Tuesday, October 15, 2013

There and Back Again…Nyarubuye

Friday I went to Nyarubuye…This is a memorial site, a church.  Here, over 35,000 Tutsi ran during the first part of April 1994 as they heard that the rebel groups were coming to kill them.  The rebels did not stop because of the church, churches here were no sanctuary during the genocide.  But, I am not telling the story chronologically.  Interspersed through this post are the photos from the trip.

Nyarubuye is about 4 hours away to the southeast in the Eastern Province and just near the border of Tanzania.  It is near a place on the map I have added:  https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=218037317429791892563.0004e6e7d564c628a1eb9

First, we got up to go and left at about 8:30am.  I went with Nicole and D, the taxi driver who only takes calls, he isn’t hailed from the street, and does a lot of tours of different kinds all over Rwanda with students and others, but usually expats.  He is a very nice man.  He drives a Toyota Corolla but it's long and looks like one of those Subaru station wagons that are so popular among the hipster crowd in the USA.  The trip cost, for about 10 hours of D’s time and 8 hours of driving gas, 100$ total which Nicole and I split.  We took off and I enjoyed riding in this smaller car more that the big car Damas drives (which, btw, I have found is called a Prado whatever that means).
Rwanda is so beautiful.
Pictures, as any of you who have been to the Grand Canyon know, in no way capture what you are seeing.  Pictures are flat with no depth and no sense of the distance or proportion of dramatic landscapes.

This is the Akagera national reserve where there are giraffes and hippos and crocodiles and monkeys and baboons and zebras, etc.  They are about to reintroduce lions and rhinos which were poached almost to extinction.

So dramatic the drop offs on the other side of the car...terrifying and majestic.

 I got about halfway through interspersing the photos as I promised and this blogger interface is just too cumbersome.  So, there will be some more later, but here are the rest of them for now.

About an hour into the drive, I have a bathroom emergency.  There are not really any public bathrooms in Rwanda.  I don’t know what people on buses do when they have to go.  How does this work?  We stopped finally at a hotel where I used the bathroom.  In another addition to a continuing and future post of mine that will be entitled, “You Might be a Muzungu” I found that if you really, really have to go, you do not care about the general state of the place you intend to make your deposit.  No seat?  Doesn’t matter.  Filthy or stained?  Don’t care which.  Smells peculiar?  Doesn’t bother me.  Has a big window that everyone can see in?  I’m no muzungu when experiencing that kind of urgency.

Here I try to take a picture of the terrifying downward grade of the steep decline we are driving down away from Nyarubuye later.  It doesn't really capture well.

After D and Nicole had waited for me for an embarrassingly long amount of time, we were back on the road.  Conclusion, my stomach problems, from birth, do not care if I am in Rwanda.

Nicole and I noticed these really really beautiful trees here.  We ask D about them who says that they are really important to Rwandan culture.  They are called the protector tree or umuko umurinzi in Kinyarwandan.  They have the most absolutely brilliantly red flower on them.


D then begins to tell us the mostly lovely story.  This music can go with it if you care to listen:

One of those words for the tree is the name of the tree.  The other one is the name the tree is now called, protector or guardian.  There is a folklore story in Rwanda, that there was once a hunter and a very important man named Ryoangombe.  He was a very important spiritual man that D describes as a Rwandan prophet on par with Jesus.  He says, in the time before the missionaries, the Rwandan people knew there was a god but that they didn’t know him and were afraid of him.  But, this Ryoangombe was very special and he could communicate with god and so he facilitates the relationship between the people and god.  Thus, he is similar to Jesus.  If you would like to read more on the Bantu religious stuff, here you go, it's interesting:

Anyway, this story.  Ryoangombe went out hunting one time.  Then there was this buffalo and the buffalo charged him and was chasing him and he didn’t know where to go.  He was trying to climb some trees but the trees wouldn’t let him.  Then, this tree, the protector tree, offered itself and he climbed up and was saved.  Thus, the tree is now named the protector tree.  And most Rwandans plant them either at the entrance to their land from the road or in front of their front door or both to guard them.  I don’t recall having seen any of them in Kigali, but the further away from the big city we went, the more and more and more of them we saw.

At this moment, D was expounding very seriously on how the relationship with god was finally facililitated and Nicole and I were completely enraptured (he has a very big sticker on his windshield that says “JESUS!”).  We were following the soft tones of his lilting voice just loud enough over the hum and thrum of the engine and the sound of rocks splashing around us when….BAM!!!

