(circa the last 12 days of March 2017)
I wake up in the small bed-and-breakfast hidden in the streets of Kigali. The air outside is cool, rippling with the fervent, fertile current of impending rain. My room is small, the walls are cracked in places, the ancient porcelain tub discolored. All is just the way I like it, a perfect environment for the face I see in my mirror.
Breakfast is silent on the porch of the old house-turned-hostel. In slow increments the sky breaks and rain covers the earth like smoke. I am alive, my body almost paralyzed in the gentle power evoked from the splitting of the silver clouds. Who is this girl, this mystery, who sits on the edge of Kigali rain?
Adid arrives with the rumbling white four-wheel drive. Still under a spell, I wrap myself in my scarf, boots pulled tight. It is raining for the third time this morning as we depart into the slick grey streets.
We arrive at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the rain. Adid rushes me to the foyer, and pays for the small handheld device that will take me through this tour. Together we walk through a doorway into a room with white walls. The lady behind the desk turns on a short film about the genocide, and then leaves the two of us to watch.
My bridge to out-of-body anguish on levels of this magnitude was deadened, somehow, somewhere. Normally I don’t even register widespread tragedy; after the Westgate attack in 2013, I remember feeling empty. I just couldn’t find a handhold into sadness. Yet, watching survivors of the Rwandan Genocide describe the terror they faced, something raw becomes alive in me, tingling at the edges. Little by little, I piece together small images of the sheer loss of life that happened here, in 1994.
Adid’s head rests on his hands. I feel my upper lip tremble, and then a sudden wetness around my eyes. The man on the screen describes being in a stadium with his family as militia threw grenades into the huddled, terrified circles of families. I picture the screaming, the running, the terror. I think about my parents, about my dad, and how helpless he would feel in this moment if it were us.
The film ends, and Adid somberly leaves, walking up the stairs in the rain. I cross the slick white stones of the courtyard, into the memorial.
It is silent. My boots clunk each time they hit the floor as I make my way into the museum. Up ahead I can hear the murmur of a tour guide. I turn on my handheld device, and listen to the British voice narrating the events of the genocide from the colonial days.
I didn’t realize how much of the Rwandan Genocide was initiated by Western influence. Colonialists divided the Hutu and the Tutsi, staking separation along assumptions and ignorance. For years they taught a tribe to hate another. Through independence, military coups, and years of sporadic of killing, Europeans remained silent. Foreign weapons appeared under the table. A desperate plea for help arrived at the U.N., and officials ignored it. A genocide began.
Everything is heartbreaking. Two lovers, chained and buried together alive. A priest who offered sanctuary to thousands, only to phone the militia and have his own church burned to the ground. Children hiding sleeplessly for days and nights in the bushes of a farm, living every moment in fear of being found, tortured, and killed.
I stand in silence for a while in front of a stained glass window, designed by the son of a Holocaust survivor. The rays of light filter in despite the rain, gold warming the depths of the hallways. I wonder why things happen that give rise to such hatred.
Adid finds me after a few hours, telling me that we must go if I’m to make my flight. Together we walk through the rest of the exhibit, stopping at display about the Gacaca courts.
“This is really amazing,” Adid says. “These courts were the most effective ways a genocide has ever been dealt with.”
I don’t have time to read much, but what I do brings light back into me. Forgiveness. The courts brought together victims and perpetrators, the eyes and ears of society open as a people apologized to another. As a people forgave a people. As individuals accepted an unknown future, together.
We leave the museum, rolling through the grey streets of Kigali. Tentatively, I ask Adid the question that has been on my mind since I met him.
“What are you – Hutu, or Tutsi?”
His eyes become distant, eyebrows ever so slightly knitted. I know that he has been expecting this question.
“Tutsi,” he says softly. My heart twangs. It is quiet.
“Tutsi,” he states a second time, more strongly. “My parents left to Kenya earlier on, when they knew things were becoming bad. You can imagine my mom, watching the news. Most of our family in Rwanda was killed, and my sixteen year-old brother left to fight with Kagame and never came back.”
It begins to rain again as we sit in the car, the conversation ever so slowly unfolding itself.
“How was it possible to forgive?” I ask at some point.
“Kagame taught us this lesson: if we turned on the Hutu for revenge, then we would become no better than those who killed us.” Adid’s eyes are conflicted, but bright with conviction.
We arrive at the airport, and the world has taken on a different purpose to me. I bid farewell to Adid, so grateful to have met him, filled with awe at his strength, his resolution. Stepping onto the plane, I prepare to leave the most inspiring place I have ever been to.
The sky is grey and the Earth is green as it rains again.