Things I learned in Rwanda Part 2

Hand out

I spent a lot of time alone in Rwanda.  Sometimes I was lonely, and sometimes I appreciated the quiet and solitude.  Other times, I wished for quiet and solitude.

One day I sat on the grass in my yard reading Middlemarch by George Eliot.  The sun warmed, and eventually burned, my delicate skin (have I mentioned that Rwanda lies between one and three degrees south of the equator?).  I heard a giggle.  Then I noticed a face peering at me through the hedge.  Before I could say “Dorothea Brooke Casaubon”, I was surrounded by children, ranging in age from 4 to 9.

The boldest one asked me my name in Kinyarwanda and answered my same question.  Then she held out her hand and asked for biscuits and money.

The smile slid from my face.  I didn’t know what to say.  Even though I was an outsider, a foreigner, and my paltry salary was at least three times higher than what their parents earned, I was offended.  I was in the country to help, yes.  But I gave my help every day. 

I lived there, I worked there, I ate there and spent my money there.  Did I also need to keep a wad of cash and a box of cookies in the house to hand out to children who paid surprise visits to me during my small amounts of down time?

I stopped hanging out alone outside my house.  Sometimes, even a humanitarian needs a break.


A Canadian psychologist volunteered to spend three months with my organization, to study whether the Rwandan people of Byumba Prefecture (the northernmost “state”) suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.  He visited the rural clinics we supported and looked at people’s medical records, and asked them questions about their symptoms and what they had experienced during the war and genocide.

Guess what?  The people of Byumba did, indeed, suffer from PTSD, which sometimes manifested itself through stomach ailments, headaches and sleeplessness, among other symptoms.  Quelle surprise!

Then he left. 

We continued to support the rural clinics.

People are people (cue the music)

It may sound like a cliché, but people really are people wherever you go.  There are good people everywhere, and evil people everywhere, and everything in between.

I worked with some of those good people.  A Zairian doctor who spent his free time away from the trauma hospital at the local Protestant church, sharing his wisdom.  A Ugandan widow who left her five children across the border in Kabale so she could help the people of Rwanda.  A Rwandan nurse, who spent all week working with us in Byumba so she could support her three fatherless boys, two younger sisters, and infant nephew in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.  My American boss, a doctor, and his wife, who have dedicated their lives to helping the people of tropical countries, first in Africa and now in Asia.

I have been fortunate to only hear about the bad people.  But some of the things I heard about in Rwanda kept me awake for years afterward. 

In person, I saw a lot of pettiness and greed, by all kinds of people, of all cultures and nationalities.  Such qualities have no skin color, no national boundaries.  They exist everywhere.

Prison vs. death

Back to the subject of the genocide and bad people.  The Rwandans called those who instigated the genocide, authors of the genocide, and those who perpetrated genocidal acts, genocidaires.

Genocidaires who stayed home when the authors of the genocide fled the country with almost 2 million compatriots, were usually turned in to the local police and then spent their lives crammed into too-small prisons with poor sanitary conditions among thousands of others.  There they remained until the justice system caught up.

Genocidaires who came home after the camps closed in Zaire usually suffered the same fate.  However, some were never turned in.  Their victims were still too afraid – or were dead.

Sentences for those tried within Rwanda included capital punishment.

The authors of the genocide followed a different route.  They ran away.  Some to Zaire, Tanzania, Kenya.  Others to Belgium (Rwanda was a Belgian colony until 1960).  When captured, they were not returned to Rwanda to be put on trial for their crimes against humanity.  No.  They were sent to Arusha, Tanzania, the seat of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Arusha is a pretty provincial city at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in northwestern Tanzania.  Not far from the famous Serengeti, Arusha serves as a tourist center and jumping off point for people on safari or wanting to climb Kilimanjaro.  (I spent three weeks there in July 1997.)

The highest sentence allowed for those tried by the international court?  Life in prison. 

That’s right.  The people who planned the genocide, instigated the genocide, incited people to kill their neighbors, used governmental resources to spread propaganda leading to the genocide, will languish in foreign prisons.  The villagers who actually carried out the killings will languish in very different conditions until they are killed by the state.

How is that fair?  The big guys get to hang out while the little guys die.  This isn’t an indictment of the Rwandan judicial system, by the way.  I now believe that there are crimes that are too heinous to be ignored, and some criminals whose acts are too vile to allow them to continue in life when they snuffed out someone else’s life.

You may not be there yet and I hope you never get there.  I left for Rwanda a bleeding heart liberal against the death penalty.  Then I entered the compound of a church where hundreds of men, women, and children had sought refuge and instead found death.  Their remains had not been buried, more than two years after the massacre.  A tented area to one side held tables covered in skulls of all sizes.  Inside the church itself lay heaps of bones and clothing tatters.

At that moment I confronted everything I thought I knew about human nature and my own beliefs.  These remains in front of me were of Rwandans, just like those I had worked with and lived with every day for almost two years.  And the people who had hacked them to death with machetes were Rwandans.  Victims and killers knew each other.  They were neighbors.  Some were family.

Among other lessons that assaulted me that day, I learned that a heart could bleed for justice.


1 Comment

Filed under The rest of my life, writing

One response to “Things I learned in Rwanda Part 2

  1. Elizabeth Putnam

    Your description of the church compound gave me goosebumps. Actual goosebumps. When I hear about Rwanda, my mind automatically pushes it to a distance- it’s too terrible to comprehend- and I think about it as if it was some horrible, wrenching movie, a drama that played out in another world. How could that possibly have happened in a real place, to real people? So I’m amazed by your strength in taking on its reality. Facing it head on. And I’m not surprised that you’re still processing it, writing about it, a decade later. Seems like it would take a lifetime, or more than a lifetime, to process it all. Keep writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s