Monday, August 19, 2013

They Know Not What They Do

I don’t think of the genocide that happened here in Rwanda nineteen years ago every day. But it’s always in the background, surfacing when I least expect it.

            A couple weeks ago, during the Jubilee mass in my community, about forty people approached the altar that had been set up in the middle of our soccer field. I assumed it was a baptism, or confirmation of adults, or just honoring some community leaders. Then I turned to my left and saw that my favorite nun, Sr. Adelinde, had tears slowly welling up in her eyes.
            I asked her who the people standing in front of the altar were, and she responded simply, “Genocidaires.” Those who had committed the crime of genocide. People who had beaten, murdered, and raped their own neighbors, because of a quasi-ethnic designation refined during the colonial period in Rwanda’s history. Genocidaires. The word sounded jarring, even in Sr. Adelinde’s soft-spoken voice.
The group of genocidaires, standing before the makeshift altar
            I sat there, stunned. I couldn’t stop staring at the group of people right before me. There were both women and men, which surprised me a bit. In my head, I had pictured violent men with machetes as the perpetrators of the crime, and women and children being primarily victims. Most members of the group were middle-aged and older, with beards tinged with grey and women with every so slightly rounded backs. They were dressed in their Sunday best, although that varied from nice, colorful dresses and groomed hair to baggy old suitcoats, mismatched pants, and polished but worn shoes.
            I looked around me, at the other people in the congregation. Some people had pursed lips. Some had faces that were completely blank and absent of any expression. And some had tears. Not tears streaming down their faces, as public crying is very much looked down upon in Rwandan culture. But tears, like Sr. Adelinde’s, building up and threatening to tumble down cheeks. I wondered how people in the audience felt. Fear? Anger? Sorrow? Bitterness? I thought of Sr. Adelinde herself, who saved thirty people during the genocide at risk to her own life. I wondered how she felt, and how I would feel, sitting in her place.
            The bishop presiding over the mass gave a blessing to the group, and then everyone, the genocidaires before the altar and the crowd, cheered. Just like that, they were officially forgiven by the church and were welcome to take communion again.That image, of the crowd going crazy and the genocidaires hugging and clapping in the middle of the soccer field, is one that I will never forget.

(Edited: My parish's genocide reconciliation program, Gacaca Nkirisitu, actually made international news, check it out HERE). 

            The day after the Jubilee I was at breakfast with Sr. Agnes, who works with me in the nutrition department at my health center. The other nuns had taken their tea earlier in the morning, so it was just the two of us. As she came into the room, I noticed she was limping ever so slightly. I asked her what had happened. She dismissed it with a quick wave. “It’s nothing. A sore leg.” “What happened? Did you fall on some ice?” I joked. “No,” she replied, “It’s from…” Her voice trailed off.
            Sr. Agnes had never spoken of her experiences in the genocide, or afterward, to me. During the official genocide commemoration month in April, she rarely came out of her tiny bedroom in our convent, and when she did come to get water, her face was puffy. I knew that she lived near Kibuye, where some of the worst atrocities of the genocide occurred, and that she never goes back there. I know that she has no family to visit.

Peaceful Kibuye today
            I had unintentionally waded into sensitive territory, and didn’t want to press the issue any more than I already had. But she continued, dabbing her face with a napkin as tears streamed down her cheeks. “It’s from a gun. Years ago, but several years after the genocide was over, I was on a crowded bus near Kibuye. Our bus was stopped by an armed militia that was responsible for perpetrating crimes during the genocide, the Interahamwe, hiding in the bush. They shot at our bus, used machetes and guns, and killed all of the passengers but myself and four other people. That’s how my leg was injured.”
             I was at a complete and utter loss for words. The only thing that came to my mind was “Komera”, a Kinyarwanda word that means “be strong”, but is often used as a replacement for “sorry” since there’s no word for that in Kinyarwanda. I wondered how much physical pain she must have been in the past twelve years, and the extent she’s hidden both her emotional and physical injuries from others. There’s no physical therapist or psychologist in my district. Sr. Agnes has never, ever complained, and she often does manual labor in our health center’s garden, planting and weeding for hours in the hot sun.
            We sat there sipping our tea, and eventually I asked how she felt on Sunday as the genocidaires were welcomed back to the Church, their sins forgiven, nineteen years after the genocide occurred. She paused, and then responded, “It is difficult. But it’s what I’ve been praying for.” She went on to explain that in the beginning, after her family and neighbors were killed in the genocide, she tried to forget. And she tried to forgive, but just didn’t know how. Then a few years later, the bus attack happened, and she was back to square one. Sr. Agnes said that for years, her only prayer, repeated over and over, was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

My sisters <3
            I still lie awake at night and think of all the people in my community affected by the terrible events of 1994. I wonder if I would have the strength to forgive if my family and friends were murdered; if I would have the power to respond to violence, hatred, and death with forgiveness, love, and compassion. And the answer is, I don’t know. I hope I never, ever have to know.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Cause for Celebration

              Last Sunday, my village had the biggest celebration I’ve seen since being in Rwanda. It was the Jubilee year of the parish in my village, or 50 years since the church was built. Additionally, the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, was scheduled to visit, a fact nearly everyone in my village was thrilled about.

