Friday, June 24, 2011
The evening of our first day in Rwanda the team met with a man who oversees reconciliation projects around the country and the continent. His PowerPoint presentation moved at a pace slow enough to accommodate some vulnerable and raw details of his experiences growing up Hutu, fleeing the country and living through the inhumane conditions of a refugee camp and eventually coming to see the absurdity of hate through the eyes of Jesus. But because he was Hutu and because his family is from the northern hotbed of Hutu hate frenzy, he told us that he often begins his work facilitating reconciliation by apologizing on behalf of Hutus for the genocide, even though he was not himself a perpetrator.
As I chewed curiously on this idea of blanket apology, he pulled the rug out. “You know, you should think about doing the same thing,” he said. “You will go to these villages and people will be polite to you, but they hold mzungus (white people) responsible in many ways for what happened here.” I looked at my shoes but I knew in my heart that I had just been given a word from God.
Leading up to the trip, lots of people naturally asked me what we would be doing in Rwanda. “I really don’t know,” I answered. I anticipated that there was something important about just being there, listening and learning – offering a witness and trying to take some of that home in our suitcases along with the red clay dust of the roads we traveled, stained into our clothes. But I did not imagine taking responsibility for my part in a genocide.
By the time we met this man we had been to the Kigali memorial and looked at the mass grave with the glass door by which they feed the bodies (continually unearthed by construction) onto their rest. At the point of conversation, the 1994 genocide was very real to me, and I would never of had the courage on my own to say anything meaningful about it to the survivors we were visiting.
The Germans colonized in 1884. The Belgians invaded in 1916 (during World War I) and are generally credited with taking a convoluted quasi-social classification and turning it into an arbitrary race war, which burst into the bloody flames of genocide in 1994. And the genocide itself is when the rest of the West solidified its position of purposeful and disdainful disinterest in the dismemberment of innocent women and children by machete. The UN had soldiers in the country. The U.S. received daily faxes from Paul Rusesabagina at the Hotel des Mille Collines (made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda). But the lives of one million Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers were met with total silence from the West. Although I was not a diplomat or a lobbyist or even a High School graduate in 1994, I know that the UN stood down, paralyzed by their orders and only raised their rifles to kill the dogs that were feeding on the bodies in the street.
On day two of the trip we met with a large group of widows who use a Rwanda Partners building for weekly meetings where they offer each other emotional support. Many of the women were clearly fragile. One had a deep machete scar across her left cheekbone. They talked about Jesus and friendship and finding the strength to bathe themselves and dress themselves, despite their crushing grief. When it was my turn to speak, my lip trembled violently and my heart kept pace. I told them I was very sorry for their sorrows and asked for their forgiveness on behalf of my family, my church and my nation. Right away a few women stood and offered me an embrace. I was folded into strong arms that held me close for a few long, breathless and healing seconds. The small words were accepted over shared tears.
Later in the week we met with a large group of reconciliation ambassadors, many traveling long distances by bus to make the meeting. These are men and women who have made forgiveness the business of their life, investing themselves in the physical, emotional and spiritual healing of their communities. We took our place around the circle of patio chairs.
We exchanged polite greeting and kisses on the cheeks, but I could feel the vague chill that we had been warned about, like the cold of a concrete floor coming through wool socks. My husband felt it too and stood to take his turn with the small words. His eyes began swimming and his voice faltered but he spoke from his heart about the shame and silence of our family, church and nation. When he was done speaking, a few men rose to hug him. One man, with both his arms around my husband’s neck sobbed quietly while the rest of us studied our folded hands.
Then one of the men who had stood to forgive my husband spoke. He spoke quietly, saying through an interpreter that he appreciated the sincerity and accepted my husband’s small words. He then bravely added that all his life he had dreamed of one day getting a gun and killing all mzungus. The hyperbole of his statement did not dilute its raw honesty and truth. Even someone who has made forgiveness his life deserves the chance to extend that forgiveness and continue the process of healing. Pascal, who works for Rwanda Partners and whose story is featured in Wounded Healers, had told us days before (while sitting next to Narcisse, who killed his wife and unborn child during the genocide) that man is not capable of forgiveness. It is a gift from God, accepted in an instant. But healing, on the other hand, is a process. And it can take a lifetime. And sometimes it demands extraordinary distances over which to carry small words.
(forgiver and forgiven after the meeting)
(Narcisse, Pascal and us)