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Forgiving Genocide in Rwanda

Rwanda Travel
by Meara Sharma Apr 6, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program

[Editor’s note: April 7, 2012 is the 18th annual commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.]

AT THE END OF A RUTTED RED-DIRT ROAD, which snakes along intensely green, cultivated hillsides past makeshift houses and produce stands piled high with plantains, sits the high hill where one of the worst acts during Rwanda’s genocide was committed.

From Murambi there is a sweeping view of Rwanda’s southern countryside. At its rounded top, a series of one-story rectangular buildings stand in neat rows. These were intended to be classrooms for the Murambi Technical School, a facility that was never completed.

Purple is the color of genocide commemoration.

Our bus pulled up in front of an enormous purple flag hanging from the exterior wall of the main building. Purple is the color of genocide commemoration. Throughout the countryside, flashes of purple peek out from behind banana and eucalyptus trees, marking the location of a mass grave, a small cemetery of victims, a killing site.

A young guide, sporting a bright red Rwanda Development Board polo shirt, welcomed our group and gave us a scripted yet impassioned briefing of what went on here, and what we were about to encounter.

Murambi is one of the numerous memorials to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which nearly one million Rwandan Tutsis were systematically slaughtered over a period of 100 days in an initiative perpetrated by the Hutu-led government. In late April of 1994, local authorities in the Murambi region sent thousands of Tutsis fleeing violence to the unfinished Murambi Technical School. They were promised safety and protection from the Interhamwe, the government-directed killing squads.

Forty thousand men, women, and children crammed into the classrooms, taking refuge in the school’s isolated location on one of the region’s highest hills. They waited for days with barely any food or water, expecting a saving grace from the authorities.

But the authorities had the refuge-seekers exactly where they wanted: sequestered, starved, and in a location where escape was nearly impossible. On April 21st, 1994, in under 12 hours, almost every Tutsi hiding in the school was massacred by the machete-wielding Hutu militia. French troops, part of the pro-government Operation Turquoise, watched the events unfold and took no action.

“In under 12 hours,” the guide repeated, “40,000 men, women, and children were killed with machetes.”

Afterward, the bodies were thrown into mass graves and the site was abandoned. A few years later, as genocide sites began transforming into genocide memorials, hundreds of these bodies were exhumed, preserved in lime, and placed back in the classrooms of the school as if untouched from the moment of death.

The guide motioned us toward the classrooms. “I have explained to you the horrific story of Murambi. But as you enter these rooms, the bodies will speak for themselves.”

The stench emanating from the shadowy interiors hit me instantly. We covered our mouths and noses with whatever loose clothing we could gather and walked from classroom to classroom, our faces emptied of blood.

Inside the concrete-walled, windowless rooms, the lime-encrusted corpses were artfully arranged.

Inside the concrete-walled, windowless rooms, the lime-encrusted corpses were artfully arranged. Piled on tables, spread on the floor, propped against the walls. Many of the bodies lay in expressive poses, arms outstretched in self-defense or hunched over in fear. Some of the skulls still had patches of hair remaining. One classroom was filled with women. Another, just infants. Shriveled, ghostly human forms, brought back to the rooms within which they huddled in fear and desperation in the days leading up to death. In the spare glow of light from the doorway, the rough, gray-green skeletons looked almost sculptural.

I made this visit to Murambi with a group of theatre artists, writers, and scholars: a few American artists, a human-rights theatre group from Afghanistan, a Mexican performer, an Argentine director, a Belarussian art collective, and a handful of Rwandese students and scholars. Our de-facto leader was Erik Ehn, a pensive, astute playwright whose meditative demeanor set the tone of our trip.

Erik has been traveling to Rwanda and writing plays about genocide for the last decade, and in recent years has invited fellow artists and students to participate in his own exploration of this country. Before returning to the capital, Kigali, to host a theatre festival, we would spend a few days in the countryside, attempting to sense the fragile state of post-genocide Rwanda.

We were drawn to this memorial site — and to other vestiges of the genocide — for reasons that were elusive, yet shared. To immerse ourselves in Rwanda’s devastating history, and wrap our minds around the conundrum of today. How, after Hutus listened to directions on the radio to kill their Tutsi neighbors and trusted friends, this population can live together again, in close proximity, as one Rwandan people. How they can share a town, a market, a field, a church pew.

At the end of the row of classrooms we curved around the building and stood silently on a wide swath of grass, finally able to inhale. Our guide pointed to a small plaque pressed into the ground. “This is where the French troops played volleyball as the Interhamwe were doing the killings.”

