24 September 2009

never again.

For a lot of people, Rwanda exists as the genocide and nothing more. In a way, that's true - it's impossible to be there without thinking about it. But the country shows an incredible recovery. Kigali feels virtually like a first-world capital - paved roads, shiny glass buildings, and some of the cleanest streets I've ever seen. (Perhaps the nationwide ban on plastic bags - in favor of paper - has something to do with that). After the genocide museum and memorials, the country's development seems that much more impressive. The museum is one of the most moving places I've ever seen - the final room is filled with enormous photographs of child victims, complete with information about their lives before the war. Things like their favorite toys or foods and personalities...and then how they died. The one that made me lose it was a little six year old boy who liked helping people, wanted to be a doctor, and who's last words were "UNAMIR will save us." He was hacked to death by a machete. How? Why?

In only fifteen years, the visible signs of a violent civil war have disappeared. But I don't believe the memory ever will. Eight hundred thousand people - ten percent of the population - gone forever. Walking down the street, you can't help but look at everyone and wonder "Where were you?" Did you watch your family slaughtered in front of you? Did a stroke of luck or the generosity of a stranger save you? Did you betray a neighbor? Or worse yet, did you hack your friends and neighbors to death? With every child over the age of fifteen, you can't stop yourself from imagining what they saw. I just finished reading Romeo Dallaire's (the Canadian general who headed the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda before and during the genocide) Shake Hands with the Devil (a book everyone should read) and I've never been so horrified by anything in my life. Rivers choked with bodies, rats the size of dogs, dogs that had to be shot because they'd developed a taste for human flesh and were no longer satisfied with carrion. Trying to remove a moving person from a pile of bodies only to discover that the maggots inside created the illusion of life. The mission didn't have pens and paper, let alone troops and supplies, yet they stayed, constantly urging the Security Council that they could stop the killings with 5,000 troops. The inaction of the world was shameful, and all the more so because it seems we've learned nothing.

But what struck me more was the incongruity of it all. Rwanda is one of the most naturally beautiful places I've ever seen. Lush green hills, rust red dirt - it's the Africa a child would paint. There's nothing impressively beautiful in the way the Grand Canyon or a flawless beach is gorgeous, but more of a calm tranquility that makes what happened even more unbelievable. More shocking is how much a part of life the genocide reminders still are. In one of the most densely populated countries in the world, where even steep hills are intensely cultivated, there's simply no room to move away. We visited a genocide memorial in a church outside of Kigali. You walk down a residential road to reach it, which is difficult enough, only to find that the gates face a school. Walking through the church, with the stifling odor of death and decay and pews piled with a nauseating volume of rags that were once someone's clothes, you can hear the shouts of children in the schoolyard. In the back are underground graves with piles of skulls and bones. They look the same at first, then you notice the smaller skulls or the gashes or the shattered eye sockets. A lone man silently leads you around the grounds and all you can think about is that he has to have a reason to be there. You don't want to ask in case it's guilt, but then what kind of person are you for hoping it's "only" to remain close to the memory of those he lost?

What happened in Rwanda needs to be remembered, but it's unfortunate that the reminders haunt those who can never forget instead of those who stood by and condoned the atrocities. That church belongs in Washington, DC, in Brussels, in Paris, in London, or on the grounds of the UN building, not in the backyards of the survivors. Never again.

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