Apr 7


betz_blog Michelle Betz, 2006

There is no word in Kinyarwanda for genocide. I learned that yesterday, two days before the annual commemoration day of the 1994 genocide that killed close to one million people.

I was in a meeting at the radio station with all the staff. It was my final meeting with them all before I left and I wanted to fill them in on a few things and encourage them to keep going. Aldo, the station manager, wanted to update everyone on what the station policies were to be during the memorial week. That’s when I learned there was no word for genocide in Kinyarwanda; instead, Rwandans used ‘jenoside’. Indeed, it seems the word genocide didn’t even exist until World War 2.

This would be the second time I was in-country during the memorial week, the last time was 3 years earlier. All I really remember from that time was the constant reruns on Rwandan television of the slaughter of Rwandans by their countrymen. They just kept showing the same murderous acts over and over again.

This year at least I didn’t have easy access to a TV, and I was definitely glad for that. However, you’re still surrounded by constant reminders. The first for me was this meeting about the use of the term genocide on-air and how on-air folks were supposed to refer to the genocide – it was to be simply genocide, not the genocide of Tutsis, not the murder but quite simply genocide.

Next came the solemn faces and my own discomfort. I knew several of the folks I was working with and many friends had lost most, if not their entire family during the genocide. What did you say? What could you say? I had no idea and as a result I said very little my last couple days in Butare.

I had been planning to have a little party for the Salus folks this evening but when I spoke to the housekeeper yesterday as too whether he could help out he just looked at me and said, “Friday is a holiday.” Duh, of course. I felt completely insensitive and then I thought how completely inappropriate it would be to have a party on genocide memorial day. So I scratched that idea.

This morning as I walked to the station, I saw a large group marching down the main street. They held banners and many wore purple scarves around their necks, purple being the color of sorrow and suffering. I watched them as they marched towards me, turned the corner and kept going. I thought they were going to stop at the stadium but they didn’t, they kept going. I was confused.

When I got to the station I went into Aldo’s office. He was sitting at his desk, looking pensive, a piece of purple cloth wrapped neatly around his wrist. One of the students came in and began chatting with Aldo about what to cover for the memorial day. I spoke up and said that I had just seen a large group of people but I wasn’t sure where they were going. Aldo said they were headed for one of Butare’s two memorial sites (the other was at the university). I told him I didn’t know there was a site at this end of town.

A short while later, I saw the group streaming into the stadium across the street from the station. I asked Aldo if he didn’t want to go. In his softspoken voice he told me that everyone really had their own day of memorial. I asked him when his was. He said April 28. And he added that he was still waiting to hear if that would be the date this year or if it would be a day earlier, or later. He said he would go to his village on that day to “visit” his brothers and sisters. I believe Aldo’s entire immediate family was killed in the genocide. I’ve never been able to ask him how he survived or how he continues to survive.

Apr 2


betz_blog Michelle Betz, 2006

It’s Sunday morning, the first day I’ve been able to sleep in while here. OK, so I was up at 5am to finish my Dan Brown novel and to listen to the deafening torrents of rain that slammed the house’s tin roof. An hour later I poked my head outside to see the most vibrant rainbow just to the north. And then I went back to sleep.

It had been raining all night in waves ranging from soft patters on the roof to the latest deluge that had awoken me. The odd clap of thunder and accompanying flashes of light had also snapped me awake several times.

Now as I sit out on the front porch drinking my Maraba espresso, listening to the birds and the singing of the churchgoers drifting from the Eglise Ste. Therese down the street I’m struck by the peacefulness and the incredible beauty. Thanks to all the rain, the flowers are in bloom in every color from pale yellow roses to the loudest fuchsia bougainvillea. Yellow, red and blue birds flitter from one bush to the next chittering happily.

Yesterday on my way to Nyanza I was again awestruck by the stunning beauty of this tiny country. The sun was still coming up and the clouds were still down in the valleys, fingers of mist slowly withdrawing from the hills. The hills and vales are a million shades of green velvet and silk with the ever-changing African light doing a masterful job of lighting that I seriously doubt could ever be captured on film. Maybe that’s why I don’t take pictures here.

