by Taylor Friedlander
Four years ago, I sat in about the same spot where I sit now, sipping from a cup of peppermint tea in my parents’ kitchen. I am asking myself the same questions. Did I pack my contacts? Glasses? The answers are also the same. Yes. No; I’m wearing them. Is my boarding pass ready to go? It is. Only this time, the destination is Kigali, Rwanda.
Four years ago, I had studied abroad in the Dominican Republic. I was expecting my experience to be a tropical respite from my snowy college in New England. The reality of the country blindsided me. It’s one thing to see UNICEF videos of shoeless children at an orphanage. It’s quite another when a little boy jumps into your lap and asks you to read him a book. I can’t remember the exact story that I read to him, but I recall that it was vibrantly illustrated and about a family of fish on a quest to rescue their smallest member. When I was younger, I would read books like that to escape to fantastical worlds. As I grew older, I became less interested in escaping to other worlds and more interested in viewing the world I was in through different lenses.
One of the books I read in high school was Night, by Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…” Wiesel wrote. “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.” Wiesel’s experiences could cause anyone to question their spirituality. I did after simply reading about them. My faith has always been amorphous. With a Jewish father and a Buddhist mother, my faith is a cross between the two – a breed of pragmatic Zen. I believe that each of us has a God given purpose that we can each embody if we are attuned to the universe. I can only believe that perpetrators of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are individuals who acted out of disconnect from God. But, the fact that innocent people could be subjected to such cruelty planted a spur of doubt in my spirituality. I couldn’t square the types of cruelty that had transpired in modern history with my concept of God.
When I began reading Immaculee Ilibagiza’s memoir of her survival of the genocide, the title perplexed me. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. As I turned the pages of her book and read about how Immaculee cowered in fear, hiding from former friends who had transformed into killers, it was hard to fathom how she found God during this time. “I could see them in my mind,” she wrote, “My former friends and neighbors, who had always greeted me with love and kindness, moving through the house carrying spears and machetes and calling my name." I closed my eyes and imagined what Immaculee went through, hiding in a bathroom with five other women, while fellow Rwandans hunted her family. In her days of hiding, doubting voices crept into Immaculee’s mind and asked her, “Mothers prayed for God to spare their babies and He ignored them – why should He save you when innocent babies are being murdered?” I read on as Immaculee’s learned about members of her community sentenced to early deaths, and read as her doubt grew into anger. I imagined my brother in place of Immaculee’s brother and could feel the hate curdling in my body.
“Why do You expect the impossible from me?” Immaculee asked God. “How can I forgive the people who may have already slaughtered my family and friends? It isn’t logical for me to forgive these killers… God, I will ask You to punish those wicked men, but I cannot forgive them – I just can’t.”
The anger that Immaculee felt in 1994 is still alive and well in the hearts of thousands of Rwandans who can’t bring themselves to forgive the people who murdered their friends and families. Thousands of people have been accused of participating in the genocide. Only those who might be guilty of the most severe crime are heard by the International Criminal Tribunal.
Meanwhile, other alleged criminals have spent years behind bars, awaiting a trial to serve them justice. However, it is not on Rwanda’s agenda to imprison these men forever, but to allow them to rejoin society and works towards a stronger country.
The Rwandan government has put into effect the gacaca courts, which loosely translates to “courts of the grass.” In traditional Rwandan culture, trials were held outside and open to the members of the public, who were encouraged to testify according to their firsthand knowledge. In A Thousand Hills, Stephen Kinzer described the gacaca trials as an opportunity for the accused to admit their wrongs and express their remorse. Those who had seen acts of murder and rape committed against family members were allowed to share their stories and purge themselves of the sadness and anger accompanying those memories. After each trial, the hope is that justice will have been delivered to the defendant, and relief given to the families and friends of the victims. The fact of the matter is that victims and victimizers are now living side by side as the prison terms of genocidaires expire. Most people affected by the genocide still call Rwanda home, but in order for Rwanda to truly be a home, it has to grow into a place where people are willing to let go of hatred – even when hatred seems to be the most human reaction.
After the genocide, Immaculee met with a politician who had interrogated hundreds of men involved in the genocide. One of these men had killed her mother and brother. When Immaculee met the person who had murdered half her family, she saw his sallow skin, crusted eyes, and the sores that covered his feet. She didn’t look at him in anger, but pity. She was him as a man who had been so overwhelmed with hate that he had become “the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret.” The man was sobbing when his eyes met Immaculee’s. She told him, “I forgive you.” I was in awe when I read that. When asked why she forgave him, Immaculee responded, “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”
I have yet to set foot in Rwanda or speak to a Rwandan in person. I am curious to see what I will have learned two months from now and if I will still believe that forgiveness is the key for Rwanda to move forward. Four years ago, I didn’t know what to expect when I studied abroad. I didn’t know what experiences I would have, or how those experiences would turn into stories I would later tell and carry with me four years later. Tonight, I find myself in the same place where I was four years ago. And there’s no place else I’d rather be.