Monday, April 20, 2009

Kigali, Bukavu, Goma, Gisenyi, and Ruhengeri

We have been traveling a lot in a short amount of time recently, and collecting dozens of stories along the way.  This post will serve as a basic "journal entry" to keep you updated and highlight some of the important events along the way.

Return from Kibuye

After Kibuye, we had planned to visit a memorial called Bisesero where genocide victims successfully resisted the killings for days by gathering in large numbers on the top of a hill and hurling stones at attackers.  They succumbed to the violence when military forces from the government at the time reinforced the Interhamwe and launched a large-scale attack with sophisticated weapons.

However, we returned to Kigali instead because a friend had set up a meeting for us with someone who they said was interested in funding a film about a survivor in Butare (southern Rwanda).  That meeting was with Esther Mujawayo, who helped start an organization called Avega that offers a support network for victims of genocide.  She began the initiative in 1994 with several other women in her community who had lost husbands and family members to the genocide, and started by simply joining together and talking about their experiences.  She told us that there is no way she could have made it through the trauma without that support.  Now the organization has over 25,000 members and offers services in both physical and psychological support.

That night, we went to a film screening that included the Rwandan premier of "Shake Hands with the Devil," based on the book by Romeo Dallaire who was the Force Commander for UNAMIR, the UN's peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide.  This film was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who has also directed notable films such as the James Bond "Tomorrow Never Dies" and the poignant "And the Band Played On."  He introduced the film himself and I realized we had met him before when we were filming and photographing a play at a youth center and he had asked to use my monopod for his camera.  Good thing we were friendly to him that day!  After the film, we joined him for drinks and had very interesting conversations about American culture, international involvement and inaction in the genocide, and thoughts about filming a documentary in Rwanda today.  He is actually pursuing a similar project to "A Truth Untold" looking at reconciliation and the 15th commemoration.  The following day, he graciously agreed to do an interview in which he discussed some key topics to our film and an important perspective on the international community's role in commemoration and the owning of our actions.  We are hoping to post that interview to the site soon, along with other interviews mentioned in this post.

On to Congo

After interviewing Roger, we got on a bus to the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and spent the night in the Rwandan town of Cyangugu because the border closed before we arrived.  We were traveling to Bukavu, DRC to visit a friend I had met on a bus several months ago who will remain nameless for now to protect his privacy.  The following morning, he met us in Cyangugu and we made the short, but beautiful journey into DRC along the shores of Lake Kivu.  In Bukavu, we explored the city and spent time with my friend, his brother, and members of his family including a police chief, whose young son had never talked to a white person before.  We noticed many interesting things on our walk through the city, including the absurd amount of UN offices and vehicles, which seemed to be doing nothing at all except offering employment for foreign militaries.  We also got to experience firsthand the reverence given to the flag in a police state like DRC.  As we were walking through a busy section of town, we heard a whistle blow and time seemed to stand still.  Every engine stopped running, all conversation halted, and no one moved a muscle as they stared at the flag that was being pulled down the mast.  When it was removed, the whistle blew again and the hubbub continued immediately as if it had never stopped in the first place, almost as if someone were hitting pause and play on a remote control.

The most interesting part of this trip for me though was conversations we had over drinks the first night in town.  My friend's brother showed us scars on his shoulder and upper arm from a grenade that had been thrown into his secondary school by the Rwandan military.  He described the time in 1996 when Rwandan soldiers entered the country at the beginning of the First Congo War.  He and many other students at the time organized peaceful protests where they stood in the streets with signs to send a clear message that they did not want Rwandan military presence in their city.  The response was to surround his school several days later and throw grenades inside, injuring him and killing many of his friends.  These are the same soldiers who advanced into Rwanda to stop the genocide and take back the country, and soldiers of a government trying to fight genocide ideology and violence.  This is not necessarily a criticism of this government, only an acknowledgement that these are perspectives we don't often get when living in Rwanda.  Both brothers also described a horrific incident that happened that same year when the combined military forces of Mali, Chad, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC chased Interhamwe from refugee camps in the area into the forests.  The brothers described how the Interhamwe loaded their families on buses in a place called Tingi Tingi to appear as if they were taking them into hiding with them, then massacred them in a similar way as they had done with the Tutsis in 1994, only this time using guns and ammunition instead of machetes.  This story gave me chills and once again reminded me of the mystical nature of this place which manifests itself profoundly in both beauty and evil.

