Heart Break and Joy

The national memorial was intense. Wow. LOTS of information and even more tears on my end. Holy moly. I’ve done some prep before my trip to understand the genocide, but I was still an emotional mess throughout the whole thing. First we visited the gardens that involved several concrete slabs that served as mass graves for the many victims – estimated 250,000 bodies at this site alone. It was very quiet, the memorial rests on a hill so the breeze rustling through the trees is the only sound you can hear as you walk through the gardens. It was very peaceful. A group of Ugandans found me and asked me to take some photos with them. They were so excited to have pictures with me (it was an odd feeling for me) and it was a nice break from the quiet concentration and depression I was experiencing in the garden. I feel it was symbolic of this whole experience so far – that Rwandans faced this horrible genocide in the near past but yet they are now so incredibly happy and optimistic. I remember Drew warned me before going on this trip – prepare to have your heart broken and fulfilled everyday.


There are mass graves all over the city. But, they decided on this location for the memorial because it was the location that could host the largest amount of bodies. People are STILL digging up bodies in their yards. They hope to identify them through clothing or IDs in their pockets. Similar to the Holocaust, the perpetrators often burned any documentation when they killed. There aren’t many paper trials that prove an actual person ever existed. That an entire family ever existed. Can you imagine that? The world denies YOU existed – everything about you is destroyed. And yet, some people deny the genocide or the number of deaths. That is like killing someone twice. Taking away any stroke of existence they had.


Before the Belgians, Tutsi meant you had 10+ cows. A simple socioeconomic status. After the Belgians, it became a strictly ruled classification based on facial features. I cannot believe how a simple term constructed by modern people led to the death of thousands. The power of language is incredible.... in both extremes. I noticed in a copy of a foreign paper that stated “Eighty people killed in tribal violence” – the word tribal really struck me. As a foreign paper, read by foreigners, using the word “tribal” creates that same idea that sticks around Africa today to some – that Africa is full of savages and barbarians that are unlike any of us ‘wise’ westerners. It makes me sick. It distances us from them – that they are not like ‘us’ and it’s a simply tribal problem we shouldn’t involve ourselves with. Words are so powerful and so influential.


Another point that really affected me was the portion on women and children. Women were raped… often and often and OFTEN. I knew this beforehand but I didn’t know that Hutu women were also raped as punishment if they were married to Tutsi men. What is even more disturbing, is that men often passed on the HIV virus among others to the women. This is destructive on so many more levels – down to the biological. Not only do they wreck havoc on the woman emotionally and physically but leave any survivor with the disease to pass on to their children to destroy well beyond the rape.


Women were often forced to kill their own children before being killed themselves. I wonder if this is better than in the hands of a killer. It reminds me of a novel “Beloved” – where an escaped slave woman murders her children when they find her to ‘save’ them from the cruelties of slavers. I wonder if the women in this case would prefer to have their children pass away by the hands of love rather than by the hands of hatred. It’s so difficult to even imagine having to consider that idea.


The children section was nearly unbearable. It was difficult to even breathe because it was so horrific and upsetting. The museum posted pictures of these beautiful and happy young children and toddlers and listed things like their favorite food or toy… but ended it with how they were murdered. I can’t even explain how I felt during this part. It’s heart breaking. I remember seeing in the artifacts room superman bed sheets and little boy sweaters (maybe age 5?) with holes from where they were brutally stabbed…


On a lighter note, after the genocide (in 1997) a rebel entered a school and demanded the school children split into Tutsi and Hutu and the students refused because they knew his intentions. They stated, “All of us are Rwandans.” Unfortunately 6 died and 20 were wounded, but it demonstrates how much Rwanda has unified to stop this hatred. That was 3 years after the genocide, now its 20 years. There is so much to learn from Rwanda about forgiveness and strength.


The next day we visited Nyamata church. This was a safe haven for many decades where the Tutsi could hide when violence was taken against them. They always thought they would be safe in a church because Rwandans have great respect for God and religion. The militia attacked the church, but even when the people were being killed outside the church and their men were fighting against the killers- the women and children felt they were safe under the house of God. Yet, the killers went inside and slaughtered them all with machetes and clubs. Betrayal. You see the marks on the skulls and see the violence against them – split skills, missing noses, giant gaping holes, missing pieces… Seeing the skulls and realizing those are actual people with childhoods, and interests and skills was really moving. And yet they all look the same, you can’t tell who was Hutu or Tutsi.


