Roses on mass graves. Skulls encased in glass. Stories of children brutally murdered. I don’t wonder that I couldn't finish writing this story, that I waited two years to write about my 2012 experience at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda – unable to put into words my experience. The body memory of my panic attack there just resurfaced as I write – my heart raced and skipped for about 20 seconds. If I’m at a loss, what must it be for the survivors? For Jack, our Rwandan host and guide for the day, whose life was forever changed by the genocide. When he was only 9, Jack became a father figure to his younger siblings when their parents were killed in their village outside Kigali.
Kigali is a beautiful city today. After over two weeks of work in eastern Congo without running water, paved roads, or the freedom to be out after sunset, my friend Cate and I marveled at walking to restaurants, reveling in street lights and hot, running water. A cosmopolitan city center of ex-pats and ambassadors, we had the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten. We dined outdoors at a restaurant where we could purchase beautiful, hand-woven bowls made by women entrepreneurs. We took hot showers. We heard of how the outlying poverty of the city's inhabitants was masked by the sheen of prosperity in the city center. We visited the villages off the paved paths, delivering groceries to a woman with AIDS who was wrapped in a blanket and seated on the couch, unable to move without help. She welcomed us with a warm smile that washed over her wasted body.
Our host Jack was a friend of Gunilla, a Swedish woman we met in Bukavu, who works with victims of trauma in Rwanda and Congo. Jack had agreed to take us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a center dedicated to the history of Rwanda, the events leading to the 1994 genocide, and the physical evidence of the atrocities. The center and its grounds and gardens stand guard above a burial site with over 250,000 victims of the killings. Not your typical tourist destination, but in a city destroyed by savage, brutal, mass killings, where rivers ran thick with bodies and blood, yet now functions with an air of security and progress, it is crucial to remember the decisions, divisions, and power structures put into play that started a system which bred the level of inhuman violence seen here. To speak the unspeakable, to own responsibility, as world leaders later did, admitting to standing by. Owning it, so it might never happen again.
Gunilla asked Jack once more if the visit would be too much for him, and Jack, easy-going with a ready smile, told us he would step outside if it was.
We made a brief stop at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, the site of “Hotel Rwanda,” where we watched the wealthy lounge by the beautiful pool, and checked in with our airline at their office attached to the spacious, air-conditioned lobby. There we phoned a friend of Jack’s, who operated a taxi, and drove to the Genocide Memorial, perched near the top of the opposite hillside. We parked next to a large bus, one of the only vehicles in the lot, with a group of Muzungus (white people) sitting beside it, eating a picnic lunch.
At the entrance to the center, we met a short, slight man, a friend Gunilla had met when she held a Trauma Tapping Therapy (TTT) training at the memorial. He spoke to us in Kinyarwanda, and Jack translated his hopeful report, on how much TTT had helped the people Gunilla had worked with.
The center is free, though you can pay for an audio guide. We had Jack, whose guidance was more personal and detailed than anything you could pay for or read. Entering downstairs, the dark stone hall was cool, and lined with back-lit photo exhibits ranging from pre-colonial days to descriptions of the white man’s decision to change what were flexible, socio-economic labels of Hutu and Tutsi into strict ethnic groups, requiring ID cards to be carried at all times.
We watched videos of survivors speaking of their experiences of gacaca tribunes, traditional community trials of restorative justice adjusted to present-day needs to bring local perpetrators to justice.
We read about the use of rape, torture, and the spread of HIV/AIDS to humiliate and eradicate the Tutsis. We saw, displayed behind glass, the commonly used weapons: machetes, clubs, and guns.
We sat silent in a circular room lined with 5x7 photos of loved ones lost. There was a round of beautiful wooden sculptures, soft and supple lines illustrating life before the genocide, leading to shapes depicting death and rape.
The clothes found with victims were hung in cases; a worn, cotton Superman bed-sheet in its familiar blues and red stretched between a torn pair of pants and a shirt.
Walking upstairs, the rooms held a brief pictorial history of other genocides: The German Holocaust to exterminate Jews, the Cambodian killing fields, the Armenian genocide, photos, videos and facts from Bosnia and Kosovo.
My heart started racing. I’d lived in Kosovo twice before, for a couple months at a time. I’d met the people who were still mourning loved ones, never found, never identified. I’d heard stories of how men had terrorized my friends, wearing masks so as not to be identified as the neighbor from across the street. The photos of refugees streaming from their homes reminded me of a friend who carried a photo with him that he took as he left his village, the homes on fire and smoke rising into the sky.
It was overwhelming. And it was hot. There was very little air flow, and I stepped into the bathroom to splash water on my face. There was no running water. We continued to the next room, where poster-sized photos of young children hung above plaques stating their names, ages (4, 7, 10), their favorite foods (cheese, eggs, chocolate), their personality traits (gregarious, shy), and exactly how they were tortured and killed.
It was too much. I started to cry and excused myself, losing control of my tears, my heart-rate, my breathing. Gunilla followed me, and led me out to a balcony, where we stood for a few minutes, overlooking the grounds in silence, until fat drops of rain started to fall, breaking up the heavy humidity of the day. Going back inside, Jack led us to another room filled with chairs. I sat looking out a large window with a view of the streets, buildings, and people Kigali, unable to stop sobbing, unable to erase the photos of children who had been brutally slaughtered.
I want my heart to break over this. My heart should break, to know what is worth standing for, fighting for. But it’s too much. Too much for survivors, traumatized children, living a lifetime with nightmares of memories most of us cannot fathom.
Gunilla held me, lightly massaging my shoulders and neck. Cate squeezed my hand, offering me tissue and her bottle of water. Local women, workers taking their break or visitors to their relative’s grave-site, stared at me.
Leaving, we passed through the lobby, and walked out toward the gardens, overgrown green covering the mass graves. Buying roses, we walked under a long trellis of greens, large cement slabs to our left acting as one continuous tombstone. We laid the roses down, to honor those buried below. The rain had stopped, and we spoke of birds flying overhead, their long wingspan and beaks uttering a whining cry.
Inside, there was a room filled with skulls of the victims. It was macabre. But looking at the collection, the story was clear. You couldn’t tell. You couldn’t tell if one skull was a Hutu or Tutsi, Jewish or Christian, Cambodian, Armenian, Serb or Albanian. Underneath our skin, we are all the same.
(Photo: The Atlantic)