Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dispatch from Rwanda

Those interested in what's going on these days in Rwanda, less than 15 years after the genocide, should read two things. First is Stephen Kinzer's excellent NYRB essay, "Big Gamble in Rwanda" about a few recent books on Rwanda, as well as his take on contemporary Rwandan politics. Kinzer has generally pretty positive things to say about Paul Kagame, though he acknowledges the voices of critics who say he is no more than an authoritarian strongman with particularly good PR skills.

But more compelling is an email I recently received from my friend Lindsay, who has been working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This email is so stunning that I felt B&B readers should experience it in its (long) entirety.

"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story, you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue." - Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

An hour south of Kigali, the town of Nyamata is crumbling but colorful, a wide rectangle of silt lined with sundry boutiques painted in teal, bubblegum, and tangerine. The former Catholic church is an unassuming brick structure tucked several minutes walk off the main road. I heard it had been left as a memorial to the thousands massacred there in 1994, so I stopped by, not knowing what to expect. At first glance, it looked closed, but the metal gate swung inwards when I pushed it. A middle-aged Tutsi woman who introduced herself as Celephine was slumped in a chair near the door. She spoke almost no French, but I found a local kid to ask her in Kinyarwanda if it was possible to visit the church. She led me into the sanctuary, a modest room with worn wooden benches and a concrete floor. The ceiling twinkled with constellations of light as though decorated with strands of white Christmas bulbs. Bullet holes. To the left, an open closet contained a dune of decaying rags, the clothes of the dead raked into a pile after the body parts were removed. Past wreaths of desiccated flowers wrapped in garish cellophane was the altar, draped in a cloth that must once have been white. Now it is stained mahogany with the overlapping shorelines of puddles of wicked-up blood. The cement cabinet for the Eucharist wafers is scalloped by grenades, the roof discolored by smears of brain matter. Celephine narrated in gestures and sounds, acting out how the Interahamwe slashed children to pieces with machetes as though reaping grain, imitating the pow-pum-pow of clubs against soft tissue and the thud of babies' bodies hurled against walls.

After she finished, I started towards the door, but she stopped me and motioned towards a set of stairs that led to the basement. I followed her down into the pitch blackness, and she clicked on a hand-crank flashlight. Huge tray shelves… one filled with coconuts and another with enough stacked kindling to last several harsh winters? My eyes adjusted slowly. One shelf contained skulls, hundreds, split by machetes, riddled with bullets, caved in by clubs. The littlest must have come from toddlers. The other held a pile of bones: femurs and clavicles, ulnas and radii, tibias and fibias. I stared aghast.

When we ascended the stairs, I leaned against the wall and then recoiled in horror: it was splattered in blood. Celephine grabbed my hand and led me outdoors. Around back, a pavilion was adorned with strings of faded plastic flags of the sort that might decorate a county fair. We descended one of several staircases. In multiple underground chambers, crypts overflowed with jumbled bones and shelves were packed with neat arrays of skulls: kilopixels of human heads. From below, I gazed at the craggy coral topologies of countless jaws, from above at the smooth seams of fused cranial bones. There were thousands upon thousands, lying exposed on shelves in a mildewy dark dugout at an unprotected rural church. Rough-hewn box caskets shelved floor to ceiling, probably 20 ft high, in several rooms contained the minority of corpses found intact rather than in pieces. Celephine turned to me. "Quinze," she said. I didn't understand. 15 what? To my horror, she pulled out one of the coffins and lifted the lid. I peered inside and understood. There were 15 bodies to each casket.

I left the church half-drugged by what I had seen. It was raining. I felt like shit but wished I felt even worse.

The town of Nyamata, where 38,644 were murdered – nearly 15 World Trade Centers in a single village in a matter of days - is not particularly extraordinary. There are Nyamatas all over Rwanda. To this day, some village churches contain hundreds of cadavers sprawled on the floor still clothed in what they were wearing at the time of their murders.

I had planned to find a motorcycle to leave Nyamata straight away, but I didn't: my business there seemed unfinished. I had, I realized, left the church appalled but none the wiser. The bones made the genocide undeniable in its factual basis but no more believable in terms of the human capacity to comprehend and conjure – a mental state that a theologian, writing about the Holocaust, aptly called "the twilight between knowing and not knowing"- a purgatory of informed ignorance and suspended knowledge.

I thought of Tim O'Brien: if he is right, there is no sense at all to be found in places like Nyamata. Human killing is not like the Iliad. There aren't unvarnished heroes, epic struggles, easy morals. Yet to come to Rwanda is to make a conscious choice to grapple – to struggle to fit together a couple pieces in a jigsaw puzzle with as many parts as the stars, succeed marginally or not at all, and prepare yourself for the possibility that you may come away thinking that the whole notion of understanding is a naïve delusion.

So I stayed. I cheered with a crowd of villagers on the sidelines of the girls soccer match, wandered through the market, and met a few teenage boys whom I bought orange sodas. We hung out at a restaurant named after the war crimes courts (ah, only in Rwanda…) and talked about school, unemployment, and the relative merits of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers. Yves, who had graduated high school and was hoping to study science at university, showed me around town while the others went home for their basketball sneakers. As a kid during the genocide, he spent several months starving in the woods near Nyamata. His mother survived by hiding with relatives, and his father was killed by the French. He told me that the community now used an old mission station as the Catholic church. We arrived at the courts and started shooting lay-ups. Although we played ball for only a half hour before I had to leave for Kigali, I felt strangely better afterwards.

In Rwanda the raw horror may be senseless, but the struggle to move on, to deal with the past in order to live the future, is not. I have to believe that there is something that can be learned from kids like Yves who lived through the genocide, acknowledge it freely, and still invite you to basketball on a Saturday afternoon; from a town that annually reburies more unearthed remains yet still turns out in force for the girls soccer match; from people who lost their entire families but will stop to greet and chat with strangers on the street. Although the church must be the starting point, any meaning in Nyamata lies in its present, not its past.

Epilogue: A dust storm enveloped us on the way back to Kigali, which seemed fitting, as though the weather mirrored the turbulence in my mind. It was almost possible to come away from Nyamata with some sense of hope, but for… something. It took me an hour to figure out the source of that irking lack of resolution, but I finally put a word to it: Darfur.

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