I was in front of the group as we walked towards the church, but it didn’t look like a church – I thought it was just a welcoming center so I nearly walked right in and once I got to close I abruptly stopped, I felt an intense heaviness come over me that stopped me in my tracks and I realized I was walking into something that demanded great respect. Halting. Walking inside you see humps and humps of clothing all over the benches of the victims. I remember seeing a small boy’s shirt that said “Skate action.” It’s always the children items that affect me the most. So vulnerable and unknowing. And to imagine the parents that tried so hard and desperately to save them… and to realize they couldn’t give their own children the protection they needed is just heartbreaking.


The killing tools are so personal, it’s not distant with gunfire or gases – the killers could see their victims’ eyes or the children’s fear when they were taking their lives. I remember learning that’s why gassing became so popular during the Holocaust, not only because it was cheaper and more efficient, but for the German soldiers’ own sanity. Hitler realized the soldiers were getting emotional and upset over the tragedy of shooting their victims and seeing their bodies and knowing they’re the cause of the death. So, gas became a way to make it less personal. It also the shifted responsibility… not feeling morally responsible for killing their victims. The idea of the ‘gas vans’ during the Holocaust and how it demonstrated this – the boarder wasn’t responsible, he was just putting people in a van. The man who connected the van’s pipes to the chamber in the van wasn’t responsible, he was just connecting two pieces. The driver wasn’t responsible, he was just driving around the block. The logic behind it is just so disturbing. How people cope with their sins and excuse themselves from it...!


Unknowingly until the end, we had Vianney Ntez’ryayo, Pastor of Episcopal church, also touring with us. He was at the church when genocide was being practiced in 1992. He was there when the Italian woman who helped protect the Tutsi was murdered. He wasn’t in the church when they were killed everyone else, but was able to find shelter in the forest. He assumed his wife and four children were safe because they were in the church. It didn’t work anymore, they were all murdered. His oldest child was only five! We were standing by the mass grave behind the church, and this was when he shared his story (via translation). He mentioned that his children and wife were buried here and it was striking. To see someone and hear them say that just makes your heart stop. Since then he has remarried and has another 4 children, the oldest is 19. Hearing the story from one individual made it so much more realistic. There were thousands buried there and that is only the story of one relative to the victims.


This church is the location of the girl in “Ghosts of Rwanda,” where she hid under dead bodies to escape murder. I spoke to Drew and he mentioned that many children did the same, they hid under their dead parents body. He specifically mentioned one boy he knew there, who was six and hid under his parents and then trekked across Rwanda to find his sister and miraculously did. They both survived and unfortunately he died of stomach cancer recently. These parents were able to save their children beyond their own deaths with the last thing they could spare – their own bodies. The love and protection of these parents is incredible. I can’t imagine how these little ones were able to survive without someone taking care of them or feeding them. People like Carl must’ve been helping them and trying to transport needed resources to them in secret to keep them alive. It upsets me when I think of all the heroic stories of people that aren’t shared. There has to be many heroes that were doing wonderful things for others that eventually faced their own deaths and weren’t able to share their experience.


Carl led a group prayer of all of us after Vianney shared his heartbreaking story. It was our group and three additional people – one a pastor from New Hampshire, the translator and the survivor pastor. It was so beautiful, I couldn’t stop crying. I felt so helpless for what happened and felt so many emotions for this man that lost everything. Afterwards he mentioned he has already forgiven for what happened. He talks about it often but the same conclusion always comes to him – that we need peace in the world. Most would be vengeful or full of hate after his experience, but he forgave and is working towards a better world. It was wonderful to meet him. 

I’m not a religious person but the prayer was incredible. I felt so connected to it. Reminded me of when I witnessed the Monk chant in Italy and feeling that sense of heavy peace and connectedness to something universal. I think that’s what makes religion so powerful. The sense of connecting.


The next day we went on a safari. It was about 3 hours to get to Akagera, but the ride was well worth it! We drove through beautiful landscapes and got to see some of the communities in the rural areas of Rwanda. The children were especially memorable, they would be so excited to say hello and wave as we drove by. I remember this tiny TINY little girl charging down the road to try and catch up to the van and screaming excitedly to say hello. I’ve never seen houses quite like the ones out in the country. They were much smaller and some were coated with mud. You can clearly see how well connected they are with their neighbors, they were all hanging out with each other. I’m not sure how many utilities they had in their homes, they seemed very minimal. They didn’t seem in want though, they seemed very satisfied sitting and chatting with their neighbors outside. The children were having a blast. I keep seeing children chasing tires with a split water bottle on a stick all over the country. I saw quite a bit of water filling stations as well. I cannot believe how well they can carry baskets and buckets on their heads!!! I see it all over Rwanda and it’s amazing every time!! Another thing I love is the children J! Not only are they incredibly adorable, but the children are meant to walk everywhere as soon as they can walk. And when they carry them, it’s often in a wrap on a mother’s back and you see the baby casually bouncing along with her steps. It’s a lot different than in America where we constantly carry our children way past the time when they can handle themselves. It’s ‘squealing-type’ adorable when you see a little child walk or run around everywhere at such a young age! I wish I could take more pictures of how beautiful the children are here but I feel like such a creep photographing them. There’s just so much to admire here.