We looked away from each other and let our gazes rest on empty space. Before us, the sun-rimmed hills unfurled and glistened in the late afternoon light. The sound of schoolchildren singing floated up from the valley.

I noticed a feeble-looking Rwandese man with a large bump on his bald head walking slowly toward the group. “He is one of the survivors of Murambi,” whispered Vincente, a 28-year old Rwandese student in our group and a genocide orphan himself. “I’ve been here six times and he’s always here, wandering around the hill. He’s usually very drunk, but he looks ok today.”

We moved silently through the field and away from the classrooms, our visit drawing to a close. Just beside the entrance, two Rwandese teenagers and an older woman watched us file onto the bus, their faces expressionless and bodies absolutely still.

Our bus traveled deep into the southern Rwandan countryside, meandering past rice paddies and potato fields. With nightfall we arrived at a convent in the small village of Sovu, where we would be spending the night. During a simple dinner of rice, beans, and boiled plantains, Erik told us a bit about the convent which, like so many other Catholic houses of worship, was implicated in perpetrating the genocide.

The killing took place for days, and throughout, the nuns continued to pray.

In the candlelight of the austere dining room, we learned that this convent was initially a safe haven for thousands of Tutsis in the area. But when asked to assist the Interhamwe in exterminating the fugitive Tutsis, several of the nuns obliged. They provided gasoline with which to burn the Tutsis hiding in the barn and chapel, and pulled others out of various rooms in the convent and handed them directly to the killers. The killing took place for days, and throughout, the nuns continued to pray.

“How could these women of god justify this killing?” Erik asked in a low voice, anticipating our incomprehension. Much of his work deals with the psychology of perpetrators — how pious, hardworking, everyday individuals could bring themselves to take part in such horror. “They felt they were doing God’s work. Cleaning the earth of Tutsis was framed as cleaning the earth of sin. So killing was equivalent to praying.”

After the genocide, the place was abandoned. Years later, a group of nuns — many of whom resisted their superiors who helped perpetrate the genocide — returned, salvaged the convent from complete wreckage, and reopened it as a site for worshippers and visitors.

A few nuns stepped quietly out of the kitchen and cleared our plates, smiling at our murmurs of appreciation. For dessert, they brought out platters of freshly cut pineapple and pots of milky African tea. One nun, with deep lines etched into her forehead and weary, warm eyes, circled the table and poured the steaming tea into small clay cups, her footsteps barely making a sound.

* * *
Early the next morning we departed half-dreaming for the sleepy town of Butare, home of the National University of Rwanda, the country’s oldest and most prestigious university. We were meeting with an association of student genocide survivors. During the genocide, the high concentration of intellectuals and freethinking students made Butare particularly challenging for the Hutu militia to penetrate. To remedy that, hundreds of critics and outspoken leaders were slaughtered, and the town was taken over by genocidaires. It quickly became one the bloodiest sites of the 100 days.

The campus of the National University of Rwanda is a lively respite from the dusty, quiet streets of this once-thriving intellectual hub. As we passed through the university gates the scene was familiar: students spread out on lush green lawns, professors hurrying between well-preserved buildings, a flurry of activity at the sound of the bell.

Erneste, the head of the survivors group, greeted us cheerily upon arrival and led us to a nearby conference room filled with gleaming cherry-varnished office tables and plush leather chairs. We gathered around the tables and Erik began with our usual introduction. “We are artists. We come from around the world, and we are here to learn from the work you are doing, from the lives you are leading.”

Erneste was wiry and handsome, and smiled constantly as he talked. The survivors association, he explained, is not just a group that meets weekly to discuss the problems and experiences of individual members. The group organizes itself into a system of families, modeled after traditional family units. The families are formed at the beginning of each year, and stay constant for as long as possible, often three to four years.

As new students join the group, they are absorbed into preexisting families. Two older university students may be the parents, and their children might be younger university students and high-schoolers. A close friend could become an uncle. Another, a cousin. Families meet regularly in addition to association meetings, form intimate bonds, and mirror the roles biological family members might play. The parents advise, guide, discipline, and motivate the children, and the children provide a sense of purpose and pride for the parents.

“We’re trying to rebuild, in some small way, what we once had,” said Ernest, his musical voice lowered. “These families transform us. They’re what keep us alive. They aren’t pretend families — they are real.”