It took us a few seconds to figure out what happened.  Here is the order of events.  D first saw the bird coming microseconds before it hit the side window frame of Nicole’s front passenger side open window.  We all heard the crack.  There it smashed itself and died instantly and was promptly deposited into Nicole’s empty lap where her hands were lying open and up facing.  The dead bird landed in nicole’s hands.  At this moment feathers exploded into the car and flew back straight between the two front seats and into my face where I had been eagerly leaning forward to listen to D’s story.  A few microseconds later, Nicole registers the dead fluffy thing in her hands and shrieks and throws it out the window.  D begins to pull over.  Nicole holds up her open palms and regards the large amount of spattered blood all over them.  I begin to laugh quietly while trying to ask if Nicole was OK.  D hears me start to giggle as he regards the look of abject horror on Nicole’s face and begins to laugh also.  Just as we pull off the road, D and I begin to, verily, HOWL with laughter while Nicole starts to make disgusted and flabbergasted noises.  She opens the door and cleans her hands off this a bottle of water and some tissues.  Children come running to the car door screaming, with the absolute elation of having seen Elvis Presley alive again, MUZUNGU MUZUNGU!  Minutes pass before D and I can stop laughing before we are able to begin driving again.

After a while, D attempts to finish is spiritual exploration but cannot pick up the strain again because I continue laughing in fits and spurts as the event replays in my head again and again.  Quietly Nicole says, “I hope that wasn’t a sign…”

The drive continues.  You know, Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills.  I thought, from looking at Rwanda and because Kigali is at altitude, yes, I can see that exactly.  Some people here, when they try to say in English this statement, land of a thousand…sometimes instead say mountains.  I thought that they were making a mistake of translation.  But as we were driving further into the heart of rural Rwanda, I am convinced that mountains is the right word.  It is so breathtaking and so infinitely dramatic.  There are rice paddies in every valley and banana and potato and other produce growing all over the terraced slopes.  It is so freaking green.  And they are SO STEEP.  Closer to Tanzania, they get more rolling and, apart from the red soil, could almost be mistaken for Ireland.

So, if you know me then you also know that this trip was very tiring for me because driving around corners up high in a place with no speed limits with lot's of people and motos and bicycles (though increasingly less of all of these) and buses and trucks and goats and stuff was a very tense day for me indeed.  D was kind enough to go slow on the turns after I asked him and I was much more comfortable.  Also, on the way home I found myself getting used to it.
The dirt road we turned down to get to the memorial off the main road.

We eventually arrived at Nyarubuye.  I cannot show you photos from the museum because it is not finished.  Nicole took some with special permission from CNLG because this is her research.  After I come back I can show you the pictures in person but I cannot post them online. 

If you would like to see some photos from after the genocide, when the bodies were mostly cleaned up, but before the compound had begun renovations to become a memorial, go here and click on the image to start the slide show:

We met with a tour guide that did not speak English very well and Nicole and I speak very little French.  D was obliged to come on the tour with us and translate which was nice of him because he would liked to have stayed at the car, I think.  He was visibly uncomfortable.  I have heard that he lost a lot of family and that he sometimes gets emotional at sites.

For a short write up on Nyarubuye to get a feel for what happened, you can read this:

We compound includes what was a convent, mass graves, and the church itself.  The convent is being turned into the memorial museum and the church, while under heavy construction, is still in use.  We first go to the mass graves.  There are 35,000 people buried there who were killed at Nyarubuye in just a few short days starting on April 13th 1994.  An additional 16,000 were also interred here from the surrounding rural area.  That is a total of an estimated 51,000 people right under the garden we were standing on.  The guide asks us to observe a minute of silence out of respect for their pain and their souls.  We do.  We then walk inside the convent area.  There a lot's of empty rooms whose floors and walls are being redone.  The gardens are being redone.

Often churches and priests and nuns were either complicit or they downright instigated the killing in their areas.  Officially, the church locally supported the Hutu power movement as did many governments having switched from officially supporting the Tutsi decades before.  But that is for a history lesson another time.

We walk into a long hallway.  At the beginning of this hallway are moldering items made of wood that look mildly like canoes.  We are told that this is equipment normally used for making banana bear but, since the sides are of a certain shape, lend themselves nicely to beheading.  Almost all of the implements of death in this region were not bullets because they could not get the guns and ammunition.  So they are the implements of life turned to atrocity.  These wooden items were buried because of their use and because they were so thoroughly soiled that they could not be used again for their original purposes.  And these in particular because apart from their use for beheading, they were used to collect the blood of the Tutsi.  The locals had a theory that because the Tutsi had so many cows and drank so much milk, that there blood was part milk.  They collected the blood and waiting hoping that it would turn to milk.

Further down the hallway was a pile of equipment of all types.  Mostly the heads of hoes that were used to kill people.  But there, right in the center, is a meat grinder.  D explains to us that they would cut out the heart of the Tutsi and grind them up, cook them, and eat them.  They thought that eating the hearts would make them taller and lighter skinned with longer noses and therefore would have better lives.

Behind the table of iron equipment there are very large tables, tables and tables, of clothing and shoes etc that were on the victims’ persons when they died.  The difference between the memorial sites in Rwanda and those concerning the Holocaust is primarily the distance observed between visitor and memorial items.  You can touch these items.  They are right there.  They are not behind glass.  You can smell them.

When all the masses of bodies lay mangled and broken and shot and sliced and bleeding and covered in blood, the rebels were concerned that people may still be alive and would survive with some injuries.  They then took those delicious hot peppers that I adore so much here in Rwanda and they mixed them with water and poured them on the bodies so that those that were still alive would awaken to the burn in their eyes and on their faces and in their wounds.

