Monday, April 20, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
Often, “privilege” in our society is defined in terms of money or an exclusive social status that grants you access to VIP rooms, first class, and luxury accommodations. A few days ago however, my privilege was walking several miles through ankle deep mud in the middle of a moonless night in rural Rwanda.
After five months of living in the small town of Nyamata, Amir and I have established many close relationships with friends who have graciously offered us access to stories that are often difficult to hear. These are stories of brutality, loss, and immense suffering. But amidst the pain, there are often glimmers of reconciliation and hope.
On Easter, we were invited by a friend to an overnight commemoration ceremony in his hometown of Kibuye, where he (and several others I know well) watched their entire families brutally murdered with common tools such as machetes, axes, and hammers. Like most survivors we have met in Rwanda, he knows the people who killed his family personally.
As we trudged through the long muddy path up an enormous hill with no light to guide us, I felt a profound sense of privilege. These people had asked us to join them on a very personal journey and to share in their stories. This had particular significance to me as the only white person present.
As we reached the top of the hill, we joined many others who were sitting around an enormous fire and sharing stories in hushed and heavy tones. As the night progressed, these stories were shared more publicly through music, short films projected on a screen, and personal testimonies given by individuals using a microphone. At about 1:30 a.m., candles were passed around and a portion of the crowd gathered in a tight circle around the fire. These were survivors coming together to bear witness to each other’s grief. One by one, they went around the circle describing in as much detail as they could muster the gruesome horrors they witnessed and atrocities they themselves experienced. Nearly every story included seeing firsthand the deaths of family and close friends. After each recollection, the others responded with a stanza from a song whose main chorus proclaimed with striking simplicity: “Remember.”
Recalling these events seemed very important to the survivors. The phrases “never forget” and “never again” have been thrown around so much since the genocide that it feels like many have forgotten their true meanings, especially with the former. I had forgotten myself until that night. Obviously, understanding the past is crucial to understanding the present, and how to best move forward. But proclaiming these memories aloud also empowers and provides some level of healing to the survivors. In many cases, this is the only action they can pursue to ensure their loved ones did not die in vain and that their stories did not die with them. “Commemorate” means “to honor the memory of.” Proclaiming the truth about the circumstances of their deaths certainly honors their memory, and by having others listen, the survivors have more reason to hope that the same atrocities will not happen again.
In a way, I believe I witnessed an Easter miracle on Sunday night: a miracle of hope in the face of immense trauma and suffering, a miracle of remembrance, and a miracle of the power of bearing witness. I am posting a short film clip from this experience to give you a chance to share in that witness. I was invited to film this event because these people want their stories told. They want the rest of the world to hear their stories and stand with them in solidarity to face the struggles of moving forward together. Watching this clip will not be easy and it will not be for everyone. But after having this experience and refining my understanding of the purpose of commemoration, I absolutely must provide that opportunity.
This was the first Easter of my life not to be in a church. For the past four years, I have participated in a beautiful Easter vigil in which the liturgy coincided with the rising of the sun. The service began in darkness with readings about creation and the valley of dry bones, picking up momentum until the first shouts of “Alleluia” were proclaimed with the first shining rays of light.
This year, I had the immense privilege to witness a different vigil. However, the movement of the “liturgy” was the same. And as the sun peaked over the rolling hills of Kibuye, I knew my Rwandan friends had found a glimmer of the risen Christ in the same way as you and I do every day: through each other.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Once in Kibuye, Innocent stepped into a familiar leadership role. As he began coordinating crowd movements, Reynolds and I fell in line for a long procession to the Church through an unlit, muddied country road. We were fortunate enough to meet with a young journalist from The New Times named Yvonne, and her two sisters Kayihura and Claire. Yvonne welcomed me, walking hand-in-hand so not to fall into the mud, and explained what happened during the overnight vigil, while her sisters Kayihura and Claire translated testimonies and gave us their perspective this morning along the walk through one of Kibuye’s many hills. This ceremony was significant for them. Their family is from Kibuye. Their father, who is a friendly but visibly serious businessman, explained that this is his birthplace. As it turned out, he was one of the key speakers during the main event today. Kayihura pointed to the area between two hills where her father was raised and recalled visiting there years ago with siblings. She noted how her mother cried tears of joy after discovering that her children loved the place so much that they collected rocks for keepsake. There is no one to visit there now. It is abandoned. Family members have transitioned before their time, victims with others like Innocent’s family in the deadly showers of April. She said it is a place that you visit and upon which you may build, but only to build, not to live there, because you would be alone. This is the ultimate irony. When I look upon the majestic hills of Kibuye that overlook one of Africa’s most breathtaking lakes, all I can think is how incomparable is its beauty and how amazing it must be to live and wake to the scene each day. In her commentary, I’m reminded that home is more than the romantic place and the dream of freedom, but is the people who inhabit it. It is the people to whom we turn and for whom we make sacrifices in difficult times. Her family’s hill in Kibuye is now it’s own memorial, a place of somehow distant yet contemporary past. But still, the draw to the root brings these sisters, their father, Innocent, and many more home.
