Ghosts of Rwanda

By Michael Gerson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 28/11/07):

We are used to seeing aged Holocaust survivors with faded photographs, telling their stories to remind the young and forgetful. So it is shocking to meet a 31-year-old genocide survivor with memories so fresh they bleed.

I talked to Freddy Mutanguha in a field of white crosses, near a half-finished monument to perhaps 800,000 victims of the Rwandan genocide. «My mom,» he recalled, «gave money to be killed by a bullet, because she saw the machetes and knew what they would do to her. But the bullet was too expensive.»

The mass violence of Hutu against Tutsi left a nation of corpses — and a nation of stories. A young man took me on a tour of the neighborhood where he had been hunted for weeks by soldiers and informers. At one point, a friend purchased his life with the bribe of a case of beer. He hugs a woman along the dirt street, commenting as she walks away, «She lost all of her children.»

A man I met in passing, I later learned, was 14 when he performed the lonely task of burying his mother, father and siblings in a grave near their home.

And the ghosts seem to gather in sacred places. At Ntarama Church, soldiers surrounded thousands of Tutsis seeking refuge, blocked the door and threw grenades inside. The walls and rafters of the dark sanctuary are covered with the clothing in which the victims were found. Light comes through the tin roof in holes from shrapnel, like constellations frozen at the hour of death.

Some things about the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide are familiar. Victims were dehumanized for years as «inyenzi» — cockroaches — just as the Jews of Europe were labeled vermin. Tutsi children were forced to stand up in primary-school classes to be humiliated and abused — just as Jewish children were once treated. And children were eventually a special target of the murderers, to prevent them from growing up to perpetuate the threat — one of the excuses the Nazis employed.

And these patterns should be familiar, because at least some of the hatred in this part of Africa has European roots. In traditional African culture, the division between Hutu and Tutsi was social and economic; intermarriage was common, and mobility between classes was possible. Then German and Belgian colonial rulers in Rwanda and other places declared this a racial divide — measuring the skulls of Hutus and Tutsis to prove their racial theories and issuing racial ID cards.

But there are differences between the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Over time, Germany developed an impersonal machinery of death, with trains and timetables and gas chambers. In Rwanda, the violence was more intimate. Neighbors who had shared meals suddenly became informers and executioners — adopted children turned upon their families. At one church I visited, soldiers had taken children by the legs and smashed their heads against the wall.

And this has left behind a unique challenge. In Europe, there was little need for post-genocide reconciliation because few Jews were left. Here in Rwanda, many complicit in genocide remain in their neighborhoods or return after prison sentences. For many others, the fate of parents and siblings, after 13 years, is still unknown. Potential witnesses protect the guilty, and justice is uneven. Mass graves continue to be discovered when building foundations are dug. It is difficult for Rwandans to draw grand lessons from all this — except the need to somehow deliver the next generation from shapeless rage.

The rest of us can draw lessons of courage. A man I met who ran an orphanage saved the lives of nearly 400 children by bluffing the militias and bribing them with food. And those 400 lives mattered, even when 10,000 in the neighborhood around them were lost — both for the lives themselves and for the affirmation of human dignity that such rescues always symbolize.

We should also draw lessons of shame. Signs of stress and pleas for help were largely ignored in 1994. The world has a poor track record of preventing mass murder, though we have gotten good at the apologies that follow.

As the Rwandan genocide began, a woman named Sifa began hiding the hunted in her home until it was full. When one more arrived, she was forced to turn her crying friend away. But then she reconsidered, saying, «Come back or your tears will judge me forever.»

In Rwanda and elsewhere, the tears judge us still.