January 7, 2014
Yesterday we had a visit to the all-male community camp of prisoners. It was quite a long ride and consisted of many hills. We were joined by their commissioner, the woman who checks up on the 32 community camps throughout the week. It was interesting to have her with us because I was able to see a huge difference between her and the correctional staff back in the United States.
I was really nervous entering the camp, every prisoner there is a criminal of the genocide. So, I was going to be meeting the very same people I’ve been talking about in my blog – the men who brutally murdered and raped the people of Rwanda twenty years ago. How can you possibly prepare for that? I forgot the exact number but I believe there are about 40 men there.
I’ve written about Rwanda’s will to forgive but I’ll describe their legal system for a little groundwork. You can imagine that after the genocide the country was rather chaotic and dysfunctional. There wasn’t much of a legal system to immediately ‘punish’ these murderers. Many fled to the Congo, but many are still in Rwanda. Through time they were convicted but the interesting part of their conviction is called ‘Gacaca’ – meaning grass trial. If the killers admitted to their crimes and asked for forgiveness, they were given a lighter sentence. This involved asking for forgiveness from the survivor – after admitting they murdered their family. This also involved disclosing the location of their bodies if known. This is a very different sentencing or legal system that we have back at home… it is much more personal and humane. It gives the perpetrator a chance to admit his guilt and gain back his humanity. I imagine it is quite difficult looking the survivor in the eye.. just as it was looking at their victim’s.
Carl once again shared a beautiful story on the way to the camp to give us a sense of the humanity of the killers. It’s easy to see them as one thing – a murderer, but we have to remember that every person is complex. It’s even more clear through that novel I’m reading- that we are all human and capable of both horrendous and wonderful deeds. As an English teacher, I come across many people who hate specific authors because of their questionable ideals. For example, hating Hemmingway because he is a sexist. They problem in that is that these people are exercising the same thinking that they are scolding the other about – seeing them in a one dimensional way. Hemmingway is a sexist, but he is also a great author. You’re proving a disservice to yourself on the work you’re missing out on because you refuse to see him as more than a sexist man…. just as you accuse him for seeing women one-dimensionally. So, I found Carl’s story a powerful representation of fighting against this thinking.
If anyone watched “Ghosts of Rwanda” they may remember the real footage of the mental hospital. Many Rwandans and foreigners fled to this hospital for safety, and the presence of foreigners kept the killers away from the hospital. When the UN arrived, the Rwandans were ecstatic – they were being saved. But, the UN came to save only the foreigners so they could fly them back to the safety of their home country. You can see one woman crying in the footage, trying to have someone take her baby so it won’t be murdered. The Rwandans knew the foreign presence was their only sense of protection – the presence of unarmed foreigners were enough to keep the killers at bay. And now, they are leaving. The Rwandans tried to explain and beg them to stay… but they all left. With the absence of these average foreigners, the militia attacked and killed all the peaceful Rwandans seeking shelter there. Except for two young girls who, again, were able to hide and fake death under dead bodies. Carl spoke at a university and one of the girls shared this story with him. She remembers one of the murderers entering the room after the attack and stated,
“I can’t believe we killed them all.”
And the girl, recognizing his voice as a friend but still understanding his mission of killing her people, made the decision to announce her survival and deny his statement to say, “No, you didn’t.” What amazing bravery on her part, to give this seemingly heartless killer some stroke of humanity. It’s as if she didn’t want this old-friend turned murderer to have this on his conscience of murdering ‘them all’. Of course this proved problematic, what can these killers do with two young surviving girls? They can’t take them with them. The soldiers decided against killing the young girls and brought them water. The girls survived.
I felt this story really showed that even when one is blindly working in the name of evil, their humanity can still strike through. And even as a helpless, vulnerable girl – one can rise up and restore one man’s humanity. If even for a moment.
The community camp allows the men to serve their sentence through helping the community. They build bricks that help build Rwanda. They are not behind bars or locked in small rooms, they live in tents of tarp and are free to come and go as they please, including leaving the entire camp. There wasn’t a security checkpoint and the camp isn’t surrounded with barbwires. It’s all open, you wouldn’t even expect this place was for prisoners. The men can easily escape, but they don’t. They can just walk off the camp easily, but they don’t. The men are given 10 days a year to leave the camp and visit their families, and can even request more if they have a wedding or family business to attend to. The men aren’t treated as rats of society, but as men who need to grow back into humane people. I still cannot believe the lack of security. The neighborhood kids even filter into the camp because of how open it is, you can see them peeking around the tents to get a glimpse of these ‘mzungus.’ The commissioner also stated that the men are given leadership roles within their group, and it helps cut down on funding because they don’t have to hire as many officers to control the prison. It’s such a stark contrast to the way we treat prisoners in America. I wonder if Rwandans would be subject to the same ‘evil’ as the American students were in the Stanford Prison Experiment that I’m reading about. I don’t think it would because Rwandans don’t have the same idea of scolding and punishing criminals as we do.