Freddy Mutanguha is another incredibly humble leader from Kibuye who has made many things possible for Reynolds and I in the past few weeks. When I first met him months ago, I did not realize the extent to which his influence reached within Rwanda until I photographed both his traditional and western weddings (in Rwanda, there are two). At the events, I quickly came to see that Freddy is a man well-regarded by many for his work and for his commitment to respectfully memorialize Rwanda’s history. Freddy’s story is well-known and may be found if one searches the internet. He was eighteen in 1994. He and his sister, Rogette, saw many things, including the death of their parents. They and Innocent are three youth survivors on their hill - serving now as a living testimony of the past and hope for regeneration. Freddy spoke during the events and was on hand as a national figurehead in genocide commemoration. He is a man with a light heart who invited us into his home weeks ago to break bread and to lend time, support, and an ear. To talk to him is to never assume that the man has traveled the world in a life commitment to peace and reconciliation and hosted dignitaries and leaders from near and far. To be in his presence has been a privilege.
A Night of Remembrance and the Fire Light
After reaching the Church where the events would be hosted, we found a group of community members from Kibuye around the fire. The log wood burned through the night as the community listened to a few short speeches, watched commemorative videos, and then came together in a circle as each individual offered respect and words of remembrance. Many times during the night, people said that they would not forget as if to forget was the worst offense. It makes me wonder whether the forgetfulness of those of us from the West for our own lineage and loss have performed such an offense. The singing in unison made....well, it made me think of how absolutely removed I was from the core of this pain. In hearing their voice I felt yet again that I could do nothing more than serve as a witness, in solidarity, to their healing and grievance. This private gathering amongst family and loved ones in that circle transitioned into a new scene where the impersonally formal process typical to Rwanda no longer existed. It was then amongst flames of hope that I realized how much stronger these people are than I currently am. Kayihura explained that the attendees in the circle were describing specific incidents of loss followed by collective redemption songs. The stories are real. There are neither cinematic editing nor exaggeration. The incidents and the people can speak for themselves. In fact, you can see one example for yourself if you please for Reynolds has done an effective job of bringing you the imagery.
What I can say is that in “bearing witness”, as Reynolds and I later came to reference this experience, I am now more than ever a firm believer in the necessity of communal healing processes. Beauty rests comfortably within unity. I see that people deserve an opportunity to reunite in the present, removed from the past physically, and to speak freely on those events. Each chant appeared like a breath of fresh air blown into an otherwise contaminated place. I see respect and dignity in honoring the past without a need to suppress it. The recognition in explicit detail seemed very much a way to return, to relive, and hopefully to leave the emotions in the fire. This experiences leaves me with a feeling that other peoples who have suffered significant loss (e.g., Cambodians, original peoples of the present-day Americas, Africans in the West and in Europe, members of the Jewish community, Azanians, Namibians, and Vietnamese) may find an effective example in Rwanda of a nation that is moving forward with an aim of incorporating healing into the equation for progress. This event was protected by the police, guarded by the military, and supported by members in all levels of society. It is not perfect, as most things aren’t, but it is at an attempt. There are many other examples where healing, remembrance, and forgiveness could not be mentioned in the same sentence.
The least of actions is greater than the noblest of intentions. Someone said that to me once, and this is a reminder of that.
Friday, April 10, 2009
In 2008, George Bush visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and was received by survivor and community leader, Freddy Mutanguha. After that experience he offered some atypical pearls of wisdom that are worthy of note in this time.
