Looking Where The Blood Once Flowed
Trauma is a weird thing. Experienced, it leads to all sorts of repression, covering up, avoiding, or compensating, as well as growth, change, dealing with the experience, sharing, and recovering. Witnessed or observed, trauma can be both easier to understand and sympathize with and harder to grasp fully and empathize with; one can tell how awful an event is, but at the same time there is a distance, a barrier that prevents one from appreciating how deep that awful event goes.
I'm not sure what the difference is, exactly, between experiencing and observing trauma, having done both. I would suspect that when you experience it, you feel the depth of a trauma and then seek to paper it over and avoid it, hoping to get on with your life at whatever cost. When you observe it, you seek to get to that depth of the trauma as much as you can so as to appreciate the pain others felt and to help them whatever way you can. In both instances, the depth is lost, either under an inability to sink down and explore others' watery trenches or a struggle to steer away from one's own undertow.
There's no way for me to tell you that I now understand the Rwandan genocide or that I can relate to you what Rwandan survivors and normal people actually feel 16 years later. No more than there is a way for me to tell you that I understand my mother's death 6 years ago or how I actually feel about it 6 years later. In both cases there is a sad depth, and occasionally the tremors that those inner plates set off reach the surface - in grinding teeth at night or respectful silence as a survivor sheds tears when telling her story again - but a lack of the necessary knowledge, understanding, and even courage to get plumb that depth.
As I hinted at in the previous post, the way the country preserves the memory of genocide is hitting a period of transition. The main effect of this change, it appears, will be to bury all or most of the bones and change the experience from one of evidence and thrusting the visitor's face in the horror to one of teaching the visitor of the genocide. We still got the evidentiary, horrific version, so let me tell you about it.
Nyamata church with 16 year old clothing deposits.
Having the horror of genocide thrust in our faces was both jarring and numbing. Jarring in the sense that we saw the skulls, saw the clothes, saw sites of genocide as they were 16 years ago. The clothes in the photo above, that is, were the clothes those who died in the genocide were wearing. The big dark stain you see in the corner of the building below is one of blood. The building is a Sunday school at Ntarama. Children were hiding in the Sunday school and children were the victims therein. I leave it to your minds to tie these sentences together as you wish. This was, for many of us, the most affecting memorial site.
But, as with so much of life's experiences, the subtle display was more effective than the over the top. We later went to Murambi, a memorial site closer to Butare, a major university city in the south of Rwanda. There the display was somehow more graphic than skulls or clothes. The history, in short, was that Murambi had a church that was the site of genocide - many Tutsis fled to church, which had been safe havens in previous times of violence, only often, too often, to be betrayed by either church officials or just the predictable nature of their actions, as militias and the army found their victims more easily - and then a base for French soldiers who came as part of Operation Turquoise, the UN sponsored "peacekeeping" mission I mentioned in the previous post that kept peace mostly for those who inflicted genocide and war. The French soldiers buried the victims and then set up volleyball courts and other activities of leisure over the graves, per the current Murambi memorial's info. After the war and RPF assumption of control throughout the country, the graves were exhumed and many of the skeletons were preserved in lime and placed on display in 20+ barracks-like rooms on the grounds.
This is really gross, both in numbers and in effect. And it could be viewed in two ways. I subjected myself to every room, to the lime smell, and to the relentless pace of genocide site-seeing, to at least witness what they wanted to show: child skeletons, baby skeletons, bodies on top of each other, children in parents' arms, tufts of hair on some skeletons, clothes still on the skeleton, a baby in the arms of an adult, and most of all the look of horror frozen on all the faces, and the defensive, helpless poses they ended their lives in. I thought I had no right as a foreigner, as a visitor who claimed to be interested in Rwanda and its past, and as a representative, unwitting or otherwise, of an international community and western world (and the U.S.) that failed to do anything productive to prevent this genocide, to look away.
Others in our group, coming from a Judeo-Western perspective, found the display disgraceful to the memories of those people and all sufferers, and felt that the preservation of the bodies was self-defeating: the bodies did not look authentic enough to serve as evidence against genocide deniers they thought, so what's the point? (No photos were allowed inside any of these sites largely to prevent more foreigners from sneaking photos of the sites and then claiming the photos served as proof of a fabricated genocide). I understood their point.
