Monday, June 27, 2011


The Ntarama Genocide Memorial caught up to me at church yesterday. While everyone around me sang upbeat praise songs, I cried silent tears with my hand over my mouth. Ntarama was the third and last memorial we visited. Like many of the sites where Tutsis were killed by the thousands, it had been a church. Our experience at the Ntarama Memorial was different in that a guide walked us around, laying over the hallowed grounds a steady stream of calculated words. He said things like systematic, indoctrination, polarization, oppression, and racism. He patiently relayed the colonial history and its aftermath - the story of the blood-soaked earth beneath our feet in the tiny sanctuary.

The church was the site of over 5,000 murders. Our guide explained that in the “practice genocide” of 1992, the Interahamwe militia had purposefully avoided church grounds, hoping that Tutsis would flock there when the time was right for their extermination. The plan succeeded and in 1994 many of those who died did so inside the walls of God’s houses.

We entered the memorial through an iron gate that opened into the back of the sanctuary, passing a sampling of human bones which had been cleaned and stacked on gorilla shelves. Some of the skulls were partially crushed or had machete hacks through them. They came in all sizes. The clothes of the victims had been stacked on pews or hung from the rafters, so that we had to pass underneath the rust-colored dresses, coats and trousers on our way to the front of the room.

Our guide spent a long time talking to us once we had squeezed ourselves into earshot around the linen-draped coffins. He pointed out how grenades had come through the windows. He showed us the collection of water cans, baby-bathing tubs, purses and shoes that had been stacked from floor to ceiling to the right of where a preacher had once stood addressing the crowd. He also showed us one of the government ID cards, which had meant life or death during the genocide. Each person had one so that race could be confirmed, since there was no way to accurately separate Hutu from Tutsi based on physical appearance, language or culture. The yellowed paper of the card, peppered with holes and smeared with dirt, was silent but the eyes of the woman pictured stared back, burning my heart.

Our guide added his own story of survival as a child; running from his home after watching his father murdered and traversing the marshland runs through Rwanda, cut here and there by a meandering river where bodies were dumped by the thousands, sent back to Ethiopia, from where the Tutsi clans were said to have originated.

He talked to us with his back to a wall of names. There was not that many names listed. The genocide was been so effective in this region that there was hardly anyone left to properly name the dead. Sometimes there would be only a first name, or a last name – a partial identity gleaned from the evidence that had fallen near the body. “Look at those hillsides there,” our guide said. “They used to be covered with farms. Now there is only grass. There are no people left.” I looked. It was a day’s hike across the space he was describing and the lush hillsides were indeed void of any evidence of human hands.

The Ntarama Memorial caught up to me yesterday morning in church. I pictured the entire permanent population of the college town where I live squeezed into the sanctuary. I looked at the clothes that people around me were wearing and suddenly the heaps of clothing, rusted with blood in the Ntarama church, took the forms of the men, women and children who had been wearing them, waiting in darkness for their eminent death. I pictured our own sanctuary littered with skulls and I wept.

That place had been a church. And it was full of bones. Full. Of bones.

Earlier, when we had visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I had scribbled down a quote from Yolande Mukagasana. I wrote it down because the beauty and pace of the words grated against the circular and empty logic:
“There will be no humanity without forgiveness.
There will be no forgiveness without justice.
But justice will be impossible without humanity.”

Pascal had told us that humanity does not have in itself what is needed for forgiveness. Forgiveness, or the grace to forgive, is a gift from God. Without it, as Mukagasana seemed to know, there is no hope and no point hoping.

But asking God for the gift of forgiveness by which to begin healing is complicated or stunted by one deep and craterous question: Can he be trusted? The reconciliation director who had met with us early in the week had talked about the importance of beginning the reconciliation process by letting people say out loud what they think about God. He told us what many victims say:

“God is Interahamwe.”

It had been God himself who had come for them and killed their families and stalked them in marsh and darkness. Even if he had not been the one with the machete, he had closed his eyes and listened with arms folded.

The reconciliation director told us that these things need to be said aloud. And heard. And wept over. Then, gently, people can begin to go back to God. “When people begin to realize that God is not hunting them down, they can begin healing.”

And so I add a small prayer of my own: Lord, be waiting. Be warm. Make them brave enough to say what they feel. And strong enough to tip their chins toward heaven.

“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18

No comments:

Post a Comment