Are You Strong?

“Are you strong?” she asked, and with her big brown eyes she asked me again, this question which has never been afforded to the young ones of Rwanda, let alone the genocide victims we were approaching. “Cousin, are you strong?”

April is the month of mourning in Rwanda, and this year the country marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1994 Genocide. I’m in Nymata, visiting one of my girls, and after a day of chatting and eating with her various family members and neighbors, her sisters and I walked the quietly peaceful streets of her village until we arrived at the Nyamata church. The walk, maybe half a mile, took us over 30 minutes because we had to stop and greet every passerby. Greeting is very important in Rwandan culture – I have seen meetings literally come to a screeching halt when a newcomer arrives, in order for that person to individually greet everyone in the room with a hug and a handshake. Greeting is particularly important if you are a Muzungu, because, after all, it’s not everyday a white woman walks through town.

Arrival to the church is abrupt; one moment you’re in town, shooing away the men trying to sell used clothing, cell phone credit, or snacks, and the next moment you’re entering a genocide memorial site. It’s fitting when you think about it, because April 6th 1994 ended quite normally with a typical Rwandan sunset, and by noon the next day hundreds of innocent men, women, and children, were being hunted down and brutally murdered by their neighbors and friends and family. Only one hundred or so days later, hundreds of thousands of people had been slaughtered in their homes, workplaces, on the streets, and everywhere in between all across the hilly countryside of Rwanda.

The Nyamata church was no exception. Most Rwandans are deeply deeply deeply (I cannot emphasize this enough) deeply religious, and on April 10th, hundreds of Tutsi civilians fled to this house of God, thinking this place would be safe from the madness sweeping the country. Devastatingly, they were mistaken. The genocidaires threw grenades at the iron gates, shot through the corrugated metal roof, and the 10,000 or so innocent people were slaughtered in their church as they did the only thing imaginable under such circumstances: prayed. The church was preserved in order to allow survivors the opportunity to mourn and pay their respects.

The church is a small building. Maybe it accommodated two hundred worshippers and it’s easy to imagine how they would have filled this space with their joyful songs every Sunday. The walls are white (well reddish-white, because not even church walls are spared from the layer of clay-dust that covers literally every surface in Rwanda) and the exposed brick creates a simple backdrop for the small statue of the Virgin Mary. She hasn’t been moved, by the way, since the day she watched her community’s murder, and now she stands solemnly and greets the memorial’s visitors. The pews of the church, where once sat a lively mixed community of both Hutus and Tutsis, are now covered in the clothing worn by the victims of the Nyamata Massacre. Reminiscent of the shoes which line the pathways of Yad Vashem, the clothes and jewelry left behind are an undeniable testimony to the lives abruptly cut short. They were real people. They really lived and they really died, right here on these very seats, while you and I were having lovely spring days in April.

“Are you strong?” she asked. She didn’t bother asking her 12 year old sister who had come along. “Cousin, are you strong?” pleaded her 22 year old sister, as she looked around, and prepared to shield me if my face showed any trace of fear or weakness. “Are you strong?” my 17 year old cousin asked once more, as she took my hand and let me down the steep white tile stairs to a small basement below the church. There, laid out on the glass, were displayed dozens and dozens and dozens of skulls and bones. These are the people who died here, the girls explained. Some of them have coffins but many, too many, are left so open and exposed that one could reach out and touch them if they wanted to. It’s impossible not to think about the Holocaust in such a place, and I caught myself thinking ‘These survivors are lucky to know exactly where their loved ones’ remains are’.

Are they though? Are they lucky? Walking through the mass tomb reveals a simple truth, known to anyone who knows anything about the Rwandan genocide: these people died horrible, violent, impossibly personal deaths. The tools used to slaughter them are displayed on what used to be the alter of the church: government supplied machetes, kitchen knives, sharp tools, and just about anything else that could be used to tear apart a human being. You don’t need a degree in forensic anthropology to infer the trauma these people experienced and they pain they must have felt before their deaths. Many of the skulls have grisly cracks, while others are missing huge chunks – revealing, of course, that these people had been struck at close range with machetes, presumably wielded by a neighbor and in some cases, even a family member.

