Vanessa Wen's Blog
August 4, 2006 — Murambi
On our trip to Butare we visited the genocide memorial Murambi. I know others have written about this site and their experiences with the tragedy they saw, and I don’t want to repeat that too much. Instead, I will write about the thoughts that have gone through my head since we visited the haunting memorial.
Just for a bit of background, Murambi is about half an hour outside of Butare, tucked away in the hills amidst hundreds of trees. The building was, in 1994, the site of a school under construction. The man showing us around the site said that in the early days of the genocide, the Interhamwe told people that they could seek refuge in the school because it was a safe place. Many people went there. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents… many people in the Butare area. Then, the Interhamwe cut off all water and food supply to the school. This went on for two weeks and made all the people who were staying there very weak. After two weeks, people with machetes came and murdered everyone at the school. Everyone. There were about 50,800 people there. No one could fight back because they were so weak from having had no food or water for two weeks. After everyone was dead, the killers took all the usable clothing off the people and dug mass graves and dumped everyone in - they buried many of the children alive. Two years after the genocide, the government decided to make this place a memorial site, so they dug up many of the bodies and put them in rooms. You can see pictures of the memorial site on the Rwanda Initiative’s website.
As I stood there looking at the bodies I just couldn't believe this happened only twelve years ago. I was just standing there numb, thinking, the world lets this happen again and again. How many memorial sites does it take to realize one is too many?
Before seeing the site, I wondered if I would experience the same feeling of helplessness and disbelief that I felt when I visited memorials in Hiroshima. I had also visited memorials in Vietnam that marked those killed in the war. There I also had a strong feeling of disgust. I thought the place might be similar to memorial sites I had visited in Cambodia, such as the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng prison. Cambodia also witnessed a horrific genocide that cost many lives. I wondered if this memorial would give me similar chills to those I experienced in Cambodia… but the cold reality is that no matter where you go, each one is different, each one has a different story behind it… but on the other hand, each one involves people, real people, real children, who were murdered for reasons I will never even begin to understand.
On the ride back to Butare, Natasha, Kurt and I started talking about the irony of how today, the world knows about what is happening in Darfur and in other areas of the world – yet decides to do nothing. Today people say the world failed Rwanda, but no one chooses to reverse the trend and stop current wars, crimes and injustices. In my mind, “Never again” really has come to mean “Again and again.” And subsequently, I was left feeling lost and unsure of where reason, morality and compassion fit into this seemingly callous world.
July 31, 2006 — Shakira Shakira
This past weekend we went on a staff picnic to a lake about an hour outside of Kigali. The New Times had rented an actual city bus to take all of the staff out to the lake. As soon as the engine started and the doors closed for us to get on our way, bottle caps went flying everywhere – Beer, Fanta, Coke… everything was consumed within the first twenty minutes of the bus ride. People sitting in the front of the bus started clapping and singing songs, so the back of the bus started as well. Before we knew it, one end of the bus was competing with the other end. It was pretty hilarious! People were dancing and singing in the aisle of the bus.
The lake was beautiful – nestled between those picturesque red-soil hills covered with banana trees. The venue of the “picnic,” which was actually at a restaurant, was just gorgeous. Part of the restaurant was on a sort of deck that went over the lake. We spent most of the day there eating and dancing. There was an amazing buffet that had all the typical favourites including matoke (banana) and ground nuts. Delicious.
At one point we took a little boat across the lake (only a short ride). Natasha decided she wanted to paddle instead of the guy who owned the boat. She steered us into some reeds and then reluctantly gave the paddle back to the man who actually knew how to paddle the canoe-shaped boat properly. Luckily we made it out.
We spent most of the day dancing. The New Times had several competitions. The first one was a competition of who could speak Kinyarwanda the best (without including any English words), so obviously all the Canadians were excluded from this competition. The second competition was a dance competition. Participants were chosen against their own will (including me, Sagal and Kurt… Natasha was mysteriously nowhere to be found at the time of selection). We had to dance to a song and then when the song paused, we had to stop dancing. Whoever kept moving after the song paused was out of the competition. I’m too embarrassed to explain anything further, but let’s just say that in the end it was me and one other girl competing for who could dance the best to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.” And well… I will end by saying that from then on, I have been known only as “Vanessa Vanessa.”
July 28, 2006 — New house, still no power
After much questioning and anticipation, we finally moved into a new house yesterday. Upon being told we had to be out of our previous house only a few days before we actually had to leave, we set out on a search to find a new one. The one we moved into is huge – more beds and bathrooms than we need right now. However, we are a bit further from work than we were before, and the power outages are no better at this end of town than the other – I’m currently sitting in the dark. The only light I have is from this computer screen (which is about to die), and some strange smelling aromatherapy candles I was able to find (the rest are somewhere, but since the move, it’s hard to find anything… especially in the dark). So far we’ve only spotted a few baby cockroaches in this house. Last week at our old house, we had an infestation in both bathrooms. I woke up and went into the bathroom to find dozens of them scuttling across the floor. After exterminating most of them, we found more in the second bathroom. They kept coming out of every corner of the room, from every crack on each wall. They were like army ants streaming out of everything. It was disgusting. I can barely even think about it without feeling like they’re crawling all over me. Anyway, on to better things…
Now that we’ve moved, we have more time to get back to the usual: Waking up. Eating. Going to work. Eating. Going back to work. Thinking about the next meal. Eating. Coming home. Eating again? My days seem to revolve around food. As soon as we wake up in the morning, we start discussing what we are going to eat for the rest of the day. Even right after a meal, when everyone is complaining about how they ate way too much food (usually for less than a dollar), we discuss what our next meal will be. The food is good, but the ingredients are often a bit repetitive. We eat a lot of potatoes and rice, and “chips” (French fries) seem to come with almost every meal. However, the meals are always big and I never have to worry about going hungry. Speaking of which, the computer is about to die… and it’s about time I go eat again anyway. It’s been over an hour since my last meal!
July 14, 2006 — The United Nations
My first week in Rwanda was filled with many new and fantastic experiences, including the city, the food, and the people. I am slowly getting to know everyone’s names at the newspaper and different things about each person. They are all incredibly friendly and are fun people to be around. The best part about going to work is seeing everyone there.
One of the first things I noticed about Kigali is that there are countless numbers of trucks and cars representing different NGO’s that drive around the city. The amount of foreign aid here now makes me wonder what would have happened if, knowing what we know now, all these aid agencies had been here and stayed during the genocide.
There are five interns here now, four girls and one guy. As soon as Natasha and I arrived, we all noticed that, although we are all Canadian, live in Ottawa and go to Carleton, we are also from different cultures and of different ethnicities. In fact, not one of us in this house is of the same ethnicity. Some people at the paper said to us in disbelief, “You’re all Canadian but you all look different – and only one of you is white?” We’ve decided to call ourselves (and our house) the United Nations, because we all represent different parts of the world. We’ve got representation from Africa, Asia and India, the Arab world, Europe, and of course, Canada. We girls tend to give Kurt, our token white guy, a hard time because for once in his life he isn’t the majority. Then again, neither are we, but here at our United Nations, everyone is equal.