A sign welcoming the First Lady, or "Madamu wa Perezida" to our parish
 The week leading up to the Jubilee was crazy. Everyone was working around the clock, painting buildings and fences, trimming and watering shrubs, and sweeping the dirt road (yes, you read that correctly). I went to go visit my friend Mama Jean, who described the preparations thus with a completely straight face: “We are sweeping, cleaning, and keeping the crazy people locked up.” The nuns and I joked that the only thing the President needs to do to develop Rwanda is to just go on tour around the country all the time.

            Along with all of the preparations came the soldiers. A lot of soldiers. I have gotten used to the rather heavy military presence here in Rwanda. At first, I was shocked to see uniformed soldiers with AK-47s on street corners in Kigali, or walking through my community, or huge trucks filled with groups of UN troops huddled inside, racing down the road through my village towards Congo. Now that’s normal. In preparation for the big day, the Rwandan soldiers guarded our soccer field 24/7 for a couple days leading up to the event, and searched the area thoroughly, including the nuns’ convent. After all of the preparations were made and the soldiers determined the nuns weren’t an imminent threat, Sunday morning finally came. The nuns were up at the crack of dawn; some had been working through the night, arranging flowers and rugs outside on the soccer field in front of our house.

            All of us were thoroughly searched and patted down by the soldiers before entering the ceremony. They even checked the nuns’ veils (you never know what they might be hiding up there…). No one was allowed to bring cell phones into the area, which was the same as when I got to see President Kagame speak in January. As if that wasn’t enough, the phone companies shut down the network in our region. I asked the soldiers if I could bring a camera in. After thoroughly checking it and then taking several pictures of me, they allowed me to bring it in.

            The Jubilee celebration started at 7 am, but people must have started arriving at 5 am, as a couple hundred people were already on the soccer field at 6:30. There were more priests and nuns in one place than I’d see anywhere except Rome. I also was taken by surprise when some Austrians, wearing full-on lederhosen and dirndls appeared out of nowhere. Kinda random, but totally cool. 

The President’s wife showed up just before mass started in a shiny animal print umushyanana (basically a toga), heels, and fancy sunglasses.

            We sat through a 4-hour mass, followed by the Rwandan national pastime: speech making. If there were an Olympics for speech making, Rwandans would win the gold medal every. Single. Time. At any possible event in Rwanda, at least half the time must be devoted to speech making. The longer the speeches, the more important the event.  Most people are even able to do it off-the-cuff, making a twenty-minute speech extemporaneously. It doesn’t matter if you’re only with five other people, or if everyone says pretty much the same thing. Which actually happened, in this case. Every speaker would start off with fifteen minutes of thanking the Madamu wa Perezida Kagame for being there, thanking the various ministers and governors and civil officials, thanking the military, the priests, the nuns, the choir, and then moving on to how exciting it was our parish is celebrating its jubilee year…After the First Lady spoke, she made a beeline for the sleek black Land Rover that was waiting for her. Can’t say I really blame her ;)

Four and a half hours of speech making later, the outdoor ceremony was finished and the real party began (although unfortunately, the speeches would continue inside). We went to the "multipurpose room" of our village, which was decorated with sheets of fabric and fake flowers. There were priests, nuns, and bishops from every corner of Rwanda, and some from Congo and Burundi as well. There was a Rwandan buffett, which generally means a ton of starchy carbohydrates (boiled potatoes, french fries, cassava, sweet potatoes, and boiled bananas), plus beans, and goat meat. THERE WAS EVEN A CAKE WITH REAL FROSTING! The only real cake I've eaten in Rwanda was one I made myself (well, okay, a chocolate cake mix sent in a care package). Exciting stuff. 

The cake holder in the multipurpose room, decorated with the
colors of the Rwandan flag. Subtle elegance, right? 
The ceremony finally ended around 5, or ten hours after we began. All in all, an awesome weekend! 
D'Assisi in his three piece suit, plus a lollipop from the ceremony