Wednesday, March 23, 2011


On Life’s Terms


As I approached the third garden in Rwanda's Genocide Memorial this past February, I was not prepared for its impact. I was there after a short trek into Dian Fossey's gorilla sanctuary, taking a detour encouraged by our tour company's required guide. I had been impressed by the apparently vital growth of the city of Kigali since the 1994 genocide, but I couldn't help but be emotionally affected by the faces of the villagers, especially as we drove farther and farther away from the city towards the volcanoes that house the primates. I could imagine the cries of children as we passed lush coffee farms and couldn't help but notice the absence of many adult men, the largest proportion of the people massacred in the genocide of that year.

So while I had savored the thrill of sitting in the volcanic forest near some of the world's most amazing animals, I pondered the eternal verities of existence (such as motherhood and family) and how living creatures survive times of destruction, holding out for life at any cost. Then, visiting the memorial the next day etched even further into my consciousness the realities of life's fragility.

Most of us have read about or viewed depictions of the atrocities committed in the name of government, race or war. Naturally, I studied these again and then the very detailed historical explanation and history of the Rwandan slaughters. It is now estimated that close to a million people died, mostly Tutsis but also many other moderate Hutus or Rwandans who tried to help victims or prevent the massacres. The most impressive part of the whole museum was, however, the chronicling of the efforts of the Rwandan people and the United Nations to provide a means of healing after these atrocious acts.


The UN tribunal dealing with the war crimes in Rwanda is located not in that country but in Arusha, Tanzania, and the small miracles emanating from the imprisonment and trials and then rehabilitation of some of the murderers who attacked neighbors and lifelong friends remains one of the most moving stories I have ever heard. Pictures, oral renditions and videos of men who have served time for mowing down their neighbors with machetes reveal something rare: a country- and people-inspired policy of forgiveness.

After many of the torturers confess their crimes and detail the names of the dead (so many of the victims remain unnamed), they are often sent back to resume their lives in the villages they once inhabited. The amazing result of the post-genocide procedures is that most perpetrators have been forgiven and reluctantly accepted into their original communities, with the hopeful concomitant reality that this country is not being continually ravaged by hatred, strife and genocide.

Whether or not this seeming miracle will last is unknown, but I prayed for success as I traveled through the gardens' trees and flowers donated from all around this country. I emerged from the top Garden of Unity at the memorial, which has lush plants and water flowing from a representational time of peace, into the second (the Garden of Division), best represented by the circular number of statues of Rwandans turning away from each other, not listening or speaking about the horrors upon them, and then entered the last garden (the Garden of Reconciliation), where the waters flow into the vision of a new Rwanda, once again encircling its people in love and safety.

I have heard of similar efforts in other places, such as South Africa, and celebrate those efforts of reconciliation. Somehow, like visiting the beaches of Normandy, the home of Anne Frank or other memorials to pain, one always hopes that we learn from past injustices. This time, though, near the mass graves and their loving caretakers, I thought maybe my nature as a cockeyed optimist is not entirely unwarranted. If former enemies now reunited as neighbors can farm land together, as I witnessed in a recent documentary, perhaps there is hope for eventual healing. If these men can now say they would be happy to see their children marry each other, perhaps there is hope for the rest of us who, perhaps, can never forget but may possibly forgive. Is it really spring?

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