Rwanda

Rwanda - 7/4/06

We woke up to refreshing hot towels, a tasteless croissant, orange juice, coffee, a roll, and some peach yoghurt. We arrived in Zurich at 6 am. It is a nice modern airport (for which we were grateful after our Nairobi airport frustrations), and we took a sleek subway down lit tunnels to get to our terminal. We tried in vain to enter a transit lounge, but our frequent flyer status wasn't high enough. We found an area to sit, but we were soon way too hot. We walked down the concourse and found another spot near the escalators. There was more air circulation here and it was more comfortable. We each read for a while. I looked in some of the giftshops, where cuckoo clocks were prominently featured. Everything was very expensive. At 10:15 our gate was announced. We went to sit at the gate. Nearby was a Bakeside Swiss Bakery, and we bought a delicious (though overpriced) turkey and brie baguette. We had to walk to another gate to go through passport control. When we returned to our own gate, we met Pam and Eric, friends who (totally coincidentally) would be on our flight home after vacationing in Italy and Croatia. It is such a small world! We chatted with them for a while, and the flight boarded at 12:40.

We were in a 2 seat section on the window. We had seatback TV's for this leg and were quite happy. We watched "V for Vendetta", "Analyze This", and "Ice Age 2." "V for Vendetta" was great, and we partially watched it during two other airings. For lunch we had chicken with rice and peas, a salad, and some cheese. Craig got a Heineken and I had apple juice. For dessert we had a little cup of Movenpick vanilla ice cream and some coffee. Much later, they brought around cheese and tomato calzones and chocolate bars. Now this was more like it. The food was not only passable, but actually good. It was a much more enjoyable flight for us. Pam and Eric were stuck in the front row and had jokingly offered us $100 to trade seats. Sorry guys! Halfway through the flight, they walked past us on the way to the rest room and offered us $50 for the remainder of the flight. Still no deal.

We landed in Boston at 3:30. When we went through passport control, the man was very friendly and was intrigued about Rwanda. We got our luggage and went through customs. We were asked if we were carrying any fruit or carved wood items. We declared our ebony club and ebony carvings. She said that as long as they were finished (and they were) that it was no problem. She said she didn't want us to be calling her in a week saying that worms came out of some raw wood. We waited for the Logan Express bus on the curb at 3:55. This would be our first time taking it. There are about 5 different routes, and of course, we saw the other four buses before ours finally arrived at 4:20. In another small world coincidence, our dental hygenist was also on the bus with us. She and her son and his girlfriend were returning from Italy. We chatted about our trips, and Steve and Eric picked us up at the bus station and drove us home. For once, we weren't arriving late at night. We would have time to do some laundry and get settled in before going to work tomorrow.

Today was July 4, Independence Day in the United States. The U.S. celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. July 4 is also an important day in Rwanda, as it is the anniversary of the day in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of Kigali, effectively ending the genocide.
Craig reading at the Zurich airport

Subway at Zurich airport

Epilogue

After returning home we continued to research Rwanda. The country had really gotten under our skin. The beauty of the country and its unique wildlife, the resilience of its people after such a tragic event in recent history, and the personal connection we felt after having such an intimate talk with a survivor of the horrors. I felt that I needed to learn more, and to be abke to write a well-researched account on the web site. I felt like I couldn't just sit back and ignore what I had learned. I was compelled to do my small part to try to contribute to the "Never forget" campaign.

We watched "Sometimes in April", which was very good. It had obviously been filmed on location. The Rwandan hills were unmistakable. It also had Rwandans in the cast. We watched some extra material on the DVD, and it explained that many of the actors and extras were survivors of the genocide, and reliving the same horrible events in front of the camera this time. This could be both cathartic and disturbing, and there were many psychologists on the set to counsel the participants.