No, I decided, I would not feel lucky if my friends and family were displayed in such a way. And yet, there were my three Rwandan cousins, holding my hands, leading me through the darkest moment of their personal history, saying quiet words of remembrance to the members of their community whom they would never have the chance to greet along the dirt roads of their quiet, peaceful village.

We paid our respects to Antonia Locatelli, an Italian citizen living in Rwanda, who vocally protested the genocide and worked to alert the global community as to the horrors being carried out in every village and city across the country. She was murdered for her efforts, and now she rests alongside those she tried to save.

The girls led me away from the memorial and began to explain the details of their family’s experience. They wanted to know- had I noticed their mother’s scars on her arms and legs? No I hadn’t, because everyone in this country older than 22 has been affected by the genocide in one way or another, and my American political- correctness has trained me not to dwell on noticing physical differences like scars or missing limbs. Did I realize that their eldest sister is 28 years old and the second born is 22? She was born in January, just three months old when her government made a series of decisions which forever changed the narrative of her country’s history and future. Just three months old, when her mother fled to this very church in an attempt to protect them from their neighbors- turned- murderers. Just three months old, when her mother was beaten, left bleeding, and sentenced to death by machete. Just three months old, when they somehow escaped- a young mother, her six year old, and their brand new, three month old baby.

My girls walked me out of the memorial, holding my hands, and (despite my protests) buying me chocolates for my journey home. Had I enjoyed my visit? How had I found their village? Would I come back and visit again soon? Of course, I smiled, as they hugged me and put me safely on the bus back to Kigali.

Have a safe journey Cousin! Stay close to this person, he’s our neighbor, he’ll take care of you, but for the love of God won’t you please zip up your bag? Rwanda is a safe place, but come on, you’re going into the city!

I zipped my bag, blew one more kiss, and as we pulled out of the station, began to reflect on the one question which has baffled me and many others in the years since the Genocide: how how how how HOW could a person survive something as bloody and horrific as the massacre of hundreds of civilians in a community church and then return with their family to that very village to peacefully live out the rest of their days? How can you ever trust your neighbors, when you have seen these exact people become the worst versions of humanity? I pondered this question, which has been echoed time and again after nearly every example of the horrible ways in which humans hurt one another, across the eras, cultures, and geographies that make us who we are, from the beginning of time all the way up to today- why do we keep coming back? Why do we return to places where horrible things have happened to our ancestors and to us? Why do we refuse to leave places like Juarez, like Detroit, like Sderot, like Gaza, like Pyongyang, places which are not safe, which haven’t been safe for a long time, and won’t be safe for even more time, just because one day, some long ago relative decided this would be home? Why would you live there, amidst violence and corruption and terror, when there are places in this world like the white sandy beaches of ZANZIBAR for crying out loud?!

As I thought about this question and tried to put it in the context of my own unending desire to be in Israel, a place which often meets the criteria of ‘why the hell would you live in such a dangerous place?’ I happened to look out the window. I saw, of all things, a brilliant rainbow piercing through the dark clouds of what will surely be a heavy afternoon rain. How fitting, I thought, to drive away from this genocide memorial site and see a rainbow, which, for those of you who never heard of Noah and his ark, is a widely accepted symbol of forgiveness. Forgiveness, then, seems to be a force greater than anger or hatred or vengeance or any of the other hundreds of human emotions that we use to fuel obscene and horrible actions. Forgiveness is why we keep coming back and why many of us refuse to move in the first place.

Are you strong? they asked me, over and over again.
Yes, I said, I’m strong. But not nearly as strong as you.


This post is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the JDC or the Agahozo- Shalom Youth Village.


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