des Mille Collines Kigali (aka Hotel Rwanda)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

After the Afterthoughts…

The biggest impression I take with me as I fly high above the clouds over Rwanda en route to my next destination, Johannesburg, then on to Maputo, is an enduring hope in Rwanda. The creation of the Gacacas—the 10,000 local courts for the prosecution of Category 2 crimes committed during the genocide (i.e., meant to maim and accidentally killed, was forced to kill by a higher authority, assisted someone else in killing) and Category 3 crimes (facilitated racist crimes in preparation for genocide, such as taking property from Hutus)—the massive reforms in education designed to ensure every child has access to basic education and to ICT, and the sheer beauty and happiness observed in the people of Rwanda each validate my cause for hope. It is amazing to me the joie de vivre that lives in societies with incomes below $300 per person per year. Without shoes or regular meals, access to running water or electricity, people still smile, they hug, they laugh, they dance. Man, do they dance. Development in Rwanda is as much about preserving this happiness as it is about ameliorating disease, obliterating hunger, and promoting education.

I wrote in the Memorial Guest Book at Murambi—“Any society that can endure this [the genocide] and survive, can achieve anything.” After meeting the heads of government, universities, the private sector, research institutions and technical schools along with Rwandan entrepreneurs, farmers, physicists, doctors, fishermen, students, drivers, mothers, fathers and children, my optimism for this country only grows.

And here's my poem written November 2004 after seeing the Kurdish mass graves in Ninewa province, Iraq.

Al Hatra

I’m no artist.
I can’t use witty metaphors or paint poignant images of death.
I can only tell you of the smell that burned my nostrils,
Of the searing heat beating down on the already-beaten…
Baking their mangled remains.
I can tell you of the mother clutching her baby through the blanket,
Of the outlines of clothes and shoes once filled with little bodies and little feet,
Clothing adorned with bright colors, elaborate decoration
Impossible to mistake the traditional Kurdish designs…
so many layers as they took all of their possessions with them
the bags crammed with the necessities—
Food, spare clothing for their children.
It’s said they were told they were going for a picnic,
The shots to the back of the head told a different story.

I can tell you of the sickness in my stomach hours later,
The inability to wash myself clean,
To rid myself of this sight, that smell, the sin
I ran to the pool to dive into clean waters—
To Uday’s pool.
Ha, clean is not the word.
How strange to go from the worst of their destructions
To the best of their pleasures.
The extremes make me dizzy.

But who am I to see this?
I am not their loved ones,
I did not suffer their trials, their injustices, their deaths.
I can only shed a tear for them,
And beg God to help me understand,
That the innocent never suffer.
My sympathy goes to the accuser, the afflicter,
Whose self-inflicted punishment
is surely relentless.
The heat…so much more than
Baking sun.

“Shepherd, wash them clean.”

1 comment:

Mark said...

Janessa Gans:
With regards to your view of your "Blackwater Experience"

Your opinion, now from your safe haven in America is completely disgusting. What a waste of my tax money. Get a real job!