Rwanda: Beauty and Loss

In these remarkable messages, sent to the Dart Center from Rwanda, Deirdre Stoelzle-Graves shares impressions of that country.

I want to tell you how hard it has become to be here. It is at once heaven and bitter, bitter hell, and yet all I can do is smile and cry and smile and cry. Today we went to Nyamata, a memorial and interment for 20,000 Rwandans killed in April 1994, the former site of a Catholic Church.

Thousands of skulls and piles and piles and piles of other bones are placed in these catacombs behind the church, and more and more are being found and placed with the rest. Many skulls show obvious injuries sustained with pangos, or machetes, the weapons of mass destruction in this Third World paradise.

As I headed into the courtyard, I broke down a bit. Two boys approached and hugged me, and I straightened right up. I feel like my tears are so indulgent, and when I speak to other Rwandese journalists and aid workers, they are sympathetic, but they have already cried. They've heard the stories of rape, infanticide, awful death. It's now time to rebuild.

Which brings us to the courts of gacaca, which in Kinyarwanda means "Grass," and that's where these sessions take place, in a clearing in a village, under a plastic canopy, with all villagers in attendance. It is a solemn, very serious affair, with 18 judges — known as "people of high integrity" — who in November or possibly before will begin holding trials against those prisoners who were accused and have admitted to crimes committed during the genocide eight years ago.

It is agonizing and daunting: imagine a victim of rape who has never discussed her victimization and who has, possibly, moved away from the village, having to now testify against her perpetrator(s)? Hopefully the work that Ervin and Laurie and George Weiss are doing regarding radio programs that can assist Rwandans during gacaca will be as useful as we suspect.

Part 2

When our matatu emerges from landscape blanketed with banana trees, we get the first view of Kivu. It is oceanic. It was a good idea to come. On the beach a man and a boy secure the netting used to catch tilapia. When I walk past, I encounter more boys of 15 or so, all asking for sips of my bottled water, and of course I oblige them. Within minutes I am lounging with them on the shoreline, the sand thick like unrefined sugar, and the boys place handfuls of it on their shoulders. Papy and the others sing a song, in Kinyarwanda, about the power of love, which I record. After that I ask Papy about his life here and he tells me that during the genocide he and his two younger brothers and sister were taken by their mother to neighboring Congo. His father was taken to Kigali and killed. The boy beside him, Abubo, lost his mother. The talk is soft, gentle. I tell them that broken bones heal the strongest and they translate for one another and for themselves in Kinyarwanda, throwing in some actual muscle-flexing for extra emphasis. We chat a bit about music — they like rap, not Celine, she's too slow — and when I dole out my RwFr100s, I joke with them — they're wearing only swimming trunks — that they have no place to store the cash. We part after posing for photos in which we flash our own versions of gang signs, and with promises to e-mail, promises I will keep. I hope to find age-mates for them to correspond with.

At the Tom-Tom Lounge here I am tended by a gorgeous Tutsi who convinces me to eat tiny deep-fried and battered poisson and chips. Alone for a few minutes, I turn on my new Celine tape and look into Kivu, and when the group breaks into harmony, I break down in despair at the abject beauty and corresponding loss. And my tired psyche plays into it, reminding me of the reports of bodies floating on this lake, the surrounding collines smoking from torched homes. This is the saddest place I've ever been. Nearby, where the Sebeya River pours rust into the blue lake, the brown heads of the boys bob over the little waves, and I can hear them singing.

It is ancient, not of this age, and yet from our earlier interaction their emotional and intellectual sophistication is apparent. When my waiter catches me crying, he sits in the chair behind me, and listens quietly as I struggle, in my ridiculous French, why I am, as I put it, a mental project. "C'est fini," is all I hear of his soothing words. I manage to return to my lunch, and swallow a bite, although the wad it causes in my throat seems to activate more tears. I am a complete mess. I am so overwhelmed by this experience. I am so sad to leave, and yet experienced with such sadness. I know the routine — falling in love with everyone and everything and plotting some return. Except I don't know when or even if I will return — it's already taken the height of my career (so far) to get me here. Maybe the opportunity will never again arise. And besides, the flight absolutely sucks.

