Rwanda: Eight Years Later

I had done pre-trip research on a total of six subjects ranging from issues affecting orphan children in Rwanda to the Gacaca legal process thinking I would have the energy and the time to easily complete six stories in about three weeks. But I came back with four pieces and a realization that I simply couldn’t listen to another victim’s story right then and there. I would be no good to anyone a journalist, a writer and a human being. I simply couldn’t process the massive pain anymore. I was getting victims confused in my mind; their stories were bleeding into each other.

I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until two days before my scheduled departure when Deirdre, Ervin and I drove about an hour outside of Kigali to Nyamata to see a special genocide memorial. I had seen a few memorials already but nothing prepared me for the scenes in Nyamata.

The Catholic church in Nyamata was used as a slaughtering center. The villager who cares for the church building now told us the killing there went on for two months resulting in about 20,000 deaths.

On the outside the church didn’t look like much – a simple building rising from the gray dusty ground - but once inside the evidence was everywhere even though the bodies had long since been removed. The clay floor made of the same gray clay as the ground outside was tarnished in permanent red color from all the blood that had been soaked into it. And the pulpit had been left the way it had been found after the last murders were committed – the cloth covering it still drenched in blood.

Quietly we walked through the church looking at memorial wreaths left behind by surviving family members. The church’s caretaker then took us downstairs to see an exhibit of skulls that bore the marks of massive machete blows to the heads of the victims. In the middle of the glass cabinet was one intact skeleton. We were told it was that of a young woman who had been found alive but who died of her massive wounds later.

As we walked up the stairs from the basement I happened to look up and at first thought I was seeing stars in the ceiling. But it was the sun shining through thousands of little holes. “They stood on the roof and shot through it into the crowd in the beginning of the massacres when they still had bullets,” explained the man who was showing us around.

Once outside the old man took us behind the church. The back yard was covered by large cement blocks with two small openings leading underground. And in there in carefully arranged rows were the remains of most of Nyamata’s victims. The row of skulls and bones continued room after room. All sizes were there from babies to grownups.

There was little conversation in the car on the way back to the hotel. But then I remember what Thomas Kamilindi, the Rwandan radio journalist had shared with me. Unlike many other victims of traumatic events, Kamilindi had found a way to deal with his grief. “I don’t have nightmares mostly because I talk about it a lot,” he said.

“They (the mental health experts) say that it’s good to talk about what happened, not to hide those experiences.” And with the best mental health expert possible – Ervin – in the car with us, I started bombarding him with questions seeking solace in his advice and kind listening ear.

“Tom” Kamilindi also told me that witnessing the violence and being a victim of it has changed the way he now conducts interviews. He says he is willing to give survivors more time; if they break down during an interview, he’s prepared to make another appointment for a later time thus putting the interview subject’s needs before his own. “I can always come back when the victim feels more up to it.”

I think of that last statement of Kamilindi’s now every time I sit down to conduct another interview with a crime victim. It’s probably the most enduring lesson I learned from my trip to Rwanda. And never again will I prepare for a reporting trip only making preparations for my physical wellbeing. My mental wellbeing will also get its fair share of attention so that the events I witness and the stories I hear don’t overwhelm me the way my experience in Rwanda did.