We circled around the room and heard a bit about each association member. Claudine, a fourth-year co-leader, was six years old in 1994. When the Interhamwe broke into her family’s house, she managed to flee. For three days, she and a couple of other kids hid in a nearby school and eluded the militia.

Claudine returned home to find the place in complete shambles and her mother, father, and three older brothers gone. She never saw them again, and still doesn’t know if or where they are buried. As she told her story, she spoke in a clear, confident voice, free of anger or vengefulness. “I have told this story many times,” she said. “It is part of who I am now. I can’t deny it.”

Francois, a stocky second-year with piercing eyes and long lashes, saw his father killed with a machete when he was four years old. The Interhamwe spared him because he was a small child, he said. “For a long time I did nothing but hate.” His voice was gruff, raw. “I hated myself for surviving. I was so angry with the world. But I couldn’t do anything. In order to live I had to move on. I only could do that when I found so many others here, with stories like mine.”

Francois practices meditation and yoga with some of his new family members, and prays every day. Recently, he returned to his village and was introduced to the man who killed his father. “We were civil. He asked me to forgive him, and I did.”

“But how…” blurted Casey, an enthusiastic and emotional first-year university student in our group. “How can you possibly forgive? After what you’ve seen? And lost? How can you possibly move on?” Fabian, also a first-year, responded measuredly. “We have no choice. We don’t forget. But in order to live our lives — to survive — we have to make peace within ourselves. Or we lose the only thing we truly have left. We lose ourselves.”

A million victims, a million perpetrators — that’s what they say.

Reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda is a law, enforced by the National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation. It is a law because, as Fabian made clear, Rwanda has no choice. A million victims, a million perpetrators — that’s what they say. Every single perpetrator can’t be kept in jail for life; every single perpetrator can’t be sentenced to death. In this tiny, densely populated country, everyone must share space. The students explained how, when prisoners are being released back into their villages, both sides receive extensive coaching on how to behave.

Villagers are taught to be respectful and polite, to steer clear of revenge, to allow the prisoners to become part of the community again. And prisoners are taught to be humble, to avoid confrontation, to expect others to be distrustful, and to ask for forgiveness. Genocide ideology, a blanket term for any kind of speech, writing, or behavior that could in some way incite tensions or lead to violence, is a crime. And it’s punished ruthlessly. Officially, through fines, imprisonment, expulsion from work, deportation. Unofficially, through mysterious disappearances and killings that don’t receive further investigation.

“We can behave in a certain way and talk in a certain way because it is necessary,” Fabian continued, “We know we have to do this if our country is to be whole again. But if we — each one of us — actually wants to be whole again, we need to work harder. We need to make a personal choice to reconcile, not just a political choice.”

Understanding the importance of reconciliation — for the sake of the nation, for lack of other options — is teachable. But what the survivors association might be striving toward — with its reimagined families, its emphasis on openness, its tenacious support structure — is how to transform a distanced, practical understanding of reconciliation into a personal decision.

To look within and find a way to quiet poisonous memories, to let go of crippling anger, to live freely. To arrive at some kind of internal peace. It’s a delicate distinction; it’s impossible to mandate. And as so many of these students describe their experiences with clarity, with clinical certainty — it seems as though they’re still making that crossing, floating somewhere in between.

As we drove out of Butare signs of town life faded quickly into dense forest and steep ridges. For hours, we swayed with the rhythm of hairpin turns and watched the lush, barely populated land stream past our windows.

When the trees finally opened up we made an abrupt stop, in front of an enormous iron gate and a line of security guards. Mpanga Prison loomed before us.

Though we had arranged and confirmed our appointment well in advance, the guards were skeptical. At our request to enter, they muttered in Kinyarwanda and shook their heads, smirking at one another. Eventually, the prison chief descended from within and sauntered through the gate. He was exceptionally tall and muscular, and his jet-black suit looked pristine in the blazing midday heat. Our motley, travel-weary group shirked under his militaristic stare.

After the guards muttered something to the chief in Kinyarwanda, Erik stepped forward and stated, in his measured way, “We are artists. We are here to talk to you, and to learn about what you do. We will not take photos. If anything we may write a strange play about what we see.” Looking slightly amused, the prison chief gestured for us to come in.

As we walked through the complex the chief gave us a brief, official description of Mpanga Prison. He had a resounding voice and spoke in short, authoritative phrases.