The first book I read about the genocide was Philip Gourevitch's "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" and found it to be very informative. Gourevitch is a journalist who went to Rwanda in 1995. He "wanted to know how Rwandans understood what had happened in their country, and how they were getting on in the aftermath. The word 'genocide' and the images of the nameless and numberless dead left too much to the imagination." The book is a very well-written account of Rwandan history, pre- and post-genocide. He interviews survivors, war criminals, humanitarian aid workers, and President Paul Kagame. The book is very well-researched and provides perhaps more information than is digestible on one reading.

In Jean Hatzfeld's "Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak," ten convicted killers from Nyamata who were at the time in prison at Rilima spoke to Hatzfeld about their involvement in the murders of their neighbors. It was very difficult to read, as it gave insight into just how casually a lot of the killers viewed the genocide. As farmers, they thought of the killings as a reprieve from working in the fields. They viewed killing as a temporary 9-5 job, as "work" that needed to be done. They benefitted from looting and were given free food and beer in the cabarets at night. They felt a sense of camaraderie and common purpose. There was no fear of punishment or retribution, and their actions were government-sanctioned. Though most Hutu women weren't directly involved with killing, some were. Others supported their husbands' actions and took part in looting. Women often would not attempt to hide or rescue their neighbors' Tutsi children because their husbands would be ridiculed and/or fined if they were found out. Now that they are serving their time in prison, Hatzfeld's interviewees naively expect that forgiveness from survivors is owed to them, so that everyone can continue on with life as if nothing ever happened. "The way they see it, pardon - whether collective or individual, useful or useless, painful or not - comes on its own and is available upon request...asking for pardon is thus a selfish act invested in the future, because it facilitates [their] reunion with family and friends, promotes [their] rehabilitation, and helps [them] renew former relationships." They have great contempt for their fellow killers who were never tried and/or convicted.

I also read Paul Rusesabagina's book "An Ordinary Man." It is an autobiography, and it is very interesting. For the most part, the depiction of events in the movie of "Hotel Rwanda" correspond to Rusesabagina's story. He readily admits that he did whatever he had to do to keep his hotel's 1268 occupants safe, and that often included bargaining and sharing a "friendly" drink with evil people. "...In order to fight evil you sometimes have to keep evil people in your orbit..in an era of extremism you can never afford to be an extremist yourself." He seems pretty humble. Lives were taken at an average rate of 5 per minute during the genocide. Rusesabagina writes, "At the end, the best you can say is that my hotel saved about four hours' worth of people. Take four hours away from one hundred days and you have an idea of just how little I was able to accomplish against the grand design." Rusesabagina was a Hutu, and I was interested to learn that he now lives in exile in Belgium. He was critical of the justice system following the genocide, feeling that Tutsis were not punished for reprisal violence against Hutus (one infamous incident was RPF's violent closing of the refugee camp at Kibeho in 1995). He questioned the fairness of the elections by which Kagame won the presidency with 95% of the vote, and claimed that Kagame's government favored Tutsis and could lead to repression of innocent Hutus. He eventually felt that it wasn't safe to remain in Rwanda with his critical views of its government, and moved his family to Brussels in 1996.

Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, the leader of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), wrote a memoir entitled "Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. After the genocide, Dallaire suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He felt that the UN mandate had prevented him from being able to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. I have not yet finished this book, but there is one passage that I have read which rings very true about foreign policy today, as well as in 1994. Dallaire writes, "Engraved still in my brain is the judgment of a small group of bureaucrats who came to 'assess' the situation in the first weeks of the genocide: 'We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans.'" Natural resources and forms of wealth are seen as worthy of intervention. Simple human rights and lives are not. Humanity did fail in the Rwanda situation, and it continues to do so throughout the world today.

It is easy to become overwhelemed and depressed by these events, and to see mankind as evil and hopeless. But I take strength from the people of Rwanda, who welcomed us so openly, despite all the tragedy that they had been through. These people continue on with their lives, laughing and smiling and taking pleasure where they can. They have no choice but to move forward, armed with knowledge that may help to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. There is hope for us yet.

UPDATE: May 2011

We saw General Dallaire speak at the Brattle Theatre about his new book, "They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children." See our blog post for details.
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