To make the effort to understand what happened in Rwanda is a painful task that we have no right to shirk – It is part of being a moral adult.
– Susan Sontag, Preface of Machete Season, The Killers in Rwanda Speak
One gets lost in the numbers and statistics of the genocide, and becomes desensitized to the essence of the apocalyptic massacre. The sheer number of deaths is simply too large to fully process. The river of comprehension is clogged by a deluge of numbers and statistics.
If you watch a story on T.V. about a single child’s murder, watching images from her life; of her eating ice cream at the park, of her teachers shaking their heads and recalling how good of a student she was, how she always shared her favourite toy tea set with the other children, your heart breaks, and you feel a small portion of the sadness her family is going through. But you hear a story about a million deaths in some place in Africa, and a certain numb, detached incomprehension sets in. The number of deaths flashes on the screen, with a few images of rotting black bodies in some horrible country you’ve never heard of, and you say, “That’s horrible.” And then you change the channel.
Researchers talk about “compassion fatigue,” wherein the more victims there are in a tragedy, the less people care, because it becomes less personal. When an image of someone suffering is shown, people empathize, but when the calamity afflicting them is explained, and statistics are given, people actually empathize less, because it becomes intellectualized and hence less emotional.
Philip Gourevitch wrote that “the ubiquity of the blight seems to cancel out any appeal to think about the single instance […] Even as we look at atrocity, we find ways to regard it as unreal.” In order to understand it, and learn from it, we mustn’t feel detached. We must feel shattered, heartbroken, furious. These are the only responses worthy of such horror.
In the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, the first section contains information about the history of the events, including the numbers killed, yet one is still left with a cold numb feeling, even upon learning that there are 259,000 bodies buried on-site, a small sampling of the total killed. The dimly-lit rooms with display cases full of skulls and other grim, dead artifacts of murder provoke disgust but the sense of detachment lingers, since the skulls all look alike, and not human. They have no personalities and it’s hard to get the sense that each of them was once a person who laughed, cried, and dreamed.
It is only in the next section, the children’s section, where one learns that one of the skulls belonged to a pretty two-year-old girl whose favourite toy was a doll, whose best friend was her daddy, and who was murdered by being “smashed against a wall,” that you start to understand, you start to feel it, and you realize that everyone around you is crying, as any normal human being would.
In order for the full extent of the genocide to be truly comprehended, which it must be, one has to look beyond the incredible yet sterile statistics and examine the horrors in vicious, agonizing, relentless detail.
“Neighbours hacked neighbours to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients, and schoolteachers killed their pupils,” writes Gourevitch. Dogs ate the bodies which lay in the streets (they were later shot, so that for a while there were almost no dogs in Rwanda). Radio announcers told people to take special care to rip fetuses out of pregnant Tutsi women’s stomachs. Hutus were offered money for decapitated Tutsi heads. Priests raped their congregants before rounding them up to be slaughtered (more people were in fact slaughtered in churches than anywhere else). Children were forced to kill their families, and husbands their Tutsi wives. The British Medical Journal reported that some of “the most horrific massacres occurred in maternity clinics, where people gathered in the belief that no one would kill mothers and new-born babies.” All the while the murderers blithely sang songs. Bodies piled up so high that dump trucks had to carry them away like trash. About 40,000 bodies washed down the Akagera river into Lake Victoria, a convenient system of disposal.
A victim of the genocide © James Nachtwey
The Hutu exodus following the horrific events was the largest and fastest mass migration of a population in modern history. There were 1.25 million in camps in Zaire (present day DRC) alone, costing donors $1 million per day. When they returned in November, 1996, they crossed the border at a rate of 12,000 people/hour; 1.5 million people composing “a human battering ram aimed at the frontier.”
Ryszard Kapuściński wrote that “Those in Europe, observing the endless columns on their television screens, could not fathom what force propelled these emaciated wanderers, what power compelled these skeletons to keep walking, in punitive formations, without stopping or resting, without food or drink, without speaking or smiling, trudging humbly, obediently, and with vacant eyes along their ghastly road of guilt and anguish.”
Gourevitch points out how incredibly unique post-genocidal Rwandan society was. “Never before in modern memory had a people who slaughtered another people, or in whose name the slaughter was carried out, been expected to live with the remainder of the people that was slaughtered, completely intermingled, in the same tiny communities, as one cohesive national society.” It is a testament to the Rwandan people and their government that their society works so well under such circumstances. It is impossible to understand Rwanda today without bearing in mind this fact.
For part three of this series, click here.