We tried to go to the museum and memorial here in Kigale before we left for rainforest camping but found it closed for diplomatic visits. President Bush is gradually realizing that his legacy will be one of diplomatic, military and economic failure and has taken, with a sudden and stinking desperation, to international relations as a hobby. His visits to East Africa carried an unctuous effort. Here in Kigale his visit to the genocide museum resulted in it being closed to tourists for two straight days. Returning on a bright and pleasantly breezy Tuesday, we found a faded floral wreath emblazoned with Bush’s name and an appropriately sober message of sympathy fourteen years too late. It was placed on a concrete foundation over the mass graves that were filled with the unidentified bodies that were rotting in Kigale’s streets back in 1994. These sit in a memorial garden that surrounds the genocide museum.
What is there to say about this place? About what has happened here and what it has meant to the people for whom this violence was not just a news story or a set of photographs in an air-conditioned and dimly lit museum?
There are facts. There is the fact that General Romeo Dallaire – officer in charge of the UN peace keeping mission in Rwanda – met with a government informant who offered proof that the Rwandan government was training youth groups to carry out a meticulously planned genocide. This plan was complete with government military support and annotated deathlists. There is the fact that this information was dismissed by the UN just weeks before President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by an unknown group. There is the fact that within hours of Habyarimana’s death roadblocks were set up in the streets of Kigale and the Interhamwe had begun the process of murdering, raping and torturing tens of thousands of people.
Too often in considering violence in Africa it is easy to understand and dismiss violence as a result of underlying ethnic tensions. We can chalk it up to the legacy of arbitrary borders created by an imposed government or the same supposed cultural differences that excuse a constant state of governmental corruption. There’s no need to understand what happened in any specific terms; it falls under a universal escape clause: it’s African and it’s ethnic. There’s nothing to understand. What I would have you take away from reading this is simple. What happened here was not unorganized. It was not a randomly expanded act of isolated savagery. The 800,000 fathers and mothers, sons and daughters murdered here were targeted over a period of months and years and the mechanism created and operated to extinguish their lives was coldly deliberate and intentional. What happened and what, therefore, could have been prevented was not spontaneous either in its planning or in its enactment.
Those are facts. They cannot carry the depth of meaning and emotion that I saw in the school group of high school age Rwandan youths with whom I went through the exhibits. Watching a video of interviews with survivors I was ashamed of my own feelings of sorrow and despair. I was embarrassed by how shallow any sense of loss I could summon must stand against their own. I watched as they wailed and sobbed, beat their hands against glass cases containing the clothes excavated off the bodies of those in the graves outside. 15…16? A year or two old when gangs of neighbors appeared at their doors with blunted machetes and bloody hands. I can’t grasp it. I can’t sit with it in the way that they do. In the face of that, what is there to do?
Nothing for now. Nothing for here. The healing that is taking place, the healing that may never end, is not a project for international concern. To make it so would be a disservice to those who perished and to any attempt for real and meaningful reconciliation. Whether this could have been prevented by the UN or the US or any other body is meaningless when it comes to truly shouldering the responsibility for what has happened.
I hesitated to write about our visit for this very reason. In the face of such astonishing loss – even absent our own government’s complicit silence when these things occurred – of what use are my pale descriptions? What could this piece transmit but its own inadequacy? Except that this personal sense of impotence in the face of such large forces is the same one that excuses our leaders from acknowledging tragedies like this one even as they continue to occur. When we stand aside and opt out of our own conscience because things seem overwhelming, that is when tragedy happens. When we cease to heed the courage of our convictions we leave the space for the kind of atrocities that were enacted here. Our penance for what happened here is refusing to give over to any sense of our own powerlessness. What we think, what we believe in the world matters. When we see something wrong, we must say something before it's too late.