It has been hard to write about all of the experiences of the past month. After listening to appeal proceedings and appeals judgments at the ICTR in Arusha, I feel a bit more up to the task of writing what I have been seeing. April is the commemoration period for Rwanda. During the first week of commemoration in particular (7-14 April), there are many ceremonies to commemorate people killed during the genocide. Leading up to that week I went with a family as they recovered bodies from a sorghum field buried there after the genocide. They had been buried there by family but were now to be moved to a memorial where they could have a proper burial. After the genocide the family had only been able to bury their dead wrapped in tarp-like material. Upon recovery of the bodies there were still personal effects intact, such as the father of young man whose wallet was intact with ID card and license inside. Another woman had a rosary buried with her. There were debates also regarding whether to bring just the remains, or the remains and the clothing to the memorial. After recovery, there was a moment when bones were being washed that a young woman was washing the skull of her mother that stuck out in my mind. The bodies were transferred into two coffins and during commemoration week I went with the family to the reburial ceremony. A colleague attending the reburial with me thought that since there were 10 coffins the reburial was for 10 individuals, not realizing until later that the total number of all buried that day was 192 as multiple bodies are placed in individual coffins. Later in the month another friend of mine was excited that the remains of family members had finally been located after a perpetrator finally revealed the location of the mass grave. We were at the same restaurant when some of the family representatives and local officials were meeting to decide details related to burial and commemoration. It was a surprisingly jovial group considering they had been recovering some 53 bodies that day but then again, there seemed to be so much relief at having finally located the remains. During commemoration time there are requests to perpetrators to reveal the locations of bodies and this is a case where family had asked each year for many years. Another survivor I talked with took me to a memorial where she showed me her family that had been found but also told the pain of having to consistently ask about other family members to no avail, but hoping each year that someone would finally tell.
In addition to reburials that take place during the commemoration time and requests for perpetrators to reveal the locations of remains, there are also mass commemorations. To open the commemoration week, a ceremony is held at the national stadium. The stadium was absolutely full by the time the event got fully underway. There were singers, and survivors giving testimony, and even a speech by the President of Rwanda. It was very moving, and during the ceremony it was clear how deep the pain was for people in the audience. When I first entered the stadium and saw lots of people in fluorescent vests I initially thought they were extra security and thought it might be a bit excessive. I quickly learned after loud screams emanating from different parts of the stadium that they were in fact there to respond to trauma and get the traumatized to counselors waiting outside the stadium near ambulances. This was to become a regular site at commemorations I attended elsewhere. Later that evening there was a walk to remember and a night ceremony at the stadium. This pattern seems more common in commemorations to which I have thus far been. Families, supporters and community members participate in a walk to remember and to fight genocide, and then gather in the evening to remember, lighting a symbolic fire at the beginning of the commemoration. This has explained even more why a friend of mine was asking initially if everything was alright at the Ethiopian restaurant when they had a bonfire during their Friday dinner buffet around which you could drink your coffee. The friend explained then that in Rwandan culture, a bonfire is only made when someone dies. Then people come and at night sit around it to keep warm and remember the lost loved one. At the commemorations this is recreated. The fire is lit, even in national stadium, at the beginning of the ceremony and the story of what happened to particular people or at a particular place is told. The hardest commemoration so far was probably Nyanza as it was a site of massacre so particularly traumatic for survivors of the place. I went with a friend who had lost family and it was very hard. I say this as an outsider without such experiences. That so many people are able to go to these commemorations at all is just amazing as I cannot even imagine how hard they must be to attend. I went with someone who can tell their story without wavering usually, but this night we had to leave early as the person found it too hard, saying that with the other trauma around it was hard to resist the person’s own trauma.
The experience of going to the Nyanza commemoration greatly impacted my experience of attending the Ntabakuze appeals judgment today at the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania. I arrived in Arusha on Sunday to attend the appeals judgment readings of Ntabakuze, Hategekimana, and Kanyarukuga today and to attend yesterday’s appeal hearing for Gatete. Ntabakuze in particular had been charged in connection to the massacre on Nyanza hill, as well as other massacres. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment, but one of the errors that the appeals found with the trial chamber was the lack of proof of direct command responsibility for the paramilitary troops at Nyanza as it seemed to the appeals chamber that the battalion was not confirmed to be Ntabakuze’s as opposed to the 2nd Battalion. With this and some other findings that lessened Ntabakuze’s culpability, the appeals court lessened the sentence to 35 years in prison. The other sentences for Hategekimana and Kanyarukuga were affirmed. It was notable that in the public audience, most if not all the Rwandans present were connected with the accused.
This morning starts my official visit to the ICTR and actual interviews. It has been good to have the time yesterday afternoon and evening to think about the court cases: one reduction of sentence, two confirmations of sentences; how one looks when one is told life imprisonment stands and the last appeal has been finalized; look of Ntabakuze as his lengthy appeal reasoning was read and as reduction from life to 35 years; consideration of the family of accused there; consideration of friends who had lost family; in general just lots to think about.
I have been strengthened to think on such things after the Andy’s visit. He came between the end of the commemoration week and the time that I came to Arusha. It was definitely a helpful time for him to come. Having him close after all the commemorations and burials really helped. I was able to take him to Mutara to meet my Rwandan family there (and so that he could learn the importance of milk as one is offered a huge glass of milk at every house one visits and it is extraordinarily rude to refuse amata meza in Mutara, the place where people still sing to their cows). The singing to the cows comment is something that shows the care and respect for the cow in certain places. It is very traditional to sing to the cow, and now at the king’s palace in Nyanza (the Nyanza in the south, not the Nyanza in Kigali) there is a herd of cows and a gentleman sings to one in front of visitors. In taking Andy to Nyanza, we continued on and saw the National Museum in Butare, but also shared in some commemorating activities with him as we went to the memorial in Murambi. To complete his experiences, he finally had akabenzi (a pork dish) and got to try sorghum beer. In all, he had his own mix of positive experiences during the trips as well as continuing to witness the potential people have for evil.
Clearly, there has been a lot happening. In the coming week I will continue to explore the ICTR and Arusha. I expect an update on my experiences in Arusha will come in the following week or so. Until then, take care and kwa heri (“goodbye” in Swahili)!