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Reflections from Rwanda

Updated: Feb 24, 2019

The great Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh once commented, “One feels the impertinence of writing ‘I’ this or that as if we thought ourselves important. A man has no right to talk of himself, only as a by-product of his work.” Unfortunately, there can be no avoiding the insertion of the author into these observations. The heart of this writing, though, is not the interpretation, but that which is being interpreted. The people that the author observed, encountered and, in some small way, came to know, the conditions and tenor of their lives, their hopes, their commitment and courage – therein lies whatever value these words possess.

What follows are the thoughts, impressions and analysis of the author during visits to Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya during the 2000s. All content is solely the opinion of the author, and reflects nothing beyond his particular reactions.

Excerpted from Rwanda Day Two

Breakfast this morning on the outdoor terrace of the Mille Collines restaurant. A lovely, quiet morning it was, with a high cloud cover and a light breeze. Breakfast itself reflected the cultural richness of this land: French croissants, oatmeal, a light cheese and a wide array of fruits. Among the choices for juice was maracuyo, which I had not seen anywhere else since my time in Colombia.

Kigali could be a beautiful city. It sits along a series of hills that taper to a central basin. The roads of the city for the most part ring the hills, with the basin reserved for simple residences and whatever industry has survived. The streets themselves are a jumble of small shops, food stalls, and people. No one seems to stay inside. Groups of people gather on every street, walking along through the slow moving traffic or hawking whatever it is they want to sell on the corners. We were approached to buy newspapers, fruits, and flowers. We were also approached by young children looking for whatever we cared to give. There are many, many children on the streets, too numerous to count or consider. Most were about eight to twelve, although some were clearly younger. At one point a small boy approached Christian’s side of the car and in Kinyarwanda said that he was hungry. I gave him a US dollar, probably enough for him to fill his stomach two or three times over. I have no idea whether such a gesture helps or hurts his situation, but I did not consider this to be a time for either evaluation or judgment.

Among the casualties of the genocide is the enormous loss of potential. How many thousands of children, even though they have survived the horror itself, have had whatever promise they might have possessed snatched away? Education, home, family, identity, self-esteem. . . . .gone. Every death has a ripple effect, and the children of this country suffer those ripples at their core. They are no longer children, but rather some hybrid link between our purest and our basest forms. They have lost more than I could ever calculate. And, on behalf of the sad, hollow, desperate faces that are forced to roam the streets of Kigali scrabbling for food, money and comfort, when I get home I will hug my own son all the harder, and let these forestalled tears flow freely. . . . . .

Excerpted from Rwanda Day Three

This is Charlotte’s story: She grew up in the southern part of the country, in a small village called Gatagara near Nyanza, halfway between Gitarama and Butare. Butare prefecture was a hospitable place, largely devoid of the overt ethnic tensions that ran through the rest of Rwanda. The prefect himself was a Tutsi – the only Tutsi prefect in the country – at the outset of the violence.

Charlotte’s father was well off, certainly by the standards of rural Rwanda. He and his brother owned a building enterprise and they constructed many of the most used buildings between Butare and Gitarama – hotels, restaurants, government facilities. Charlotte’s father had two wives, who were sisters. He maintained two households a few meters apart in Gatagara. He fathered a total of twelve children by his two wives, and the children, growing up in separate households, regarded each other as full brothers and sisters. Charlotte spent a pleasant, typical childhood running through the rich hills surrounding Gatagara, playing with her brothers and sisters, and taking her education at the hands of Belgian nuns.

When the violence began, the family did not run. At first it seemed far away, a function of the tensions in the northern and western prefectures. When they learned of the slaughters at Kigali, no one fled. The war was a matter for other people. Everyone – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa – got along well in Gatagara.

But then the Interahamwe came. The Hutus of Gatagara joined them in a slaughter that put the lie to the notion of community. Charlotte’s father, one of the most prominent men of the region, was a primary target. He, his wives and most of the children were slain in a single night. Charlotte ran into the fields and eventually found a haven in a pit latrine with fourteen others from the village. Not knowing who among her family had survived, if anyone, she hid there for three weeks, coming out only a few minutes at a time at night. Moderate Hutus living nearby who had not been exterminated provided for them as best they could, smuggling them food and keeping them advised of developments in the region.

During their fourth week of hiding the RPF came to Butare prefect and put the Interahamwe and regular army to flight. Charlotte and the other survivors enetered a refugee camp in Gitarama. There she learned that only two of her sisters had escaped the slaughter.