From Bukavu, we took an overnight boat to Goma across the entire length of Lake Kivu, sleeping on the deck in the open air.  On the way, we processed and discussed our journey and the stories we were hearing, all the while staring into the darkness of shoreline forests where we knew there were genocide perpetrators hiding and possibly even watching our boat cruise by.  When morning broke over Goma we met our friend Olivier, a Rwandan filmmaker and journalist who agreed to show us around Goma and his original hometown of Gisenyi where he had not returned for 13 years.  Olivier spent much of his childhood in Goma and explained how he never mentioned his Rwandan heritage for fear of violence and discrimination, explaining that when you are living in a country in this part of the world, you claim that nationality for that time.  Our first stop in Goma was a refugee camp called "Centre Chretienne du Lac Kivu" or CCLK.  There are 6,039 people living in self-constructed house structures in this camp, and yet they are not officially recognized by the United Nations, so they do not even receive the meager yet consistent rations provided by UNHCR.  We began our visit in a makeshift tent ironically constructed of sticks and UNHCR burlap bags that had been presumably scavenged from the little aid they do receive.  In this tent, we met and talked with the president and several other members of the camp's governing council.  Everyone who spoke was adamant about our obligation to tell the story to the outside world and pleaded to send our footage, images, and stories to CNN, BBC, and any other large media outlet who may listen.  We proceeded to tour the camp and were invited inside one of the dwellings, whose two chambers were no bigger than the tent I used to take camping as child, yet housed five people consistently and included an area for cooking.  The word used most often by those we met was "nightmare" and I got a sense of desperation in highlighting the incredible challenges they were facing in the remote hope that someone would actually come and help them improve their lives.  In the midst of all this, I found resilience in the incredible stories of raising multiple children in this environment and to continue living against all odds.  But ultimately, I left feeling completely powerless as I contemplated what it would take to mobilize significant action on this issue, especially considering all the other work we are doing for this project and the general political disinterest, especially given the current financial crisis.  For now, all I can do is tell the story and hope it reaches the right people.  I plan to post videos from this experience as soon as I have a few hours to gather the footage and the internet access to upload it.  Keeping up with the media component of this trip and providing timely updates is a near impossible challenge with the resources we have available, but we hope to continue developing this site for months to come as a historical document.

After CCLK, we toured a facility run by "Heal Africa," whose name bothers me with its generality and presumption, but whose services are important and much needed in this area.  Their primary focus is finding rape victims, treating them, and helping them on the road to recovery and healing.  Last year, they treated nearly 14,000 patients including a small number of those otherwise injured in war-related activities.  Amir received an annual report of their activities, so hopefully we can do a more in-depth post on their work soon.

Back to Rwanda

After taking in all of this in one morning, we crossed back into Rwanda to Gisenyi, where we checked into a low-end guesthouse and departed for the genocide memorial.  We were greeeted at the memorial by Innocent Mabamda, who is the president of IBUKA for the Gisenyi sector and the vice-president for the Rubavu district.  Innocent had left a memorial service for a Hutu who was killed for harboring Tutsis during the genocide to come see us and show us the site.  Gisenyi's memorial site is in a field that is bordered on one side by beautiful towering hills, and another side that leads down to the shores of Lake Kivu.  The wall that surrounds the graves was funded and built by the survivors themselves in an order to preserve the memories of what happened 15 years ago.  Innocent explained how the Interhamwe had come in several stages to conduct killings and reminded me how terrifying and confusing that situation must have been for those who chose to stay.  In the end, Innocent decided to flee across the border to DRC, leaving much of his family behind.  His story is a common one in this area and the complete version will be posted to the website soon.  Following the tour, we joined him and his wife in their house for some drinks and continued our conversation about each other's home country and culture.

"If someone asks you for forgiveness, you too become free"

The following day, we took motos in the rain to a site at Nyundo, where many people were killed in a church and the surrounding area.  Our guides Rose Mukagesagera, Nyirarukundo Annvalite, and Kiwazerifuko Emmanuel explained that many seminary students were killed in these massacres, and that several priests were involved in the killings.  One particular priest participated in these murders, then moved on to assist in the bulldozing of a church on top of 3,000 victims who had taken shelter there.  Another priest moved to Italy shortly after committing these atrocities and is presumably practicing his order there to this day.  He is one of many genocide perpetrators living in multiple countries around the world, several of which knowingly house these murderers such as Agathe Habyarimana in France.  But that's a different story.

Two of our guides, Rose and Emmanuel, had been married before the genocide and were both able to escape and find each other later in the hills surrounding Nyundo.  As with many survivors, I sensed a purpose to every word they spoke and a subtle acknowledgement from them that they believe they survived for a reason.  For now, that reason is to continue to tell the story of what happened, to give that gift of remembrance to those who lost their lives.  When asked about forgiving her perpetrators, Rose responded simply: "If someone asks for forgiveness, you too become free."