“The prison is well organized and highly functioning. 7,500 prisoners. Eight international criminals — men whose crimes have been elevated to international court status. 114 women. About 6,500 genocide-related prisoners. Families visit regularly. Prisoners can shorten their term through community service, and most do. They can also shorten their sentences by confessing. Many do. The environment is one of peace and respect. Disciplinary problems are rare, almost nonexistent.”

As the chief led us up the path, we heard a thunderous roar from within. The ground rumbled beneath us. A turbulent, chaotic sound. The sound of thousands of men, yelling. We crossed through a building and it grew more deafening. A collective howl. The sound of anarchy.

We came upon a fenced-in field. Thousands of male prisoners were gathered on bleachers watching a soccer game between Mpanga Prison and another prison in the region.

“It’s the final match in their prison league,” the chief explained. “It’s just about to finish, and we’re winning.” Every prisoner in the stands was dressed in the iconic Rwandan prison uniform: solid-colored scrubs in either bright orange or cotton-candy pink.

“You may notice their clothing,” the chief bellowed over a joyous, blaring eruption from the crowd. “They wear pink if their sentences are still negotiable. Orange, if they have been decided.”

We hadn’t expected to be allowed much access inside the prison. But the chief asked if wanted to see some of the different wings, and we mumbled “yes please,” already astonished by the spectacle of the soccer match. He guided us to the Special Wing, where the eight international criminals were housed.

Most of these men are from Sierra Leone and were leaders in the civil war of the 1990’s, employing child soldiers, cutting off the limbs of civilians, and performing other acts classified as crimes against humanity. At Mpanga, they each have individual, spacious bedrooms and bathrooms, and a shared common room with computers and a television. One prisoner invited us into his room. A Madonna poster hung over his bed; his desk was covered with books.

“I love to read. Especially the dictionary,” he told us. He was burly and soft-spoken; he looked like a friendly uncle. “Every day I learn five new words, and write five sentences for each word.”

Next, we passed through the women’s wing. Their accommodations were far less lavish; they were crowded into one large room filled with triple-decker beds. The room smelled dank and flies were buzzing around, but the brightly-colored, flamboyant patterns of the fabric on every bed gave the space a lightness. Most of the women were gathered on a large patio just outside their sleeping area, chatting, doing laundry, and weaving baskets. They weren’t in uniform; most were wearing traditional East African wrap skirts and t-shirts.

When we entered they smiled and laughed, seemingly thrilled by our visit, and bantered with the chief in friendly tones. In the middle of the bustle, one very old, frail woman sat alone on a flat stone, her bald head bowed. “What did she do?” Casey whispered from behind me.

The 6,500 genocide prisoners at Mpanga are housed in two boxy buildings with a shared, multi-tiered concrete courtyard. As we gathered outside the entrance, the prison chief unlocked the double doors and turned to us. “Please stay in a line. And please keep silent.”

Every single one of these men played some part in the genocide. They were close enough to swarm us, swallow us up.

He pushed open the doors and they slammed behind us as we entered the vast, walled-in space. Thousands of eyes fell heavily upon us. The chief raised his arm and parted the densely packed sea of men, all in pink or orange uniform. Their faces turned and followed us carefully as we treaded slowly, single file, through the crowd.

Some smiled at us, some waved. Others stayed perfectly expressionless. One winked at me. Another grunted as my arm brushed his. A few leaned their heads together and whispered. One man called out from the far back, and the chief replied, his voice soaring. Laughter rumbled through the crowd. Every single one of these men played some part in the genocide. They were close enough to swarm us, swallow us up. But they didn’t. They stood calmly and let us pass. And we emerged unscathed on the other side.

When we exited the courtyard, a prisoner in orange accompanied us out.

“His name is D’Israeli. I thought you’d like to talk to him,” said the prison chief. “Ask him whatever you’d like.” We froze, still shaking from the walk-through and unprepared for this.

Vincente broke the silence, and asked tentatively, first in Kinyarwanda and then in English.

“If you could tell us what your role was during the genocide…what your sentence is for?” D’Israeli stepped forward. He was short and heavyset, with soft features. He looked younger than he must be.

“I was a community leader during the genocide. I was responsible for hundreds of killings. This was my job. This was what I was supposed to do. If I didn’t complete my job, my superiors would have killed me. And I received a life sentence, but once I confessed my sentence was reduced to 25 years. I have already completed nine.”

Vincente continued to translate as more questions came in. D’Israeli shifted his weight back and forth and glanced in different directions, avoiding eye contact with anyone.

