Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rwanda Whew!

Today’s blog will be longer and more somber than the rest. Last week really got me thinking, and many of the activities we did on our excursion to Western Uganda and Rwanda were sad and educational to say the least. We did have many fun and exciting experiences along the way though too. I stood on the border between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Rwanda’s natural beauty is incredible. We drove through mountains the whole way to Kigali, which is a beautiful city… and because Rwanda is run by a dictator, the city is much more organized and well kept than Kampala is.
To those of you interested in learning more about the genocide one good book is We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Two movies we watched were Sometimes in April and Hotel Rwanda. Both are decent.
The day before we left on our excursion, I got a chance to go to Kiboga and work on one of the Building Tomorrow Schools. We met the children who will attend the school and worked alongside the community. We helped dig the foundation. Getting my hands dirty felt awesome because last year at school, I was a (small) part of a club that raised $35,000 to build a school. Plus I am totally an observer here, and I felt like I actually did something. The people were so nice and invited us into their homes. After we finished our work, the locals took us up to their old school which was a 45 minute hike up a large hill. A little girl named Sharifa held my hand the whole way up and excitedly introduced me to her teacher. The primary school was a single room with a chalkboard and a few wooden benches.
Our first day in Western Uganda we went to the United Nations Millenium Development Project Village and learned about the systems the UN is implementing in select villages in developing nations to learn how to help communities successfully develop. Then we went to a Rwandan Refugee Settlement an briefly spoke to the refugees about their situation. I think about half of all the refugees from the Rwandan genocide entered Uganda, and Uganda has been trying to get rid of them now that Rwanda is peaceful again. The refugees live in extreme poverty. The children looked like those you see in charity infomertials with bloated bellies and crusty faces. The adults looked disgruntled and angry that we were not bringing them food or money. They told us they were starving and didn’t have enough room to grow their crops. Uganda has cut back on assisting them partly because they want them to leave. Many of them do not want to leave because they fear further persecution and prosecution should they return home.
Rwanda has a very bloody modern history. When it was colonized by the French in the 1800’s, the Catholic Missionaries decided to categorize people based on physical characteristics (particularly the width of the nose and the skin color). They arbitrarily created two main groups—the Tutsis and the Hutus. The minority were the Tutsis (with thinner noses and lighter skin) and they were treated as more intelligent and given positions of control over the Tutsis. The Hutus were mistreated and then in the middle of last century they were told by the Europeans that the majority should rule the minority and not vice versa… so a genocide started. I don’t think the first one was as terrible as the second, but it displaced countless refugees and launched a period of crazy tension. In the early 90’s, the tension once again boiled over and about 1 million people were slaughtered (mostly by machetes and mostly Tutsis) in about a year… with the world watching.
So the Kigali Genocide Memorial is amazing. It is not so different from the Holocaust Memorial in D.C. You can learn a lot of history (about a few other genocides too), hear personal stories, see pictures and skulls, etc. It is located on a plot of land with several mass graves right in the middle of the city. The part that hit me harder than the Holocaust memorial is that I was in the city and surrounded by people who were there. Everyone living in Kigali was affected… was either a perpetrator, victim, family member, or friend. Our tour guides lost parents and several were refugees for at least 5 years.
We went straight from learning about the atrocities to talking to those who performed them. At the last minute, we decided to make a stop at the Kigali Prison. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully comprehend this experience. It was extremely bizarre and emotionally confusing for all of us. If I came to hang out at an American prison, I would expect to be behind glass or bars, with guard supervision… etc. This prison was nothing like that. We walked in… some of us were told to leave cameras, but we were not searched, and some people freely carried in pocket knives, etc. when we walked in, I felt uneasy about the fact that the prisoners were freely walking around in the same area where we were. Plus the prison seemed like a resort. I was surprised to see men and women in same sex groups but not physically separated. We walked into the administration building and a prisoner who was lounging outside the head office kindly smiled and gave me her chair. We learned about the makeup of the prisoners, people aged 14 are mixed in with the rest, there isn’t a problem with torturing prisoners (like in Uganda), the prisoners are very well disciplined and kinda self-governing in that they hold elections to elect leaders for different sectors, etc. … the windows of the office were wide open, prisoners ambled by, no gunned guards seemed to be concerning themselves with either us or with protecting the administrators. We learned that Rwanda got rid of the death penalty after the genocide because they “didn’t want to see any more death.”