Something else spurred me on at this site and others; the strange willfulness of the guides. In this case, I mean the guides representing each site, though it could include our young Rwandan guide - he claimed that anyone who didn't look at these things was showing weakness, though that stance was part of his own repression and recovery from his trauma, an incredible story that saw him and his polio-stricken mother tramp across Rwanda to Congo, a 3-week journey undertaken when he was only 4 years old. So his stance, considering his experience, is understandable.
And that stance and similar experiences may be what was behind the way our guide at Murambi kept pushing me and a couple others along the site. She, a cute woman in her 30's with a bright, toothy smile, walked a room ahead of us, waiting for us to advance, and barely concealing her disappointment when somebody else peeled off and stopped looking at the rooms. I sensed that she almost deliberately pushed us into this experience, as if to say, "Here, you silly Mzingu. You want to visit Rwanda? You want to understand the genocide? Keep looking then. Here it is. Welcome to the bed that everybody in the world helped us make. Sleep well." But she did all this, as everybody does, with a smile.
A chalkboard in the former outpost for Belgian soldiers killed at the beginning of the genocide in a ploy to get the UN to pull out their mission (which they did). The writings are angry notes left by the affected Belgian families for commanding general Romeo Dallaire, who is generally viewed as a noble man in his conduct regarding the genocide, hamstrung by the bureaucracy behind him.
This same sort of dissonance emerged in our meetings with survivors. We met with a couple kinds of survivors, in terms of mentality. When volunteering, we painted houses for young (20s and 30s), relatively cheerful and recovered men and women who were unlikely heads of households, orphaned 16 years ago and forced to lead their families. They were eager for our help and almost rehearsed in their thanks and happiness at our being there. Especially considering the narrow amount of time we had to help them, I felt that something was off; it could have been just me, but I wasn't sure that we were helping as much as receiving an opportunity to help, and while the side benefits of hanging out with these survivors were there for both us and them and us, there was a strangely unsatisfying, self-absorbed taste left in my mouth.
When we visited survivors who were not as well off, there was a stranger dynamic. One young woman in a survivors' village on the outskirts of Kigali broke into tears while recounting her story. We sat and listened sympathetically, eager to be as supportive as we could and to show our gratitude for her sharing our story. Our interpreters, young men who worked in an organization dedicated to helping survivors, were strangely nonchalant and even jovial as they listened to the survivor's testimony for the proverbial nth time. I suppose they didn't need to be shedding tears or donning dour looks, and the survivor didn't seem to care, and maybe they even cheered her up, but there was something slightly off about this scene.
The woman second from left is the one described below.
We did marvel, however, at the cheery garb of the other widows in the village, and even more so at the workers in their village. You see, amongst a village of mostly women between the ages of 35-55, all survivors of the genocide, the people repairing a house that recently lost a roof in a storm were genocide perpetrators. Criminals, prisoners, in other words, who were from other areas but who nevertheless inflicted crimes on other people that these widows suffered from themselves. "The prisoners depend on the women," our guide told us. "They get their water from the widows, and so they have to work together." We all thought this would be a grave security risk and a frightening thing for the women, but apparently it works out.
Our man was also adorned in cheery garb, I might add.
There is one last major, stunning inconsistency in visiting genocide sites and survivors in Rwanda. Perhaps it is not an inconsistency, but the universe's way of leveling us out and reminding us of who we are and how life is never just one way or another. Each site we visited was set in natural beauty, in gorgeous vistas and amazing scenes. And beyond the natural beauty offering a stark background to the human horrors, there was also the human beauty: each place we visited had people around who either worked at the site, or lived near the site, or went to school near the site, and their kindness lifted us up out of whatever funk we fell into. Whether or not we had a right to feel that funk, whether or not we could appreciate the trauma of the country on any significant level, and whether or not any of this mattered, the beauty that came after each sad experience added a clear gloss over everything we did. We didn't forget what we saw, and the horror did not diminish, but we did at least feel a little bit better. Each little bit counts in dealing with trauma, one way or the other.
The view from Murambi.