“In other words, don't come to the continent feeling guilty about anything. Come to the continent feeling confident that with some help, people can solve their problems."
Replace “help” with “solidarity” in the spirit of Samora Machel and ideology of Lila Watson. Then ,you have a powerful message that needs a bullhorn to reach the halls of governments near and far. The guilt of the past cannot guide the actions of the present. Rather, let it be the sincere quest for justice and equality that carries us into planned action.
Some in Rwanda express their views on the Sudanese struggles vocally and visually. A group of Rwandan artists collaborated in song last year to remind the world not to forsake Darfur. If the world is to speak truth and to join Rwanda, then sincere concern and attention must be given to Africa’s largest nations today.
Rwanda has opened the door into its close-knit family for the international community to share with it in national mourning. The overwhelming sound of silence that hit me upon entering Torero Café this afternoon reminded me that people, particularly those who were in Rwanda in 1994, take the mourning very seriously. The center city part of town still moves at a hurried pace, but outside of that world, Rwanda is on relative break with memorial tributes airing on the national television.
Perhaps these is also silence as this week is the most significant to many Christians culminating with today (Good Friday) and Sunday (Easter). For a largely Christian-influenced country, this could perhaps hold multiple meanings and ironic undertones. It is also worth noting as an aside that Islam is increasing within Rwanda as another way to practice faith and reverence to the Most High. It was the Muslim Rwandan community that in greater frequency refused to participate in the genocidal killings while the Catholic Church dawned two hats as a place of faith and misfortune in many cases. Easter in 1994 occurred on 3 April (1 May for the Orthodox), and the terror season quickly followed. It is interesting to witness the religious fervor of the general population even today, considering the dubious role of religious leaders in the past and the role that Christian missionaries have played in subduing the independence of the Rwandan peoples. When there is trauma, when there is strife, and when the world in which one lives resembles a hell, it is likely that one’s faith either becomes a cornerstone for survival or a frail and forgotten ideology. Genocide survivor, Immaculée Ilibagiza, noted in Left To Tell that her journey to escape death strengthened her relationship with God. Colleague and friend from the same community, Innocent Nizeyimana, similarly expresses that he is alive through the grace of God. Religion will repeatedly play into the discussion of this month, because it truly served and continues to serve a significant role within Rwandan society. In this season of the rising of Jesus according to liturgical calendars, I pray to the Most High simultaneously for the rising above hate-filled ash and bone to a Rwanda reborn with peace, true love, and discernment. Finally, I pray for a world where leaders will stop looking backward in apology for the misdeeds of those before and take responsibility in the present for the lives that we can preserve. Selah.
Higher than the memory bank bitterness
Sweet as the nectar of to live this...
In a time where vivid memories can haunt and weaken the spirit, let forgiveness reign and love serve as the guiding ember of action, especially for those who suffer from loss.
Click below for some special pieces
FORA - a Rwandan short commemorative film by
Mbahobere Bwa Nyuma - a YouTube video for victims of the genocide
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The leader and freedom fighter, President Paul Kagame, reminded the audience of thousands during these moments that the screams were indication of how real genocide is and that we must not only remember the events, but also that we must never forgot those who abandoned the Rwandan community in its deepest time of need. It is widely known that the the United Nations attempted to withdraw from its post in Rwanda in secret, leaving unarmed civilians to the hands of the Interahamwe. Kagame spoke firmly with a voice to soften the weight of his words. Cowardice and hypocrisy were the charges, easily substantiated with the facts of the time. However, Kagame was not to leave the audience on a down note.
As he continued his powerful speech, he instructed his community to push forward and to do that which is within each person’s ability to rebuild the nation of Rwanda. His advice is timely as Rwanda is in the midst of a large development burst sparked by consistent leadership within the country and by the diplomatic remorse of nations who want desperately to erase the guiltiness resting upon their conscience. Now more than ever is the time that Rwanda must heed the advice of the nation’s president when money flows inward and infrastructure is building.
In the evening, the country transitioned from the national ceremony in Nyanza to Amahoro (Peace) Stadium in the Remera sector of Kigali. The day long commemoration process concluded after President Kagame lit one of the ten thousand flames of hope in the middle of the stadium field. Volunteers and diplomats joined together to continue the lighting event.
(photos to follow upon upload...we are still in Rwanda)