t reminds me a lot of a story I was following. A young boy (I believe 14) in the early 1990s shot a woman in the face during a robbery in Florida and was sentenced to serve his time in an adult prison. Being a young boy subjected to an adult male prison, he became overly defensive and lashed out protectively. You can imagine how frightened he was. He was sentenced to solitary for a short time. Nearly 25 years later, he has been in solitary the majority of the time, and I believe the longest prisoner ever to remain in solitary. He has attempted suicide many times and cuts himself in BOREDOM (a prison counselor remarked many prisoners do this because of the lack of mental stimulation in solitary). He is only allowed out of his room 3x a week to shower under close supervision. His own victim, the woman, has been fighting tirelessly over YEARS to remove him from this horrible isolation. Even his victim is aware of this inhumane treatment. And then you wonder, if he is released how will he transition back into society? He’s been treated like the dirt of society, like a rabid animal. And the reasoning behind his solitary, similar to many other cases, are trivial and unjust – simple things like placing cardboard in front of your air-vent to direct the cold air can land you in solitary for months. It’s disgusting. And yet, Africans are the savages? Are you kidding? Seeing their ‘prison’ and comparing it to our own is alarming. Very alarming. We punish the prisoners and strip their dignity. The Rwandans guide their prisoners and restore their humanity. People were so concerned about my safety when I told them I was going to Africa. We have such a distorted view of this entire continent, I think we’re the ones who should be answering questions.
So, riding into the camp… I had to keep this in mind. The men were all lined up when we arrived and I felt uncomfortable standing in front of this military position. We introduced ourselves (via translation) and we shared some questions. We were all standing together, I could reach out my arm and touch these men. I was able to look into the faces of men who killed and raped countless numbers of people. It was a powerful and uncomfortable feeling. I didn’t feel unsafe, but it was uncomfortable because they didn’t look like killers. Some faces were a bit scary, but most of the men had kind eyes and gentle facial expressions. One old man was hunched over and had his bottom lip protruding, as if in a constant stance of guilt. I remember he had his hand raised when Carl asked a question but another man was called on first. I announced that a man near me had an answer after the other man was done, but the man looked at me and immediately looked down. I’m not sure if he was ashamed of his answer or if it was too similar to the previous one.
The question Carl had was about how a group of killers were bribed with chickens by a family they were about to slaughter. His question was why this was possible. The previous man said that God interjected several times during the genocide. Another man mentioned that it was a way for the killers to return with something to their leaders – the chickens gave them an excuse for why they didn’t kill the family.
But it really struck my heart, it reminded me of shy students in class who are afraid to speak up and share their idea. He had that same sense of breaking eye contact and looking down that I experience so often when I ask students to share. It was as if I saw this broken child in the body of this old man.
Nearly all of the men are happily married with children. I believe all the prisoners were farmers before the genocide. It seemed that every question we asked came down to the same thing – “don’t be like us.” I remember when one man said that, the entire group nodded their head. They shared their old fear of the government and their appreciation of it now – being given this chance of proving themselves good again. They asked us how we will share our story of Rwanda when we return, how will we show how Rwanda really is? They seemed to understand the negative connotation the country has and seemed intent on being sure we share that Rwanda is not just the mistakes they’ve made. So many people only see Rwanda as the location of a horrible genocide, and they seemed guilty and worrisome over this idea. They don’t want this beautiful country represented only in their faults. They also asked us to tell our prisoners to stop hurting each other. This was amazing. They even know how terrible our prison system is, and wish it had the same sense of brotherhood that they are given in this camp. At the end, we took a photo with the men. It’s odd to look back and think of how I had my arms around the two men next to who’ve done such horrible things. They smiled when I put my arms around them, it didn’t feel like I was touching evil – it felt like I was with any regular person. I’m not sure if that’s right or not.
After the questioning the men did some kind of clapping to thank us. A man would call out something in Kinyarwanda and they’d do a clap (5 quick claps, 5 quick claps, 5 quick claps, 3 claps). They taught us how and we did it all together a few times. I had to jet off to the bathroom afterwards but could see them dancing from afar. I ran back over and they were chanting and singing a song, and they all started dancing around. And guess what!! THE COMISSIONER JOINED THEM. Yes, she started dancing with them. I tried dancing along with them as best I could and it was amazing. They were so happy and seemed so appreciative of life.
Who can go to an American prison and see convicts singing and dancing? And even if they do, who can see a warden joining in and laughing along with the convicts? What a beautiful sight to see. Rwandans care about Rwandans, and it’s beautiful to see that it holds true even in the lowest of places.
We were about to perform our play but it started down-pouring. The prisoners returned to their homes – the tented areas and we went into our own shelter. I was disappointed that we weren’t able to stay with the prisoners so we could continue our discussions but I saw the children hiding across the yard. It stopped raining as hard but we were still under the shelter so I asked our guide, Evan, if I could hang out with the kids and he said yes! So we meandered over and the kids giggled and ran away when they saw us approaching. Another girl on the trip, Molly, joined us. I chatted with the kids for a little, mainly just smiling and giving high-fives since we couldn’t converse much. I taught this one little boy, “Di-das,” a hand-shake and he loved it. The kids were so shy but excited, they would sneak around the poles and once we saw them they’d laugh and run away so I started chasing after them. Molly and I were running around the building chasing the kids as they darted about and giggled. It was awesome, much better than sitting around waiting for the rain to subside.