Four years later Charlotte married an American aid worker in Rwanda. A the wedding, despite her husband’s great distance from his home, the number of guests invited by the groom far outnumbered those there to honor the bride.

Excerpted from Rwanda Day Six

Ntarama. I cannot process what I have just seen. I cannot catalogue the images and make sense of them. I cannot assign meaning to my own feelings. I am outraged, insulted, angry. . . . .I am infinitely sad. As the color white is the conglomeration of all colors, then my own numbness now must be the conglomeration of all emotions. I am forever changed.

Others, much more adept at this, have written of the scene at Ntarama. I can add nothing beyond my own impressions, however incomplete or ill-formed. If nothing else, the chronicle of the journey merits the recording of it. How to tell it? As simply and directly as possible.

I was picked up at the hotel by Ali, one of the mechanics working with the American Refugee Committee. He had been to Ntarama before, so he knew the way, and what to expect. Christian has stressed that it was most appropriate to have a Tutsi accompany me.

Ntarama lies in Kigali Rurale prefecture, about a half hour drive from the city itself. On the drive south out of Kigali, Ali shared with me his story. He was born in Uganda and came to Rwanda in late 1994, after the killing. “When it was safe,” I said, and he laughingly replied, “No, not so safe. But Kigali was okay.” His parents had fled Rwanda in 1959 like so many other Tutsis. Ali was born in 1973 and grew up constantly reminded that he was Rwandan, that his land lay to the south and that his family would go back one day. After the genocide Ali returned, although he made no mention of his parents accompanying him. He is married – “ Too young,” he said. “But it is better that way.” – and has a two-year-old daughter.

The drive itself took me through a new part of the country. The region just south of the city is not as mountainous as Byumba in the north, nor does it hold the same rolling hills and pasteurlands as Umutara. After we left the city we came upon a fairly broad flatland, through whose center ran a river whose name I could never remember. Along either side of the river groups of people were cultivating the land. This was the first time I saw something approaching collective agriculture. In the other prefectures farming was small, probably family-based. Here large groups of people hacked away at large swaths of land all across this valley.

We passed from the valley up a winding, rutted dirt road that passed through a number of small villages. There were several churches and schools along the road, and often we would pass by children wearing the bright blue uniform of schools run by nuns. Most of the villages were similar to what I have come to expect – a single road running through the center of one-story arcade of storefronts on either side that stretched no more than a hundred yards or so. Signs above the doors identified “restaurants”, usually just two or three tables in front of an open-air fire; “pharmacies”; and the ubiquitous “salon de coiffures.” Cattle were herded along the road, too, and often we would have to pull off as far to one side as we could to allow a group of the great-horned squat stock that do so well here to pass.

At one village, about twenty-five minutes after leaving the city, Ali pulled up to one of the storefronts to confirm where we were going. “Ntarama?”, he asked an old man sitting in front of the arcade. The old man didn’t smile, didn’t speak, but gestured to a dirt lane spurring off the main road directly to our right. We proceeded up the narrow lane past several small houses. Children played along the roadside. Trees overgrew the roadway and hung above us as a thick green canopy. Flowers grew deep on every side.

The Ntarama compound stood on a small rise to the right. I noticed the squat brick church right away. I knew what had happened here. I knew the numbers of people who had died on this soil, and I knew the horrible ways in which they were killed. And I felt them there as I looked up for the first time at the church.

The compound was gated, and a small woman walked out to meet us. She was dressed in a colorful wrap and her head was swathed by an equally ornate scarf, but she did not smile. Ali and I greeted her somberly – “Amahoro” – and she shook our hands firmly in both of hers as she looked us in the eye. Behind her was another man, tall and silent. Together they led us up to the church.

Beautiful gardens lined the walkway and grew on the rise directly in front of the church itself. Purple and yellow flowers seemed to be everywhere, and several trees lent a shaded quiet to the grounds. While the natural beauty seemed incongruous to what had happened here, to how these grounds had once looked, it whispered dignity and peace. In retrospect, there could be no other way for this site to be preserved.

