What we Learn: A Visit to the Rwanda Genocide Museum
As I emerged from the area of the museum that described the brutal killing and mutilation of bodies carrying souls, the lights went out. I stood at first in the dark and considered the ironic metaphor of such an occurrence at that particular moment, though a brief interruption of power is not so unusual here, and the generators kick in quickly and efficiently. But this — “The moment the lights went out” was a symbol for a country. A time when all was dark and seemingly hopeless. A solemn visceral reminder of what “dark” looks like.
I sat down on a small stool in the anti-room where I had been walking, waiting for the light to reappear. Suddenly I realized that, indeed, there was light coming from somewhere. My eyes simply had to adjust and refocus. I turned and towering above me, standing like a beacon, stood a stunning stained glass window.
At the base of the mosaic were many skulls, tumbled together in chaos and the stark white of death. But upon looking closely, through red scythes, arose a solid staircase reaching upward. Held by swirls of activity on both sides, the stairway was strong and reached up and up, into an abstract sphere that appeared to be a globe at the top of the window. A better world, perhaps?
When the lights came back on, I found myself amidst a display room that spoke of those who helped potential victims escape from the bloody horror, exposing themselves to great harm, torture and sure death through their offering of aid and assistance. As I read each panel, I imagined a life. Moving along at a rhythm and then interrupted instantaneously and brutally. The word of an airplane down, roadblocks, and the unspeakable massacre, carried out in such haste that there was no time to find safety, or even to understand what was occurring.
I imagined two lives. One at risk of being snuffed out without mercy. Another with assurance that their cleverness and assistance could easily lead to punishment in the same cruel way — simply for offering assistance to another human being.
Taking a break, I walked among the mass graves and memorial garden. I saw the beginning of a series of plaques that will commemorate each victim by name. My mind and heart traveled to the Viet Nam Memorial with the same black surface on which the many who died were etched. But at the memorial in D.C. there were only names of Americans — not the hundreds of thousands whose lives were wasted in their own homeland, with no understanding of why. For what? And here, in Rwanda, for what? A politician’s ambition? Wasted lives, wasted human potential. Massive suffering — all in the name of power.
Following my walk through the memorial garden, I re-entered the museum to conclude my visit by walking through the memorial to the children who were lost.
My heart beat hard as I walked through and, breaking the rules, I took photos of the children, and sat to write their stories as chronicled under their image. Only a few were featured, although hundreds of thousands were killed in unspeakable ways. Enough to break one’s heart.
Fabrice, age 8, loved chocolate and swimming; bludgeoned with a club
Canelle, age 8, loved jogging with her father, also loved chocolate and milk. Her favorite song was “My Native Land Which God Chose for Me.” Hacked to death with a machete.
Ariane, age 4, loved cake and milk, singing and dancing. Stabbed in the eyes and head.
David, age 10, loved futball and wanted to become a doctor. His last words were, “UNAMIR (U.N.) will come for us.” Tortured to death.
Umatoni (6) and Umawezi (7), grenade through into their shower where they were hiding.
Fillette, age 2. Loved rice and chips. Little body smashed against a wall.
At the entry had been a plaque:
“In memory of our beautiful and beloved children who should have been our future.”
Unable to yet join with my group, I made my way in silence to the coffee house and sat down to write. How are we to explain this world to our children, our grandchildren? How do we share that these things exist and that the world is not only full of joy and laughter, but pain and despair? When are they old enough to understand? Are we ever “old enough” to understand? I, for one, am not.
This is not just about Rwanda. Rwanda has healed in ways I will never understand. This is about what we as humans have the capacity to do to one another. Whether it be incinerating in a chamber, blowing limbs off by land mines, or sending drones into homes. This is about life and human decency.
Rwanda teaches me so much about forgiveness, about all that is best in the human condition. I will keep telling the story.