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A Shout to the World

April 8, 2007

A genocide anniversary ceremony, at least in Rwanda, is more than a solemn act of national remembering and self-reflection. Here, it’s also a deeply political act, a shout to the world.

It’s early Saturday morning, April 7, and I’m on the road to Murambi. It’s a name that may someday resonate with Rwandans in the same way that Auschwitz and Buchenwald resonate with the Jews. My driver John has the radio set to a campus community radio station that is carrying an anniversary special. The presenter, a woman student at the National University of Rwanda, is reading a timeline of the 1994 genocide. The report is a simple recital of dates and facts, no commentary, no angry adverbs. But in its spareness, it stands as a polemic: “That afternoon (April 11) the UN soldiers are ordered to withdraw to the airport. Most of the civilians they abandon are killed.”

You can see my documentary Rwanda: Out of the Darkness here.)

Outside the car window, the country is awakening. It’s cool and sunny, the landscape lush and green, and a visitor needs to remind himself that this is Africa and not the Eastern Townships of Quebec on a spring morning.

In the town centre, hundreds of Rwandans are being marshaled into buses for the ride to the genocide memorial site. No private transport is allowed down the access road. I abandon John and the taxi, and stand in a queue for one of the buses. An organizer pulls me aside, and tells me to get in the bus through the driver’s door, to avoid the crush. Being white, an umuzungu, still carries its privileges in Rwanda.

At the memorial site, a former school compound perched on rolling hills, there’s heavy security. The people who arrived by bus are directed to one entrance; VIPs, or anybody dressed like one, are directed to another, where soldiers seize all cell phones. I ask why. “It’s security,” is all that the soldier will offer in the way of explanation. Next, he handles all cameras and electronic equipment, and then issues me a press card without asking for credentials or ID—a curious lapse.

It’s shortly after 8 a.m., and the speeches don’t begin until 11, but the “common” people are already here in great numbers, sitting on hard wooden benches in an enclosure. They will sit today with remarkable stoicism, under a cruel sun, for nearly six hours, under the gaze of blue-uniformed police. The police have a intimidating way about them: they glare at the people to discourage too much movement, or noisy talk. There are many children, and even babies, in the crowd but they too will wait quietly and dutifully in the heat. It’s the kind of grit and fortitude that seems uniquely African.

By contrast, the VIPs, including the diplomatic corps, invited guests and members of the press, have complete freedom of movement. They sit on comfortable chairs, bottled water in hand, shielded from the sun under huge pavilions.

In a perfectly just world, I’m thinking, it would be the other way around: the common people--the primary victims of the genocide—sitting comfortably in the shade, while the VIPs and the media, who were so craven in their indifference to the genocide, would be cooking in the sun in their jackets and ties.

Promptly at 11 am, the speeches begin. Here, there is no deference to the international guests. Even though the speakers are talking to the world, as well as Rwandans, there’s not a word of English or French. It’s all in Kinyarwanda, the national language. This strikes me as a departure from normal protocol, and the message to the diplomats is clear: We will rebuke you, as envoys of the world at large, for letting this genocide happen, and you will have to hear the rebuke in our language, the language of the victims. And you will listen for as long as we require. The diplomats sweat, fan themselves, look at their watches, but in the end they play out their roles with resignation.

The masses in the enclosure don’t seem very interested in the rhetoric of recrimination. They know exactly what the genocide was. The cadenced sentences of the politicians don’t add anything to their understanding. But they too seem to know their role here, so they sit and listen patiently.

Foreign media is scarce: apart from me, there’s a French documentary crew, a Reuters TV stringer, and one or two freelancers. This is not “news” by world standards, a lamentable fact, maybe, but not surprising. Rwanda TV, however, is carrying the entire event live.

The speeches, including an address by President Paul Kagame, last more than 2 ½ hours. There is also a ceremonial burial of two coffins, representing the tens of thousands of men, women and children who were killed here 13 years ago.

Then, the emotional heart of the ceremony begins. Kagame, his aides, cabinet members and their wives, lead off the tour of the school grounds. The VIPs follow the politicians, and then the masses follow them. It is a grisly and heart-stopping parade. We visit the “death” rooms where hundreds of corpses, preserved in lime, are arranged on low tables. Many of them are locked in the poses of their final agony—arms outstretched, jaws open as if screaming. I see one corpse with the index finger of the right hand extended, as if to say: “Wait, please.” I smell the sweet pungency of death—it seems impossible after all these years, but the odor is unmistakable. We then visit the rooms where the bloodstained clothes of the dead are folded and stacked in shelves. In a strange way, this gathering of rags is almost more emotionally overpowering than the tableaux of corpses.

I watch the faces of the people emerging from the death rooms. I see bewilderment. Rage. Despair. The blank look of disbelief. Some are sobbing. Some glare at me with my video camera. A handful of people collapse in hysterical grief, shrieking and flailing their limbs, and they are led away by Red Cross personnel.

Kagame’s purpose here in Murambi is more than a paying of respects to the dead, however. After the genocide, these killing fields were used as a base by French soldiers. The French are reviled by many Rwandans: they are widely seem as supporters of Rwanda’s majority Hutus, and it’s felt the soldiers could have done a lot more to protect the Tutsi victims. Kagame leads his entourage to a spot where the French soldiers proudly flew their flag in the weeks after the genocide, and then another field where, a sign says, the soldiers played “volley.” It seems the soldiers were cavorting at volleyball over what was in fact a mass grave of genocide victims.

It’s a harsh metaphor for what the world did (or rather didn’t) do in 1994—a little heavy-handed and unfair, perhaps. But genocidal remembrances, especially this soon after the fact, are not meant to be subtle, soul-soothing affairs.

Final note: My job here is to work with TV Rwanda journalists, and to help them put together more professional newscasts. In a future blog, I’ll look at how they, and other Rwanda journalists, report on the genocide and its aftermath. Are they able, after these few years, to do their work with balance and fairness? Do they have the courage, and the professionalism, to “speak truth to power” in dealing with a state whose post-genocidal agenda has a number of rough edges?

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