D later says that this was the only area in which eating of the Tutsi occurred.  He later said, quietly and thoughtfully, that the people of this area especially turned to animals during the genocide.  He wondered aloud what was wrong with them.

Further down the hallway are tables, and tables and tables of bones.  In front of them, in open top glass cases, are tables and tables of skulls.  Each bone piece seems to bear witness to the violence that its previous owner enduring.  There are machete slices in the faces, in the sides, on the top, in the femurs, in the tibias, and so on.  The skulls of children are the worst.  In almost every case, their fragile little faces are completely crushed in along with crushing at the back or top.

Lest you slide into racist thinking, don’t.  There is nothing special about the Rwandans that is not a mere product of circumstance and history.  You too would likely have smashed a child as well if you were in their place.  The guilt that most of them feel over their behavior is tremendous.

I read an interview recently from a man who started an organization after he was released from prison building houses for the orphans and widows of the men that he killed.  They often feel intensely about what they have done.  In this interview the man said, “God and my victims had so much mercy where I had none.  They have forgiven me.  But still, I will sin no more washed in their mercy.  I must stay clean and harm no one again in all my life.  I would rather die myself and should have died myself instead of doing what I did.”

At the end of the site was a small guest book filled with names.  I didn’t want to be rude and look them over, but now I wish I had.  There was space for name, where you are from, etc.  There was also a space for comments.  Many had written things like “powerful” or “moving”.  Nicole and I didn’t know what to write so we didn’t write anything.

Strangely, the guest book was before the rest of the tour.  On the outside corner of this building there are a number of large stones sitting, out of place, in a corner.  Additionally, the striation pattern on the rocks made me think of something in Alaska and not something in Rwanda.  I soon find out why.  They tell us that these are the stones on which the rebels sharpened their hoes and machetes as they got dull from slicing people.  They said there used to be blood but it has been washed by the rain after 20 years.  Next, there is a small room next to the four latrine rooms.  This small room, we are told, is the place where they took all of the women to violate them before they were killed.  They say that mostly they were raped but some of them were also violated with the wood used in some part of brewing banana beer. 

Nyarubuye is an important site for Nicole to visit as she is studying the mass rape and gendered aspect of the genocide.  This is the place where the most rapes occurred in one place.  Here in the room of a bloody convent.  After they were violated and killed, they were thrown into the deep holes under the latrines just next door.  Up to last year they were still finding bodies in the deep sewage holes under the latrines.  We are told that the excavation is done and they believe that they have finally found all the women.

The last stop on this horrid tour is the outdoor brick oven.  The convent here was renowned previously for its bread.  But the oven will never be used again and the recipe is lost because this oven was used to cook the bodies and the hearts of the Tutsi.  It will never be used again…

After this, we go into the church.  Just outside the door is a statue of Jesus with his arms open as in the last supper beckoning all who can see or hear to enter into a state of shalom within the arms of the mother church and the umukiza (savior).  This statue of Jesus is lying on its side.  It has no head, no arms, and no legs.  It was chopped to bits by the rebels because it looked Tutsi.

Do you see the harm of racism?  You must feel pity for both the perpetrator and the victim.  In almost every case, a perpetrator was previously a victim of something and this caused their behavior.  The Hutu previously felt left out even of spirituality and forgiveness and heaven because they didn’t look right to those with power, both ideological and material.

Even as I write this I am so sad for Rwanda and its history.  Even as I write this I can hear the singers at a local church singing traditional Rwandan religious music.  It is so moving and powerful.  I didn’t really think of Nyarubuye as powerful or moving.  I thought it was sad, unassuming in its incomplete state.  Outside there were children playing and following our every move with their eyes, or just following our every move.  There were workers working and banana beer is still being made.
Here is a house of a person with moderate wealth in rural Rwanda.

So, this was over.  We drove away in relative silence back down the dirt road for an hour towards the main paved road and back towards Kigali.  The clothes get less and less shabby and dirty, the shoes less often flipflops.  Out there in the country the taxis are not motos.  They are bicycles.  We often saw a bicycle with three people on the back or like, seriously, 200 or 300 pounds of bananas.  I saw someone ferrying someone sitting on the back holding two goats.  I saw someone ferrying a very, very large, and it looked heavy and hard to balance, wooden chest of drawers. 
This is a banana tree grove!

I think that’s enough for now.  There are a few more observations from the trip, but that can wait for tomorrow.  This was a bit of a weight I think.

Love you all and I am so grateful not to have been so oppressed and not have had the amount of division and trauma and slavery and terrible terribly suffering that the Rwandan people have endured on top of such continued prejudice in the world.  Did you hear, the US recently suspended aid to Rwanda on account of child soldiers?  This is patently wrong.  There are no and have never been any child soldiers in Rwanda.  There were very, very isolated incidents during the genocide but no child soldiers in the RPF.  There are some suspicions still about the role that Rwanda is playing in the conflict with rebel groups in the DRC, but that is definitely another post.
Small mud brick homes that are pretty ubiquitous in rural Rwanda.

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