On our way to the chapel where we would meet the prisoners, I actually asked if we had left the prison. I saw a small fence abuout a football field away and many town houses within feet of it. Then I realized prisoners were strolling along the fence and the guard was facing the other way. We were still in prison. So I asked if it was a low-security prison. “No. This is our high security prison.” Wow. We entered the chapel which was covered in murals of a white Jesus. After we sat down, I noticed prisoners start strolling in and sitting behind us. This also made me a little nervous. They kept trickling in and then moved to the stage in front. By the time we began asking them questions, they significantly outnumbered us, and the administrators were sitting in the front of them with their backs turned to them. Not a guard was in the room with us. And they all seemed so friendly to one another. They truly and honestly looked like a family. The prison felt like a big commune or home. What’s more, two of the women talking to us actually had babies—one an infant and the other a toddler, who was passed around between a few of the women. Children under the age of three live with their mothers in prison.
Anyway, several of the prisoners stood up to tell us about their involvement during the genocide. One woman was an announcer on RTLM, the most popular anti-Tutsi radio station that gave orders to the Hutus to slaughter the Tutsis. Others were leaders or teachers and killers, must were conspirators. We then asked them questions.
One: “This has happened so many times throughout history; how could it happen again? Why didn’t you see that history was repeating itself?” --- the man who answered told us that they were not taught about that stuff in class. They do not have world history until secondary school. They were unaware and hatred had been building up so long.
One of our students gracefully asked: “Yeah the government told you to kill, but you are all thinking and rational beings so what made you think it was okay to brutally murder so many people?”--- the man told us about how they were taught since they were young that the Tutsi were the enemy… were terrible people who were trying to keep the Hutus down and use them. They were animals.
They all spoke of prayer and seeking forgiveness. They all thanked the prison system for helping them reconcile. Some of us students began to doubt their sincerity once we learned that by confessing and apologizing, many of them could get off or lessen their charges.
After the talk, the prisoners wanted to get a picture with us. We walked out as many of them shook our hands and we didn’t know how happy to look in the picture… some had their arms around us, told us “thank you” in French.
We didn’t know where to go from there. All during lunch, we tried to process what we had seen… the atrocities and those who did them. I was excited to see a prison system that seemed to treat the prisoners so well… they seemed more than comfortable. Someone asked me “Well, is that justice?” I thought about that question for the rest of the trip.
Right after lunch, we visited a church that was the site of a huge massacre. The priest of the congregation led the Hutus to his prison where he was hiding 10,000 Tutsis. Only a few survived. The priest now denies it and lives in Texas. Walking in, you notice bullet holes in the tin roof and in the bricks… but the most striking feature is the huge heaps of the victims’ clothes that cover the benches and the floor around the outside of the church. Seeing children’s clothing was especially difficult… especially when you could see that it was ripped or had large holes in it. Two forgotten machetes lay on the altar. The tabernacle is still open because of the bullet that broke into it. mary glowed in the sunlight splattered with faded blood. And the place smells like dusty clothes… 10,000 musty outfits. Many massacres happened like this one, and the church memorials are set up similarly.
In the basement of the church, one woman who died during gang rape has a special casket visible under the glass floor. Outside, two mass graves lay open with stairs leading into the grave. We walked into the tomb which has shelves from the floor to the high ceilings. They go so far back that they are too dark to see the back wall. On the shelves are the skulls and bones of the 40,000 men, women, and children who were killed in the church and in the surrounding neighborhood. Both of our tour guides’ parents were in the grave. It was her first time seeing the church.
After dinner, we had a lecture about the justice system and about reconciliation. Millions of cases and thousands of judges arose overnight. Many judges are illiterate. The focus of the whole ordeal is not retribution but rehabilitation and reconciliation. They basically don’t want to put away all the killers and ostracize all the Hutus because then the hatred won’t end. I can’t imagine where this leaves the victims.
Well to change gears, we shopped in Kigali the next day and then drove through the back roads of Queen Elizabeth National Park… where we saw elephants, warthogs, Ugandan Kobs, etc. We saw salt lakes being mined, and the mountains and the sky right before the storm were incredible. So far since I have been here… I have seen four of the five international borders surrounding Uganda. I probably wont see the fifth because it is too dangerous.
And on a lighter note…. One of my Muzungu colleagues saw a hobo jogging naked through the busy street market. I will leave you with that… and possibly with a few of my pictures… which will reveal a fun surprise… though Aunt Rosie: be warned that you might not like what you see. I will post more later.
Also to those who read about “slashing” the lawns here… I learned how a lawn is planted also. 100 community members each take a handful of fully grown grass from a grass pile… and a stick. They dig a small hole with the stick, put in one little grass rootlet (a few strands of grass) and repeat every few inches for the next 2 days. Sorry the blog was soooooo long and arduous!


Tom Bott said...

Solemn, overwhelming and awesome! You are adorable… with or without hair!

Aunt Rosie said...

Your Dad is right, you are still adorable. I'm not even surprised to see you without hair. TIA. You know what they say, when in Africa ...