But perhaps what amazes me most is how much the beauty and serenity of this country belie it’s horrific past. It never ceases to amaze me how Rwanda’s beauty just kind of lures you in — it’s just so incredibly stunning. But then you see the flash of a machete as it assists in the chopping down of a tree, or watch the film “100 Days” (as I did last night while the rain pounded) or drive by one of the dozens of genocide sites scattered around the country and it all comes back. Sometimes I wonder if I just have an overactive imagination — like when I’m in this house wondering if it was around in 1994 and if so whether any people were killed here. But no, I don’t think it’s just that. I think this country just gets under your skin (well, at least mine). On one hand it’s got this horrendous history but at the same its beauty just lures you in and it seems nearly impossible for the two aspects to be reconciled.

And maybe that’s why this country freaks me out just a bit each time I come. It’s like you just can’t escape this country’s history despite the efforts to beautify and to put the past behind. And then this year I’ve managed to time my visit here (unintentionally) at the precise time the Genocide is being commemorated. And I find myself asking myself if I can’t push the genocide out of my mind, then how can the eight million Rwandans do so on a daily basis? I don’t know.

But then I think maybe it’s just that I spent the past 24 hours with some genocide orphans — Alphonsina’s family. I have “followed” these kids since I was first introduced to them in 2003 by a photojournalist friend. I had met Alphonsina and three of her four younger brothers, the youngest was HIV positive. He died last year. He was only 11 or 12.

The last time I saw the boys was last November when I went with my friend Leopold to Gikongoro to track them down. When we found them they told us that Alphonsina had moved to Nyanza, gotten married and had a third child. And that Ariwanda had died.

Coincidentally, a woman in the UK had tracked me down as she wanted to help the boys any way she could. The November trip with Leopold was to visit the boys to see what we could do.

When I saw Leopold last week he told me he had been in touch with the boys and would arrange for the boys to take the bus to Butare from Gikongoro for a visit Friday afternoon. Of course as luck would have it, I got stuck in meeting after meeting each seeming to last forever. I finally got home after 6pm just as dusk began to set in. I had managed to snarf a bite of pizza down my gullet when I heard “Allo?”

I swallowed the first bite of food I’d eaten that day and went to see Leopold. I was sure he had the boys with him and sure enough he told me he’d brought the boys to see me. I went outside. There they were. I hugged them both and had them come inside. I can’t describe the immense joy I feel every time I see these boys.

It only became clear later that they’d probably never been in such luxurious surroundings for later Bariwanda, 14, asked to use the toilet. I showed him where it was. I realized there was a problem when a few minutes later the 21-year-old Alphonse went to assist his younger brother with something. I quickly followed suit. They were both hovering over the toilet and finally with hand motions asked me how to get rid of what they had deposited. I showed them how to flush the toilet. They were amazed!

A little while later I told them they could take showers if they wanted. They were thrilled. They loved the bar of soap I gave them and Bariwanda was still clutching the soap after he had showered and continued to rub it into his skin. Apparently he had only found the cold water as I later heard Alphonse exclaiming after his shower “amazi ashooshi” (warm water). And he had the biggest grin on his face.

These boys never cease to amaze me. They can find happiness in the most simple of things like Bariwanda’s small plastic, mud-covered toy cow that splits in two. They love magazines and newspapers even if they’re in English. Bariwanda impressed me that evening by counting to twenty in English. But he’s also got a bit of an attitude and that concerns me as we move them to Kigali (with the third brother who is living with Alphonsina) and try to get Bariwanda back into primary school and the two older brothers technical training of some sort. I just keep telling myself he’ll be fine.

I’m thrilled that the boys seem to understand the implications of what we’re offering and that they’ll be together again. I’m particularly excited that these boys may finally have some sort of future and I’m especially grateful to my friend Leopold who is taking all of this on even with the demands of his own family and a full-time job here in Butare.

And I just hope that the next time I get to Rwanda the boys will be in school.