Monday, July 23, 2012

July 22: the Genocide museum, dinner and profound speeches

Yesterday was a day I was looking forward to the least, the day of two genocide museum tours, but it ended up probably the most meaningful day for all of us with a wonderful, reflective supper at the end. It started with our smiling 12 year old "Big Dog" helping to swing our suitcases up into the truck for the journey back to Kigali. We feel conflicted about Big Dog- he is obviously a hanger-on looking to ingratiate the muzungus, and he's skipping school to do so, and the Covaga women don't trust him, but he's such a hard worker and he seems to want to succeed. Lama has taken him under wing like an adopted son, and it seems to be bringing out the best in Big Dog. We picked up  William and Rodgers and drove to Nyamata memorial site, where several thousand  Tutsi took shelter at the local church, packed in like a concentration camp box car, and the priest collaborated in giving them up to slaughter. The pews of the church were stacked high with an incredible number of ragged clothes of the victims - no pictures or bones, just empty clothes that that once  had people inside them. In the back yard of the church is a crypt where underground the are rows and rows of skulls, most of them machete-fractured, and stocks of femur bones that make you want to puke. We all emerged speechless from the experience, gave individual donations, and wrote short phrases in the memorial book like "never again" or "forgive but not forget". What I think we all felt was how incomprehensible this killing spree was given how peaceful And law-abiding Rwanda is now, only 18 years later. Nick said the peaceful forgiveness was fully evident 4 years ago.  How have they turned things around is nothing short of a miracle. We didn't talk a lot in the bus afterword, and got back to normal camaraderie at lunch in Kigali at a Toronto-based hamburger joint called Mr Chips. Most of us wanted a taste of North America after a week of carb-based meals in Gashora, and the cheeseburgers and fries were gobbled up. The vegetarians had a good feed of fish and chips.

Next we went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. It's a much more informative site, taking you through colonial history where the Belgians used the Divide and Conquer technique of giving leadership privileges to the Tutsi  minority based on racial profiling as a taller, lighter-skinned tribe, and cemented the differences with identity cards of Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa. Just before independence the Belgians guiltily pulled a switch and fired the Tutsi leaders and replaced them with Hutu leaders in preparation for majority-rule democracy. Lo and behold, just like in Sri Lanka and Uganda, the majority took revenge on the "collaborator" minorities. Picture and large print panels showed how the Tutsis survived pogroms from 1959 to 1990, with hundreds of thousands becoming refugees in Burundi (like Lama) and other neighboring countries. The info panels get more detailed from 1990-1994, showing how the Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front based in Uganda attacked into Rwanda trying to force the government to stop the pogroms and allow the refugees to return; the French government stopped the rebel army and there was a ceasefire, but Hutu extremists inflamed the population with hatred against Tutsi invaders. Despite sponsoring the Arusha peace negotiations and sending a small blue beret ed peacekeeping force, the UN ignored warnings that the Rwandan government was supporting Hutu extremists planning a much larger pogrom of genocide, not to create refugees like in the past, but an extermination. The museum uses video interviews with 5 or 6 genocide survivors taking us through how their neighbours turned on them and became brutal killers based on inflammatory radio propaganda. Videos also show how village justice courts got perpetrators to confess their crimes to their victims in public, and how difficult it was for victims to forgive them, but incredibly the victims all supported the idea of moving on through forgiveness. The museum doesn't overdo a guilt trip on the Hutu majority, it just relies on promoting compassion for the victims, and it also has 3  rooms showing other genocides in Europe (WW2 Germany, Armenia, and Bosnia) and Asia (Cambodia (1972-74) and America (Columbus Spaniards) to show that  African genocide is not unique. The museum ends with pictures of children victims in happy family photos, and gut-wrenching captions like " hacked to death " or "head smashed in"' etc. You then go outside to large-slab tombs where over 250,000 people are buried, with simple purple and white flower bouquets on top, purple for freedom and white for peace. There are also a few understated and tasteful gardens full of symbolism about past mistakes and future hopes. Very well designed and powerful. I was the last one back on the bus, but no one scowled at me for keeping them waiting - there was just silence again as we all took in the enormity of the tragedy.

We were glad to return to La Palisse to unload our bags and to get a shower. We dressed up for a special farewell dinner with Lama, Rodgers, and William, reserved for 7:30, but the bus arrived after 8:00 (Rwanda time). We ran into a Saturday night traffic jam going downtown and arrived at 8:30. Rodgers and William arrived a few minutes later - the restaurant is called Heaven. As soon as we ordered drinks, the manager announced we would get a special African dance performance by a children's group singing for donations for school uniforms (they are orphans). They had great costumes and a strong drummer, and we're a delight to watch. Corie noticed the manager seemed to have a Canadian accent, and sure enough  comes from Listowel, Ontario. He liked the beautiful backyard patio and has been training wait staff and the local woman chef through a temporary French chef, as he would like to return to Canada, but leaving a top performing restaurant in his wake.  The food is locally bought and all restaurant tables, mats, etc., and he showcases local artists. We enjoyed a great meal and used our own wine (corkage fee), but the highlight was after-dinner speeches led by Nick who thanked our 3 African hosts in Building Bridges with Rwanda for being excellent organizers so we all felt busy and useful in Covaga. Lama followed by thanking us for our dedication and he gave us a bit of personal history relating to the Genocide Museum, that his family was threatened in 1959 and became refugees in Burundi, and he was lucky enough to get a UN-sponsored education and spent 30 years in Canada (mostly Vancouver), but he longed to return home to put his Economic Development education to good practice, which he did in 2008, hearing that Rwanda was stable. His daughter thought he was crazy, but he feels he is doing successful work with young Rwandan interns and North American partners. You could feel the commitment in Lama's voice. (later when we returned Lama home to his modest house on a dirt road, we realize how much he is dedicated to his vision). Nick asked others for comments and Amy and Corie, our gregarious ladies, talked about the positive energy in Rwanda compared to other countries,  the genuine welcome by the Covaga ladies and the joy of the children. Maybe it was the wine but mostly the spirit of camaraderie - we all said heartfelt words in spontaneous turns. Lisa was amazed at the willingness to forgive in Rwanda, much more than her Irish ancestors have done. I praised the 3 African hosts for showing compassionate and intelligent role models for African men like Nelson Mandela has done. Rodgers shared his vision of helping educate Rwandan children and parents about balanced nutrition with the kitchen gardens, and William thanked us for our continued support.  Maria and Mike added words of praise for Rwanda's progress, and Gary said the past week has had the most profound memories of his life other than the birth of his child. Bennett said he loved the children, and Mali ended up blowing our minds with Spoken Word poetry that she recited flawlessly and emotionally about the evils of boy soldiery. She will share her poetry on a future blog. We had bittersweet goodbyes with Lama, Rodgers and William, but you could feel a real desire for a continuing partnership in the group.  We got back after midnight knowing we needed to get up early for our safari, but I think we all felt it was a memorable dinner.

John Rowell
DWC Participant
Rwanda, July 2012

No comments: