A Year Abroad

China, Uganda, and Rwanda

Commemoration Week

I knew Lee was a survivor before I met him. When the Uganda group and Rwanda group met up five weeks after the start of the program to switch places, we exchanged some stories as well. All of the Rwanda group talked about Lee with affection, but they never said exactly what it was that he told them about his experience in 1994.

“He later told us that he was so nervous to talk to us, that he isn’t used to telling people he’s come to care about,” said one girl.

“I just wanted to give him a hug when he was done,” said another girl.

For the next month, bits and pieces of his story came out through casual conversations. He was driving me down the muddy road to my house when he talked about what happened to his family for the first time. Like most personal conversations about the genocide, it emerged seemingly randomly, triggered by some connection intangible to those who didn’t live through the genocide.

“I was walking this way yesterday and a truck went by quickly and I got splashed with mud. My feet were already so dirty and now the rest of me was too. My host family couldn’t believe it when I got home.” I told him as he drove.

“Oh! I’m sorry.”

“It was pretty funny, nothing terrible. You just have to laugh at it.”

“See! This is why I laugh. You have to laugh at these things. Like these guys in TIG who say so casually ‘I killed 8 people’. I have to laugh, because who knows, maybe they killed my mother, maybe they killed my father. I don’t know, I’ll never know. So I have to laugh.”

It confirmed what I’d suspected, that his ubiquitous laugh and giggle were not superficial at all, but came from some deeper need to find something in life instead of anger.

The entire group left Kigali the day before the beginning of Commemoration Week, the anniversary of the start of the genocide. No public transportation ran on April 7th anyway, so it would have been impossible to have classes. Instead, we traveled up to Kibuye on the 6th to spend our last few days together by the lake before our independent study projects would scatter us across Uganda and Rwanda. Instead of planning to spend Commemoration Week with his remaining family, Lee made the three-hour drive with us. However, almost immediately upon arriving in Kibuye, Lee had to drive back to Kigali. Something had come up. We didn’t see him again until we returned Kigali two days later and he came to meet us when our car broke down. What we’d missed while we sunbathed in Kibuye became immediately apparent upon our arrival. In Kigali the air was heavy with something other than humidity, a kind of palpable communal grief. And for the first time in the few weeks I’d known him, Lee looked like he’d lived through the pain genocide leaves behind.

“I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.” Lee had told me a few days before, “I knew I felt sad but somehow I didn’t connect it to Commemoration Week for a while.”

At the time he looked like he always did, lounging in the office, serene and smiling. In the parking lot in Kigali though, he looked worn down and tired. He hadn’t expected to see us that day and had the car not broken down, we might never have seen what remembering did to him.

The next morning he attended our lectures, smiling as usual.

“I don’t know if you know,” our lecturer said, patting Lee’s leg, “but this man here is a survivor.”

Lee’s smile froze on his face and his jaw clenched.

“Most survivors, they don’t just have one story of how they survived, but several. You don’t just survive once.”

For the next few minutes Lee bit his lip as our lecturer began to speak about post-1994 politics.

In the afternoon we all rushed back from lunch, knowing Lee’s lecture, our final lecture, was next.

“For my testimony, I’m going to read it to you. I find, when survivors speak about this, they can get angry and say things that maybe they don’t really mean, or maybe they mean but don’t want to be the parts you take away from our experience.”

He read it like a child reading an assignment out loud, a little stilted, like the words he wrote down were somehow unfamiliar to him. It was like he was trying to read it on automatic, wanting us to get something out of his experience, but not wanting to think about it himself. It didn’t take long for his pauses between thoughts to increase, for the emotion to begin to surface.

“Some time ago I was told that my father was killed on the 9th. So I’m speaking to you today on the anniversary of his death. Personally, I know 86 people who were killed. This includes my immediate family, my extended family, friends, and neighbors. From my family, only one brother and one sister survived. When I made it out of Rwanda, I didn’t think anyone had survived. “

“The day I remember most is the day the UN left us, April 11th. We were taking refuge in the school my father used to teach at, 4,000 of us. The Hutu militia was outside, but we felt safest inside the school since the UN was there protecting us. We hadn’t had anything to eat for days, so when the UN soldiers told us to exit the rooms so they could distribute food, we did. They locked the doors behind us, made us evacuate knowing what was waiting for us outside. They had their orders, and they left us. A large group tried to escape together, some 2,000 people, thinking they could overwhelm the militia with their numbers. But they got rounded up and were marched to Nyanza hill. That night they were all killed. My brother was killed and so was his wife, who was 8 months pregnant at the time.”

Lee paused and looked at us. For a moment, he sounded like Lee again as he spoke to us.

“On Sunday, as part of Commemoration Week, a group is walking from the school to the hill, where they’ll spend the night. For those of you who will still be in Rwanda, I’d like to invite you to join us, if you want to come.”

Then Lee continued reading.

“I hid. That’s how I survived. I hid and went from bush to bush. I passed by the hill where everyone was killed. When you run, you don’t feel like a person anymore. They hunt you like animals. And the worst part, worse than the smell of the dead bodies, your family, worse than the sound of the guns and machetes, of the people crying out as they died, was the sound of the killers. They were singing. They were enjoying killing.”

Then, Lee deviated from his script once more. His voice opened up, he opened up, and the emotion he’d been pressing down seemed to lift out of him.

“I want you to know, when I left Kibuye, I wasn’t running away from you guys. Even though it was Commemoration Week, I was happy to spend it with you. But I got a call saying they might have some information about where my mother was buried. So I had to run back to Kigali. I spent the whole day digging, but we didn’t find anything.”

Though he spoke calmly, he spoke genuinely, exposing how fresh the wounds of genocide still are 16 years later. For a moment, he couldn’t help but let us see how not being able to lay his mother to rest properly and respectfully still has a hold on him when he stops long enough to think about it.

“It isn’t enough to just live. Being a survivor isn’t about living, it is about helping someone else survive too. I want you to know, you are never small. Whenever you see something you know is wrong, you are never too small to do something. Genocide doesn’t just stop. The killers didn’t just decide that they were tired of killing; someone had to make them stop. The international community didn’t do anything, but I see you here, wanting to learn about what happened to us, and it gives me hope.”

Lee finished his personal testimony and then moved on to his lecture on memorials and the politics of memory. This time, he didn’t read from a script and sounded like his normal engaging self. He told us so much that afternoon, but like our morning lecturer said, when you survive, you don’t just survive once. There was so much he didn’t say.

He didn’t say that not even two weeks after the genocide started he turned 22. He was probably in the bush, struggling to survive on his birthday. He didn’t say that he knows who killed his mother, that his childhood best friend was the person who ended her life. For every detail about his experience in 1994 that Lee told us about, there are undoubtedly 100 more equally horrific ones that he left out.

Unlike the other group, after Lee’s lecture those of us who’d grown close to him in the last month found time to thank him individually and to give him a hug. For all the support he’d shown us over our time in Rwanda, our attempts to give him some measure of comfort in return seemed to fall exceptionally short. When those of us conducting our research in Rwanda threw Lee a surprise birthday party two weeks later, brought out the homemade cake and saw how the unexpected gesture touched Lee, we realized that maybe we might somehow be part of Lee’s healing process too.

Sometimes, it’s hard to look at Lee and remember what he went through. The majority of the time he doesn’t walk around with the full horror of the genocide radiating off of him in painful energy. Most of the time he is just a guy who has amazingly insightful comments to share and more warmth and compassion then most 10 people put together, not the 22-year-old that survived a nightmare and had every trust broken and felt every betrayal of humanity. It’s hard to think of him as ever being incredibly sad when he spends most of his time laughing.

The day of the commemoration walk I called Lee to get the details. We all wanted to go and support him, even if we didn’t walk with him and even if he never saw us. He sounded exhausted over the phone and explained that he didn’t feel up to walking. Almost in the same breath, he told us he’d pick us up in 45 minutes in order to meet Sarah at the bus stop. A grenade had been thrown at the bus stop the night before, the third grenade attack in two months. Since we were going to the bus park during the day and all the attacks had happened after dark, there was no danger and we tried to tell Lee that it wasn’t necessary for him to pick us up, not wanting to burden him any more, but he wanted the distraction.

He ended up hanging out with us for the better part of the afternoon, since we got news that Sarah would be late, due to the engine of her bus catching fire. He drove us to pick up gas so we’d be able to cook and then we retreated to the house that the five of us were renting during our ISPs. We practiced cartwheels on the lawn and took turns on the tire swing as Lee pushed us. By the end of the afternoon, he seemed more like Lee than the solemn stranger that had arrived at the house several hours before. By the end of Commemoration Week, the only thing left behind to hint at the sadness that lives somewhere within Lee were our memories.

1 Comment

  1. Peace.

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