We pulled up (Kelly, Carola and myself), like we did to most places in Rwanda. Twist after twist, went the land of a thousand and one hills. Along the way, one saw faces, cows, some hacking of weeds (which kind of sent shivers down your spine when you thought about it), someone sitting underneath a tree and then, without warning, the jungle parted and then you are shot out into a clearing. Before us lay a flat area but, as always, we are surrounded by about 40-50 hills of different heights, inclines and distances, dotted with little huts and revealing different agricultural plots.
Getting out of the car and walking up to the first building, we saw something akin to afro-industrial housing: scrap metal ceilings, brick walls, old wooden doors with new metal locks. Except for the first building (the one we were approaching), all were lined up in 3 rows of 4 buildings – grouped in a square plot, with a few scattered buildings at the periphery.
Our guide told us that was a memorial here honoring those killed by genocide in 1994. This was why we were there and, after reading hundreds of testimonies, journal articles and books, I eagerly approached; to see, to feel, to record, to begin to understand. After walking closer, I saw a [plaque]: on this site, 11,000 people were killed (on April 11th). The magnitude of the killing was on the larger side of what took place during the 100 days associated with the genocide and interstate/civil war (subject of another post perhaps). That such a peaceful place could be associated with the murder of so many people however seemed unbelievable.
At the plaque, we were approached by a man. Dressed in a brown long sleeve shirt, grayish pants and no shoes, he limped toward us, his body significantly contorting with the left step. To keep his balance, his right arm shot out at an angle – never quite in the same place. What came to mind was one of the zombies, the undead, you see in old horror films: slow, misshapen, edging forward by sheer force of will. Unlike the movies, however, this character was very much alive.
As the man came closer, our guide greeted him and then we were introduced one at a time (his name was Innocent – a common Rwandan name). Innocent was very soft spoken and thus you had to lean in to hear him. Although he spoke Kinyarwandan with almost no English, he talked directly to us, prompting me to pay attention like I understood what was being said.
Innocent’s most noticeable feature, after the soulful eyes and a radiant, if haphazard, smile was the scar that moved from the top of his head around to the top of his throat. Seeing it, you just jumped back inside thinking, “wow, his head was almost chopped off.” We were told that Innocent was one of the people who survived the killing here, left for dead. He stayed in this place to show others what had happened. He stayed because he had no other place to go. After a second (waiting for the translation to be completed), he looked at us – one at a time, turned and walked to the first building next to where we were standing.
We followed, unsure. Our guide said he would wait for us by the entrance. “There would be no words,” he said. The three of us just looked at each other wondering if he had misspoken, if we misheard or he was perfectly describing what we were about to experience.
Innocent moved quickly, opening the door to the first building. As he turned the lock, he motioned for us to go in and he moved on to the other buildings. There is just nothing that describes the contents of the room. Standing there, your senses were just overwhelmed. There were rows of petrified white bodies (skeletons covered with lie), caught in what appears to be their last position in life, now death. It was like the pictures I had seen of the victims of Pompeii but you knew that this was recent and that unlike Pompeii the earth here did not convulse and destroy the beings that lay before us. Rather, it was other humans that did this, some of whom were still in the vicinity. The positions of the bodies varied. Some were covering their heads. Some were gasping (jaws open). Most were completed bare but some still had little patches of black hair attached to their skulls. All were curled up in some way – into themselves and some into each other as if embracing. It was a sea of death contained in a room no larger than 10 by 10.
Gazing at fingers, arms, heads, hips and feet, I became lost trying to ascertain where one body began and where the others ended. After a while, I no longer tried. Later still, I remembered to breathe and at the inhale, the stench of the lye flooded my mouth, lungs and soul. Set to vomit, I had to return my eyes away, looking upward. There, serving as the back wall and affixed somehow to the ceiling and the side walls, I saw a UN light-blue tarp. As the tarp blew upward with the breeze, the bodies just sat there, unprotected, open (telling in so many ways). At this moment, I also realized how many more rooms there were and that I had not even moved from my first step, into the first room. Innocent could be seen busily moving from door to door – opening everything.
After what felt like hours of this, we all walked back to the car not nearly as spryly as we had arrived, not nearly as innocent or young. I have not been innocent or young for quite some time but I have never been so thoroughly tainted and aged in such a short time than on that day. As we reached the exit, Innocent asked if we wanted to sign “the book.” Although numb and in some type of shock at the time, there was something about how he asked – something like a desire for acknowledgment and solace that moved me back from wherever I was. “Of course,” I said and he went off to get it. The three of us stood there awkwardly, avoiding each other.
Upon his return and seeing the book, I must admit that it was not at all what I expected. Clearly someone had spent a great deal on it. It was not old, small or handmade; rather, it was new, about 1,500 pages and very well crafted. Turning the pages, looking for an empty one, the names and places were not limited and geographically concentrated. People came from all parts of the globe. What individuals wrote washed over me as they were all similarly influenced by the place. Somewhat taken aback, I could think of nothing to write but one word – “love”, then another – “one.” I was then caught trying to figure out how to best capture what went through me at the moment which was not a Bob Marley song or something that Richard Bach had scribbled. To do so would have been to trivialize it, this, me as well as Innocent and the others. This was some cathartic experience where my being called for some significance, some verbal monument, some marking but I was unable to express anything.
I stepped away from the book as if it had offended me in order to allow the others to write something, which they did. As tears rolled down my face, my mind moved back over the buildings, the bodies and the smell. In the distance, I saw others begin to approach where we were standing, the hills literally coming alive. As I stepped back to the book, I did the only thing that I could think of: I outlined my hand and wrote “One Love.”
Upon reflection, Marley and Bach did not trivialize the moment. Rather, they were the moment and I was denying it. These individuals had touched me, giving me the vocabulary to see and sense. When my being sought an expression to communicate, to commemorate, it made sense that it would bring them forward. They were, like the words in the drawn hand, contained within me – imprinted. They remained and now they would be remaining.
As we turned to go, I saw the people from the surrounding hills getting closer, then closer. I must admit to having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I wanted to meet them, ask them questions about what happened here, what they had gone through and what they had done. On the other hand, I was scared to death of what their answers might be, what questions they might direct to me in turn, but perhaps what troubled me the most was that there appeared to be far too many machetes still lying on the ground.
Note: Between 1999-2004 I traveled around Rwanda during research. Many things happened on my trips and it is only now that I start to share them.