I cry for the survivors, all of us, who forever will miss Rwandan fathers and mothers, grandparents, cousins, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, none of whom had a chance. I cry for the land, ravaged of its beauty with the bodies of its faithful stewards, scorched from grenades and evil, evil fires that stole history, photo albums, treasured books and weavings, beloved toys and animals. I cry for the rivers, running red with blood to Lake Victoria, carrying with them the bloated corpses of women, men and children, and for Lake Kivu, whose fish cannot be tasted without a thought of where the genocide wound up placing it on the food chain. I cry for the men and women of Rwanda, and recognize the beautiful child in each of them, and love them, too. I cry because I love them all, and now I must leave without having given them enough.

Part 3

Sisters of Charity Mission, Kigali — A woman lies terribly weak and emaciated on a cot, a jug of water beside her, and when I approach, she uses all her effort to shake my hand.

"Amakuru," I say.

"Nimeza," she whispers, meeting my eyes, matching my smile. I bend down beside her, gently caress her bones, graze her cheeks with my fingertips.

She could die at any moment.

She is surrounded by flies.

The tiny boy with AIDS gets in my lap; he clings to me with such urgency, and once carried on my hip, he has the air of a child satisfied and comfortable and completely attended.

I oblige him, but with great reservation. There's the dried — and drying — snot, for one, the big eyes and sunken cheeks, the bone-thin body. He has no mother.

In a rocky courtyard outside, demented women wander about, and others sit silently on a bench. "She's lost her mind," Josephine says of one.

She'd been raped in the genocide, seen people killed, the nun says.

The old woman beside her was blind, and I touched her hand and bent down before her so she could touch my face. She motioned for me to sit beside her and her hands moved all over me and the little boy in my arms. She touched the boy, grabbed my breast, and shook her head with a disturbed look on her face. I was not the boy's mother.

In the men's quarters a boy lies in a crib twitching, and Sister Josephine tells me he is an epileptic and is therefore not to be placed with the other children. As I make a move toward his crib, a man approaches and lifts the child, who is approximately 3 years old, and places him in my cradled arms.

The boy is wet, urine and sweat dripping off him into the pools of his plastic crib cover. My dress and jacket are drenched, and I place him on a cot beside the crib. He is crying now, suffering, telling his story in sobs and huge tears.

Sister Josephine yanks off his sopping pants, and poop rolls out, small and speckled. I caress the boy's head until he is calm, and when the man brings a cloth to clean his filthy face, he is not gentle enough and I take the cloth from him and use soothing strokes.

But even when it appears that the boy's bottom has been thoroughly wiped, it is clear that his shirt remains drenched, and I make no move to hold him again. Josephine reads me and leads me outside, where we wash our hands with water running in a makeshift sink.

When it's time to return my clinging boy to his playmates — in fact, two older boys also closely accompanied me on my tour, one who held my hand and the other, my attention — I realize how my interaction could be construed as yet another abandonment. I tripped over the foot of the boy who had held fast to my hand, and when I looked, his toe was bleeding. I turned to Josephine and asked her if we could help him, and she assured me something would be done and urged me on. The boy screamed after us, and at the top of steps leading to more dormitories, I turned to see that he and the other older boy had followed. They looked longingly at me, and I smiled weakly back.

"Is she yours?" a woman asked as I sat in the nursery, feeding a pretty baby some unpleasant-smelling pink slop. She wanted a job, she said. She would cook for me, teach me Kinyarwanda, while I was in town. But I would not entertain such plans. I told her I'd be leaving in the morning, and concentrated on my feeding, still concerned about my damp lap.

Another baby was also a bit damp, but very hungry, and I fed him the remaining pink slop, using the same spoon, and wiped the thick mucous from his nose with the same rag the nanny used to wipe everyone, and possibly everything else. I took on a third baby because she was very cute, and when she didn't eat, I cuddled her until a taxi was summoned and arrived.

I could adopt that little baby, I realized later, just cart it home with me. But I won't.