The church stood before me, great gaping holes in several places where the Interahamwe had broken through the building to toss in their grenades. Bullets were lodged in the bricks. Adjacent to the church was a small chamber that may have been a side chapel or a storage area. Now it houses the remains of those who died on the grounds. I entered here first. On a long table before me were skulls, lined neatly and covering every available inch. To my left was a smaller table running along the wall of the chamber containing shreds of clothing, bones and pieces of bones, and those skulls that could not fit onto the main table. I stepped to the skulls and gently placed the flowers I had brought on top, taking care not to disturb the skulls or to touch them inadvertently. I stepped back then, and said the first of many prayers. Ali assured me that it was okay to take pictures, that this in fact was encouraged so that the images of this past terror could be preserved. I finished one roll of film in the chamber, and squatted to change rolls on the dirt floor. When I got up, red dust clung to my case. I did not brush it off; I have not done so yet.

I cannot do justice to the atmosphere of the church itself. As long as I have the privilege of walking this earth, the images of those few moments will haunt me. The sanctuary was quite simple, made of brick with a wooden altar, topped by a simple wooden cross. Above the altar hung a large banner depicting scenes of dance, I think, in a colors and angles.

And spilling down the center aisle and the aisle on either side, piled onto the wooden benches that served as pews, littering the narrow spaces between the benches and covering the floor in the small entryway were the remnants of the massacre. I saw clothing, bones, skulls, assorted debris. I saw a foam mattress near the rear. There were broken jars, pieces of paper, unidentifiable personal effects. There were plastic toys. A large bee flew over my head, hovered over the detritus, then flew out one of the holes on the far wall. There was no sound; the air held a sickly sweet smell of decay. I stood on the steps of the entryway several minutes, an entire severed skull near my feet, absorbing this into a disbelieving consciousness.

About fifteen or twenty yards to the left of the church itself were two small buildings in similar condition. I walked across the front of the church to them and looked inside the first. The scene was the same, on a reduced scale. Families had crowded into these side buildings, huddling together as the attacks came. The debris here had a density that implied how closely the victims were gathered. I imagined parents and their children facing their last minutes together, reassuring one another, holding one another until the machetes dispatched them to their eternities.

The second building, made of mud bricks, was different. Here the militia took a more efficient approach, militia: instead of swinging their machetes and clubs or spending their bullets and grenades, they set the building on fire. The remains were charred and burnt down. Through a hole on the far side I could see the rolling hills of the prefecture sloping down to the valley where the river runs.

I retreated back up the hill to the church again, and spent several minutes on the steps to the entryway, meditating and praying inarticulately, struggling with the weakness in my knees, the weakness in my heart. I do not know how much time I spent there. When I finally stepped back down, Ali motioned to me to sign the register at the table in a very small brick building behind the first chamber I had entered. A man sat behind the table and offered me the book. “Amahoro,” he whispered, and my reply was whispered in return. When I reached down to sign the book, my hand was shaking badly. “May God grant these souls the refuge they sought here during their time of horror. And we who view them must never forget this needless and barbaric loss of life.”

Ali and I were silent on the drive back to Kigali. I do not know how this young man who has constructed his very existence in response to the genocide reacted to Ntarama. For my part, I could not speak. I was still shaking when we reached the city. Y hands are still not steady as I type these words. At the hotel we parted warmly, and I gave him American money, bidding him to buy something for his daughter.

Before I came to Ntarama I struggled to find some rationalization for what I knew happened there. I tried to find the logical connection between such willing murder – the enthusiastic slaying of men, women and especially children – and my still-forming definition of what it means to be human. I thought I might find at least a shard of that connection in Rwanda, that the mystery if how all this could come about in the way it did might in part be resolved. I had hoped that my emotions might lose a bit of their edge and I could reconcile what Philip Gourevitch called “an unfortunate event” with what I knew of our evolution.

But now, after walking this haunted compound and gazing into the sightless sockets where the eyes of children once regarded the world around them with all the wonder reserved for children, after seeing the shreds of clothing cut apart by machetes aimed at the mothers protecting those children, after seeing the mouths of skulls left open in soundless screams, I have come to another conclusion: I do not want to understand this. I do not want to be able to reconcile what I have seen with the definitions that have been forever compromised. I do not want, ever, to think back to the scenes of Ntarama with analytical logic. To do so would be to validate the horror. I no longer want any answers.

Tonight I will try to sleep while the images of the day float through me and around me. And before I make the effort, I will say another prayer for the souls of Ntarama, and thank them, although they could never have wanted to proffer the gift, for making me wiser by showing me what I cannot know.


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