From Gisenyi, we headed to Ruhengeri where we were joined by a Rwandan lawyer who works with IBUKA in Rubavu District and Nyabihu Sector to pursue justice and encourage reconciliation, often in the form of Gacaca community courts in which the community itself tries the offenders.  We began our tour of the Ruhengeri memorial site by visiting a courthouse where victims gathered for protection before they were killed in large numbers.  At the burial site, a woman survivor told the story of the area and explained that people choose to forgive the killers of their families for several reasons.  First and foremost, she explained that the government encouraged forgiveness, so it had become a sort of civil responsibility.  She also explained that revenge will not bring anyone back, and that often, survivors have no other choice but to forgive.  In our interview with the lawyer, he stated that these things are true, but that no one can forgive someone who has not asked for it in the first place.  One problem Rwandans face is that many of the killers still feel no remorse and do not want to be forgiven because they continue to harbor the ideology that led to the massacre in the first place.  However, he was hopeful and quick to point out the progress that has already been made, and the unique and powerful examples of reconciliation that we have been privileged to see with our own eyes over the past few weeks.

And Beyond

Tomorrow, we head to Cyangugu accompanied by a Rwandan friend who adamantly insists we join him to get as many compelling and diverse stories as possible.  More to come on that soon...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Privilege and Bearing Witness

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

To the Hills of Kibuye...

Yesterday, Innocent invited us to Kibuye, where an overnight vigil and a Monday service would take place in commemoration of the events and loss fifteen years ago. Along the way, I could not help but think about how humble Innocent is given all that he has seen, experienced, and overcome to date. In school and among peers he is often called “Socrate” in reference to his philosophical influence like Socrates. He is a man of God and a believer in the powers of faith, and it makes complete sense when you come to learn that Innocent lost his parents and his brothers in Kibuye. Months ago, he mentioned that on his return to Kibuye for Christmas that people looked at him and friend/brother, Freddy Mutanguha, with eyes of disbelief. How could these two have survived what was a moment of complete chaos in Kibuye? Innocent attributes it to God, having stated on more than one occasion that he is blessed. If there is anything that transforms one into a deep-thinking philosopher among men, it is surely life-changing events and loss. I gain strength and wisdom from Innocent. His professional discipline shows me that if an individual wishes to excel, there is nothing that can serve to hinder when there is focus and determination. His presence and his perspective humbles me and calls me to question my own criticism of the world and to find a way to move forward with positive thinking in spite of man’s unceasing attempt to destroy one another. I state man, because typically it is the males who have waged the wars, recruited the children, and changed the laws, but I digress. Innocent has his own story that I hesitate to tell in detail for fear that it would neither due it justice nor bring the authenticity that is necessary. For now, let it suffice to say that you look upon a man who lives because he has purpose and deserves a broader venue to tell his story, especially to the youth of the world.

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

Never Again: A Chant for Redemption

While Rwandans and Africans from neighboring nations in East Africa sing in remembrance of the genocide, the world listens to the chant “never, never...never again”. However, as we hear the words, I wonder if they are falling upon deaf ears. We have another series of serious situations plaguing the international community with whispers of hypocrisy if we attempt to join Rwanda in their chant. A review of the actions that external forces played between April and July 1994 in Rwanda requires us to consider whether history is repeating itself in Sudan, in Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Middle East (Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan). Rwandans are among many who pay close attention to the events that are occurring in the region, and lend a hand of solidarity to those suffering in Sudan. As an example, President Paul Kagame continued to demonstrate African leadership through action as the first to send military support into Sudan. While the African Union and the United Nations maneuver politically in efforts to appropriately address occurrences in Darfur, many in Sudan continue to suffer from persecution, greed, and scarcity of vital resources. Paper shuffling and red tape will leave us looking back in 2014 saying, “Ok, really, never again” in a commemoration for Sudanese likely featuring representatives from China, Qatar, Egypt, Israel, Canada, and the United States. As the “never again” chant continues, let us remember that the events in Rwanda were not inevitable and that the value of one human life is equal regardless of ethnicity, of creed, or of social status.

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.

Reconciliation, love and forgiveness
Higher than the memory bank bitterness
Sweet as the nectar of to live this...
(Vaughn Benjamin)

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
- a Rwandan short commemorative film by
Mbahobere Bwa Nyuma
- a YouTube video for victims of the genocide

A Time for Reflection

In this clip, Amir and I discuss our reasons for doing the film and reflect on a number of themes including:

How much are we obligated to own our country's involvement in the genocide, especially given how young we were in 1994?  Why are some of our Rwandan friends choosing to leave the country for the commemoration events?  What is the significance of Holy Week coinciding with the week of mourning and commemoration?  How do we approach the complexities of the church's involvement in the genocide and its continued role in wider Rwandan society?