Before entering the park there was a group of maybe 5-6 boys trying to sell their little wooden creations. It seemed like a very poor area. The boys made lots of things – houses, dump trucks, safari cars… and they were EXTREMELY excited when we stopped our jeep. The one boy rushed to my window and kept shouting prices and showing me his dump truck. I bought it and it was only 500 Rfr… we all bought one and we had a little village of these wooden creations. They were very intricate, I know I couldn’t create one! Even the house had little rooms inside that you can only see if you open the door.


The safari was super rad. We had a quick night one on our arrival. We had really cool safari jeeps with open tops to venture out in. The drivers thought we were too tired to go at first but I’m glad we did. We saw THREE elephants that evening!! If anyone knows me well, they know I really love elephants! They were chopping away on some branches and there was a little baby one too. The one kept putting a branch on his head like a little hat J. So cool to see them in person, and only roughly 20 feet away… amazing! Makes it even more sickening to think of zoos and how limiting they are for animals. We got coated in dirt, especially the other jeep behind mine (lucky me, I was in the front jeep!!) they looked like they had horrible spray tans. The dirt here is a luscious color of blood-orange, and it contrasts so well against the vibrant green. Gosh, it was so beautiful. Taking a deep breath through the mouth, and filling my lungs with the fresh air was so fulfilling. I loved the safari. We saw quite a few baboons but those became very common… especially at our hotel. You have two options of staying while at the park: specific camping grounds or the hotels. The hotel was GORGEOUS! I remarked that it’s a place, along with the park of course, I want to return to for my honeymoon ;). After I find a husband of course…


But the BABOONS! Supposedly people keep feeding them so they lost their fear of humans and come VERY close to us now. They were walking all over the hotel and I could even hear them outside my hotel door! I wish I recorded them, it was quite frightening at first. The hotel even made a list of tips on how to behave around baboons. Dinner was delicious as usual… they may not eat as much meat as Americans do but its totally okay because their vegetables and fruits and prepared so well. Yum!


The next morning we went on a day safari. Boy, what a core workout of trying to stay balanced in the jeep! It was such a fun experience. We trekked from 7-3ish and saw lots of animals… tesabees, loads of baboons, pumbas J, buffalo, lots of zebras, water bucks, other sorts of bucks and a few giraffes. The giraffes were very far away and unreachable but it was still neat to see their silhouettes. It was such a beautiful day, one of the best times of my life.


I saw a lot more rural communities on the way home and it was just as touching as the ones on the way in. Seeing these communities really affected me. Drew mentioned that the Rwandans are very communal, but seeing it in person made a huge difference. When I read about the genocide, people often remarked about how it involved friends murdering friends. It made it so disturbing to know that communities that were so strong and close could crumble under the wrong kind of pressure. These communities are unlike anything I’ve seen in Buffalo, and yet they were still breakable. It’s really sad. If ‘evil’ was able to control and break down these strong bonds between neighbors and friends, what can it do in weaker societies like the ones we have in America? It’s such a sickening realization.


The movie “Sometimes in April” was recommended to watch and Drew and Eric mentioned that most of the actors were Rwandan. Before this trip I would’ve just thought – oh cool, good for them that they’re getting the profits and credits for the film’s success. But now, after participating in theatre, I realize how important it is for them to choose Rwandans. I always figured acting was mainly in accordance to the director’s idea but now I realize it’s much more personal than that- that you bring in your own personal emotions and understanding of the role. Hiring Rwandans is giving them a chance to bring their own personal experience into the movie, and share their story to the rest of the unknowing world. It becomes part of a healing process in itself.


I think this has been a very important trip as an English teacher. I’ve been learning, especially in graduate school, how important it is to give students a sense of ownership over their work. Allowing them to make choices and giving them the freedom to work on topics they are interested in. This entire trip is about storytelling and creating an environment to allow people to share their stories comfortably. As an English teacher, this is exactly what I need in my own classroom. I never would’ve felt comfortable using theatre activities to help students share their ideas or experiences but this trip is really coming together for me. I keep thinking back to my research over the past semester about how important and meaningful it was for students when they were able to share their stories/interests via digital media. Seeing a country cope with such tragedy through storytelling really enforces the idea of giving students the stage to share their own in Buffalo. I feel so lucky to have been given this opportunity to be here.