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Molly Sprayregen

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Staring at Skulls For Far Too Long

Posted: 12/04/2012 2:36 pm

There are no dogs in Rwanda. I noticed it our very first day, during my family's drive through Kigali's urban sprawl into the impoverished villages of the Virunga Mountains. Not one scavenging mutt drinking from murky puddles on the side of the road; not one whimpering puppy nestled in a child's arms; not one man grasping the skin of his hound's neck to guide her across the street. Goats, cows, buffalo, cats, even mountain elephants and silverback gorillas roamed the Rwandan hills. But not one dog.

When I made this observation, my sister directed me to a book by Philip Gourevitch, where I learned that it all goes back to 1994. Rotting human flesh coated the streets that year. Children, parents, grandparents, and soldiers lay in heaps on muddy roads, with horror-stricken eyes that no one had bothered to close. The dogs were eating the dead. The resistance army could not clean them up in time to prevent it. So they killed as many dogs as they could. Now, memories of the Rwandan Genocide linger in the air through the sound of the dogs not barking.

In 1994, two hundred thousand Hutus killed one million Tutsis while the Western world squeezed its eyes shut and looked away. It happened the year my brother was born. I was three. I remember standing on my tiptoes atop my mom's hospital bed, peering into the bassinet to see his face for the first time.

Rwanda did not intersect with my world until eleven years later, when MGM studios released Hotel Rwanda, and I learned of the genocide -- and the existence of this tiny, landlocked nation -- for the first time. Until this summer, I knew only of a Rwanda filled with body-strewn streets and deafening screams.

In just one hundred days, the Hutus annihilated 75 percent of the Tutsi population, making the genocide the most efficient massacre of the 20th century. At the time, Hutus and Tutsis were considered two distinct ethnic groups, and the Hutu majority -- who had seized power -- was vengeful toward the Tutsi minority who had previously held the power and esteem. The Hutus had driven the Tutsis out of Rwanda many years earlier, and now the refugees were fighting to return. With the help of its propaganda-pushing radio station, the Hutu government planned the extermination of what they referred to as the "cockroaches" infesting the nation. The United Nations and the rest of the international community did little to help. This was an African problem, they reasoned, to be dealt with by Africans.

The genocide began on April 6, when the airplane of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. It remains a mystery whether Tutsi rebels or Hutus searching for an excuse to begin the slaughter pulled the trigger.

I came to Rwanda with my family in the summer of 2012, 18 years after the genocide. We came to see the silverback gorillas. When my parents told me about the trip, I figured we'd spend little time in civilization, where cracked skulls and rotting bones surely still littered the streets, as they did when Gourevitch visited fifteen years earlier (he accounts his tale of stepping on crunching bones in his book, We Regret To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families). I didn't know that volcanoes, mountains, hills, and crater lakes stretch through the entire, sumptuously green country. I didn't know that Rwanda's hilly terrain rises and falls like ocean waves, or that the houses scattered across the high hills of Kigali -- Rwanda's main city -- look like thousands of stars decorating the horizon when they all light up at night.

Kigali was a thriving city. Children walked up the streets in freshly pressed school uniforms on their way home for lunch while women carried baskets of bananas on their heads. Blue-helmeted, green-vested, men lined the streets on taxi motorcycles, and commuters squeezed their waists as they whisked them through the traffic. I did not see one skull lying on the ground.

The city truly sparkled, as if the people had just taken each building out of a fresh, new box. I later learned that once a month, the citizens must take the morning off work to clean their neighborhoods.

Of course, there are still many problems, and the rural regions of Rwanda looked nothing like Kigali. We passed through many small villages on the way to the gorillas' habitat, and it looked exactly like the pictures I'd seen on television of impoverished African life. I watched kids carry jugs of fresh water across the villages, women pick potatoes in the fields, and boys play soccer with balls of t-shirts rubber-banded together. I ached for these children because they had next to nothing, but they didn't suffer from the disorder that their parents did immediately after the genocide.

The post-war world Gourevitch described looked nothing like where I stood. He wrote of wrecked power lines and latrines overflowing with bodies and government offices without one working stapler. He described the explosions bursting through Kigali as people stepped on lingering land mines, and he talked of churches and schools, once used as slaughterhouses, laying in ruin. This was not the place I drove through, and it was not the place that -- as I stood in the middle of the forest watching a mother gorilla cradle her child -- made me feel completely at peace.

I had a realization during my trip that almost everyone over the age of 18 was around during the genocide. I looked into the faces of the people and wondered what kind of horrors they had lived through. Had the waiter pouring my drink seen his sister's veins torn apart as her Hutu schoolteacher stabbed her in the neck? Did a machete-armed teenager rip children from the arms of the woman carting bananas down the street, tossing her screaming kids down a latrine like pieces of trash? Did our taxi driver grow up without a mother after watching his neighbor -- the one who once played soccer with him -- beat her to death with a crowbar? Was the manager of my hotel a killer?

Everyone I saw possessed awful memories, but I could see that their memories did not possess them. I did not get a chance to interact with many locals, and my one week spent in the country could not possibly qualify me to judge their emotional progress too strongly. Survivors must suffer everyday from nightmares and disorders like PTSD. I cannot imagine the pain they still feel for the loved ones they lost and the horrors they witnessed. But I could not believe how well they had all gone on living, how the city prospered and the sun gleamed through windows that once were pierced with bullet holes.

In Kigali, we visited the genocide museum and memorial. A series of gardens spread across the outside, each symbolizing different ideas about hope, memory, and destruction. Information boards, accompanied by pictures and videos, stretched along the inside walls.

Woven through the gardens were actual mass graves, long concrete slabs beneath which rested thousands of victims, many unidentified. A wall of names echoing the design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. stood beside the graves, but only a couple hundred names were engraved. They were still trying to collect records and money for the rest, and a sign on the wall beckoned anyone with information for help.

There was this one, circular room inside, dark except three spotlights illuminating glass showcases. Inside the showcases: dozens of skulls. Real human skulls that were once wrapped in living skin, skulls that once laughed and held memories and moved about the earth. It's easy to look at a skull and forget it was once inside a person, but it was all I could think about as I stared at the hollow bone for far too long.

My tour ended with the Children's Room, in which hung large posters of children and a small biography for each. Francine Murengezi Ingabire. Age twelve. Favorite sport: swimming. Favorite food: eggs and chips. Favorite drink: milk and Fanta tropical. Best friend: her elder sister Claudette. Cause of death: hacked by machete.

On our way to the museum, a young boy, about six, in a school uniform looked into our car and waved to me. I waved back, and he smiled as if I had just given him his most desired Christmas present. He had a large gap beside his one front tooth, and I wondered if the tooth fairy ever came to Rwanda. I maintained eye contact with him until our car drove out of sight. I thought about him while staring into Francine's eyes, how if he had been born 20 years earlier, his picture could be hanging next to hers. Francine would be 30 years old now. I wondered what she'd be doing.

There are pieces of the horror that I will recall every time I think about Rwanda. I will always shudder at the thought that this conflict isn't just something from the history books, but something that happened while I sat in my mother's lap, cradling my new baby brother. I will always think of the adults and children resting beneath those concrete slabs, and I will remember that each of their skulls was once a person who could have still been a person today.

But I will never forget that the Rwandan people have gone on living.

On our third night in Rwanda, I heard a low-pitched barking from somewhere down the hill. The only time I heard a dog all week. It didn't last long, and I wondered if he lived nearby, somewhere in the neighboring village. Or maybe he was just passing through, almost, but not quite ready to come home.

 
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