And finally, how can we look to Rwanda for strength as we face our own challenges in the current financial crisis and how are the two situations related and different?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Painful Dualities

Yesterday, Amir and I donned the press badges we received from the Ministry of Information and Culture, and got up at 5 a.m. to catch the media bus to Nyanza.

Nyanza is the site where over 5,000 people were killed in the genocide after the UN soldiers offering protection abandoned them at a school several kilometers away, leaving them to the mercy of Interhamwe militiamen who were standing around with machetes, just waiting for the peacekeepers to leave.  At the time, Nyanza was a garbage site.  As James, the media coordinator for the event told us on the bus over, "the Tutsis...their value was worth garbage."  Yesterday morning, Nyanza was the site for the opening commemoration ceremonies.

As we arrived and were sending our equipment through the security check, I tried to film one of the workers putting a box of baseball caps through the machine because I found it odd to make t-shirts and souvenir hats for a genocide commemoration.  I felt like a true journalist when an angry security official demanded I stop filming and I continued shooting from the hip anyway.

The site was packed with giant white tents and chairs for many thousands.  Most things were draped in purple, the color for the commemoration.  As we waited for President Kagame to arrive, I filmed other important figures such as Rose Kabuye (the senior official who was arrested in Germany according to a warrant issued by France) and Freddy Mutanguha, the head of the National Memorial Center who helped us get our press badges and our signed letters of permission from the Ministry.  I also met and chatted with correspondents from BBC, Al Jazeera, AP, and other sources from Japan, France, and around the world.

Kagame was somber as he entered and stood beside his wife.  After laying a wreath on the mass grave and lighting the "candle of hope," the president took his seat and spent most of the ceremony leading up to his speech jotting notes on a piece of paper, presumably about what he was experiencing that could be referenced and addressed.

His speech focused primarily on moving forward while remembering the past.  He talked at length about guilt and the international community's failure to fulfill their stated commitment to protecting innocent people, as well as the current lack of political will to bring perpetrators to justice.  

At this event, I began to understand the complexity of Rwanda's remembrance and commemoration.  The genocide became real to me for the first time during this ceremony...not because of the official pomp and circumstance or the sad-faced children choirs who performed, although they were touching.  Not even because I was within reaching distance of President Kagame and filmed a speech that I have now read about in three different international media sources.  For me, the genocide became real in the haunting screams that erupted from the audience every few minutes.

There was a horrible and unsettling contrast between the formality and sterility of the event with its politicians and sweeping purple banners, and the raw suffering of many who were attending.  All of a sudden, a scream would pierce the air and a section of the audience would scramble to help the person to an aisle where others would escort them to an area we could not see.  After a few minutes, Amir took the camera to follow the commotion and I remained to cover the official events before deciding to join him.  The scene that met us was disturbing.  Dozens of people were laid out on the ground and many more were being restrained by friends as they tried to defend themselves from attackers no one else could see.  The Red Cross had set up several large tents where people were being treated and water was being distributed to revive those who had lost consciousness.

As I made my way back to the official ceremony, a woman was passing us walking normally, then I saw something change in her eyes and she suddenly leapt into the audience, shrieking and grasping at something that was not there.  Back at the media pit, I filmed a children's choir perform a slow poetic song wearing spotless white dresses with matching purple sashes.

The two video clips below are meant to show this painful duality.  The first is a montage of the ceremony set to music from the children choir's performance.  The second is the scene that met us at the Red Cross tent, uncut and unedited.  While I know it will be very difficult, I encourage you to watch all of both clips.  Sometimes the best thing we can do for those who suffer is to be a witness.

Finally, I want to make something very clear.  This is not a judgment on the way the ceremony was conducted or the way Rwanda has chosen to remember its past.  I have no place and no interest in criticizing the way anyone deals with remembrance of difficult events, especially when I have no personal connection to them.  I simply think it is important to see both sides and to present the images, sounds, and stories that will most likely be left out of the "official" recollection of this event. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kagame Gives Reality Check in Nyanza

Today, the entire country of Rwanda mourns the loss of approximately 1,000,000 of its own from the 1994 genocide of the BaTutsi. In Nyanza Genocidal Memorial, just minutes outside of Kigali, President Paul Kagame addresses the nation and the world in what is a speech to remember.

Shortly after an elder from the Rwandan community gave personal testimonies from the events that happened fifteen years ago to the day, many individuals from the audience became overwhelmed with vivid recollections of the events. In fact, the Red Cross was prepared for the event of emotional post-traumatic stress related-outbursts. I am here and have seen with my own eyes men and women who in minutes were no longer at a genocide commemoration, but in the middle of the actual events. It was noticeable, because of the screams. The screams are as close as one will ever want to come to the events that occurred fifteen years ago.

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)