Eventually it was dry enough to perform but the rain started as soon as we began. It was pretty cool performing for the prisoners in the rain – quite the rush. I felt a lot more nervous as they were all so stoic – a big difference from the antsy smiling children the day before at the refugee camp. They were also a lot closer than the kids were, we were right on top of each other. The kids I was playing with were also watching from the nearby tree. The rain kept getting worse so the audience dwindled throughout and we didn’t get a chance to talk to them after the performance. We resorted back to our own tent and one of the prisoners brought over some corn on the cob they prepared for us as a thank-you, it was delicious and so sweet of them.
As I’ve said, there were PLENTY of hills on our journey, and the roads are just dirt in the country so the rain storm was making our driver nervous. We had to leave early in fear that the roads would be unmanageable if we waited too long. Well, they proved just as unmanageable even then. We got stuck right outside the camp! We had to get off the bus and Gaga (our driver) tried to get out of the mud. The children all swarmed about as we watched. The prisoners caught on to what was happening and came running with shovels to dig us out. They all went to work shoveling and expanded the road so Gaga could drive out. There were men in lines just digging in a synchronized fashion. I felt very uncomfortable during this entire time. I wanted to help. These men were slaving away as a group of young, healthy people just stood and stared. It made me really anxious.
So, I found my buddy and greeted him with our cool handshake. They had older kids with them who were obviously videotaping us and taking photos. I asked if they wanted a photo with me but didn’t understand and continued to take photos of just me. It’s really awkward when you see a camera just pointing at you taking pictures of just you. Reminds me of all the reasons why I shouldn’t be taking pictures of people here! I wanted to hang out with the kids some more and maybe sing some songs or dance or do something but no one else was interested in my group. So, I just hung out with the kiddos myself, who were doing similar things the kids in the refugee camp were doing – lots of touching my arms and giggling. I already miss my buddy, he loved the hand-shake!
The road was getting better, thanks to the men’s digging. We knew Gaga should get a good start and not stop the van once he goes so we started hiking up the hills to wherever he’d find flat land to stop and pick us up. I said goodbye to the prisoners and tried to thank each one on the way up – “murakoze cheyne” (thank you very much). I felt so uncomfortable having them labor over us while we did nothing.
The men helped push the van and it was released from it’s mud of doom. But, was stuck again! They pushed and pushed and Gaga was able to get a good run, we saw the van zooming up the hills and one of the prisoners was hanging off the window from where he was pushing! The van reached us and we all boarded. I thanked the prisoner again, as he would have to walk all the way to the camp alone and came with the van just to reassure our safety.
Well, we were stuck again. We pushed along with his help and a few other prisoners came running up the hills. Once we were dislodged we had to board the van, but we did the clap as a thanks to them beforehand J.
These men seemed genuinely concerned about our safety and well-being, something you wouldn’t think of when you consider a mass-murderer. The commissioner even stated that the reason the children come around the camp because the men often share their food with them. The men, despite their terrible past, seem intent on becoming human again. It’s not the best analogy, but it reminds me of rescuing a dog. People always say that a rescue dog seems to love and appreciate their owner significantly more than a typical dog. These men seem to recognize they’ve been at their lowest and appreciate life that much more. A second chance. These men are seemingly excited to extend their help to others- even if it means sprinting up a hill to push a van of strangers out of mud.
Similar to the refugee camp, not everyone gets to see these parts. It’s not a tourist destination. I’m glad I was given this opportunity to see these men in person, it really represents humanity – forgiveness from some and dedicated rehabilitation for others.
It’s not until I sat down and wrote this blog that I was reminded that these men were criminals from the genocide. You’d never guess these men could commit the crimes, but it’s clear that they are willing to tell you. They don’t want to hide, they want the world to know they are guilty, but equally remorseful.
(I didn’t have internet to post so here are two days worth)
Today we went to Murambi to visit the memorial here. I don’t have much to say about the memorial because it made me very uncomfortable to view it. This memorial is quite controversial and I did try to stay open to it. The memorial is located within a school where victims were betrayed into thinking it was a safe place. The memorial has a mass grave of buried bodies, but the uncomfortable bit is the rooms of bodies that have been preserved with formaldehyde. There were several rooms where the bodies were laid out and I was only able to enter two of them before I just couldn’t bear to view any more. The chemical smell was overwhelming and the bodies were completely white from the chemical. They were preserved in the same position they were found, and that’s what was so difficult for me. Once I saw a woman on her side shielding her face in fear, combined with a giant dent in her skull, I just couldn’t manage to look at more bodies. Especially the children who were still cradled in their parent’s arms.
Part of the reason for these displays is because of the denial of the genocide. The bodies prove that these people did exist and the genocide did occur. I understand that, but I’m not sure what I’d prefer – to be put on display so others can be aware of my existence or to be put at peace in the mass grave. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. Either way, I felt unwelcomed when I walked into those rooms.