“What do you remember, about the genocide?”

“I remember doing the killings. I don’t remember every single person. But I remember some.”

“What led you to confess?”

“I prayed to God. I came to realize what I had done. I feel at peace now, because I have confessed, and because God has forgiven me.”

As he spoke, D’Israeli kept touching his hand to the back of his head, and then to the center of his chest. He seemed exhausted.

“What do you think about reconciliation? Do you think it is possible?”

“I believe in reconciliation. I believe in unity among Rwandans and in one Rwandan identity. I understand that the genocide was wrong. I do not want it to happen again.”

Vincente, who lost both of his parents during the genocide, made sure to be absolutely precise as he translated, continually asking D’Israeli to confirm what he had said before relaying it in English to the rest of us. Vincente showed no sign of rancor or fear in dealing with this man whose participation in the genocide had been significant and brutal.

After thanking D’Israeli and the chief for their openness, the group filed into a line to shake both men’s hands. As my palm made contact with D’Israeli’s I felt a jolt in my chest. I watched Vincente give him a firm handshake and, looking him straight in the eye, utter formal words of appreciation.

As we walked toward the bus, Erik turned to me. “What they did wasn’t going to be a crime if they had succeeded. They nearly did.”

I was shaken by D’Israeli’s confident declarations of peace and forgiveness that seemed to echo the words of the students in Butare. Somehow, if he had said that he was still an ardent Hutu, that he still believed Tutsis should be killed, that he wasn’t sorry — that would have been easier to stomach.

I wanted him to seem more like a killer, in order to grasp how he could have done such things. But I couldn’t find a trace of evil in his demeanor. He, like so many ordinary men, was likely promised a better future for his family, a way out of poverty, a new life, a changed society. He found himself in a situation where he was ordered to kill. And he listened.

And yet, his sincerity felt empty, sickeningly so. He said the right things, and he said them almost too well. At the beginning of our visit, the chief mentioned that the prisoners must take classes that help them understand their crimes, encourage confessions, and teach them to forgive themselves. I wonder if the classes that instruct prisoners how to behave when they’re reintegrating into the community also coach the prisoners on what to say about the genocide.

How to express remorse, how to champion reconciliation. As with forgiving, one might admit wrongdoing for political or personal reasons. Whether or not D’Israeli truly believes what he said, he knows how to say it. And saying it has shortened his sentence so that he might one day have a life again.

* * *
That evening, Vincente fell sick. While the rest of the group shared plates of grilled meat and sipped Primus, Rwanda’s most popular beer, Vincente was in the bathroom, vomiting. He claimed it was the Ugandan gin from the previous night, but I wondered otherwise. Though he was able to handle himself with dignity and calm in the presence of D’Israeli, perhaps this was his body’s turn to speak. Perhaps it was using its own force to purge itself of a day spent in such close proximity to men who were not unlike his parents’ killers.

Back in Kigali, weeks after the group had left, I met my friend Yvonne downtown for lunch. We decided to try a place we had both heard about, from friends and colleagues, who described it as cheap, tasty, and unassuming: the Kigali Central Prison.

At the grand brick arches of the main entrance, we walked shyly past the guards, unsure of where to go. A group of orange-uniformed prisoners carrying massive bundles of straw strode past us. “Dejeuner?” one of them asked, pointing toward a bunch of tables on the opposite site of the complex.

Beyond the tables was a typical Rwandan lunch buffet: rice, fried potatoes, boiled plantains, kidney beans, creamed spinach, and slices of avocado and raw tomato. We filled our plates and found a spot among the packed tables.

Huddled in one corner was a group of businesspeople dressed in crisp suits. A handful of motorcycle taxi drivers, identified by their official vests, were scattered among the crowd. Just outside the grouping of tables, two prisoners reclined against a stone wall, sipping sodas. A Rwandan mother and her three young children joined the buffet line. An expat sat alone with an open notebook. On a nearby bench, a prisoner was deep in conversation with a hunchbacked older woman.

Behind our tables, the old brick jail looked out onto a stunning valley where a wealthy Kigali suburb filled with newly built homes sprawled over green, rolling hills. At the screech of the afternoon bell, the prisoners at lunch immediately stopped what they were doing and stood up to clear their plates. A hush fell over the crowd. The diners looked up and turned their heads to follow the orange and pink-uniformed men across the lunch area. The prisoners, their faces hard and eyes lowered, took slow, deliberate steps as they walked away, back toward their own small cells. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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