Sunday, January 16, 2011

Memorials and Moving Memories

Muraho!  We have returned from our east Rwanda trip with multiple adventures to share with you.  It was actually helpful to not Blog for a couple of days--this experience has been rich at multiple levels, I needed some processing find a place for these intense experiences and emotional extremes.  Carl and I have been in the car together for many hours the last couple of days, and the conversations have been intense, hilarious and philosophical--so, just so you know, we have solved all of the world's problems and all is done...yeah, right!  Honestly, it is a great joy to be traveling with my new brother...I am blessed to have him all to myself for such an extended time.  My new name for Carl is "Indiana Wilkens"...he earned that during our day in the Congo...more on that in a future blog.

I was embarrassingly brief in my last post about our visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, so here are more thoughts to share.  Wow, where to start?  Upon arrival I was impressed by the wonderful mountain perch the center lives on--an amazing view of Kigali and a proper symbolic placement for such an important building and monument...I really felt like I was in the driver's seat of Kigali.  Everyone is checked at a security point before entering the grounds, which are immaculate, lush and beautifully manicured.  This abrupt contrast of immense beauty and unfathomable tragedy was a repeated theme throughout the day--yes, you need to reserve an entire day to spend at the memorial center to respectfully absorb the exhibits and to allow for processing time.  As a ravenous researcher of genocide studies, I was not prepared for the multiple, unannounced moments where I was simply STOPPED by the weight of the idea, moment, image, etc.

We had a lovely discussion with the memorial's staff and while none of Carl's usual friends were there that morning, these people were part of Carl and Drew's Rwanda Posse in 10 minutes--they were of course impressed by Carl's story and also intrigued by The Anne Frank Project and our "world-changing" mission at Buffalo State's Theater department. We have found that once we give people an explanation of the project and an orange bracelet (don't be surprised if all of Rwanda is wearing them soon :), then we are no longer strangers, but united in purpose...I attribute that to Anne Frank...she is clearly with us here in Rwanda.

If you haven't visited the center's website yet, please do:

I am holding myself back from posting every picture I took there because the center is organized so beautifully.  It is difficult to edit material when studying and presenting genocide work--what's too much?  What would be disrespectful?  What parts are vital to the story?  What parts are better left alone? Well, the center's format and layout are an amazing illustration of what happens when smart, compassionate, determined people collaborate for the right reasons--the STORY told here is wonderful.  I will be stealing multiple techniques for future work.  As I moved through the chronologically told story of pre-genocide, genocide and post-genocide Rwanda, I felt very focused on the clear, truthful and REAL elements of the Rwanda genocide from RWANDAN voices.  I never felt like I was being asked to do or think anything but my own thoughts based on facts...facts in pictures (graphic, tender, loving, shocking), media accounts (where was the world?), survivor and perpetrator accounts (heroic, haunting), and artistic interpretations (sculpture, music, film).  There was so much to absorb--taking private breaks and just allowing myself to "get what I get" was helpful.  It was an especially nice treasure to have Carl with me for personal anecdotes and reactions.  He is amazing--one of his greatest attributes is reliving each moment he experienced as he retells it--he put me outside my shoes and in his many times.  When the staff asked me if I wanted to rent an audio tour I proudly replied "No thank you--I have Carl."

As I made my way through this portion of the center I found myself in the most gripping and moving portion commemorating the lost future of Rwanda, the most tragic victims, the children.  I find myself extremely emotional right now...(pause to wipe and breathe)...this was an immensely powerful time for a father as a human.  This section is organized with big, smiling, gorgeous pictures of a small sample of children who were murdered in the genocide:  infants, children, teens.  Under their pictures is a plaque with their name, age at time of death, favorite sport, favorite food, best friend, behavior and cause of death.  This, of course, fleshes out these victims and makes them tangible people...people our world will never have the chance to know.  Shameful, absurd, words are strong enough.  This really leveled me and confirmed the importance of the work with The Anne Frank Project, theater as a vehicle for social change and my personal belief systems...what an honor to have stood before their stories.  (take a breath--I am)

The next interior portion of the memorial was an excellent montage of some of the other genocides around the world and their connections and similarities to the Rwandan Genocide.  This section does a solid job of presenting the other atrocities without diminishing or "rating" their importance in the big picture.  Again, this is an impossible task--there will always be those that feel strongly about what should and should not have been included, but as someone who spends a great deal of time in this world, I was impressed.  Their use of unique images, artifacts and personal accounts from both the victims and perpetrators was a smart way of condensing the huge amount of information.  I am happy they did not use the many overused images from each genocide, particularly from the Holocaust of WWII.  I am surprised that so little is known in Rwanda about Anne Frank and her diary.  When Carl and I retell her story (and we have done this MANY times when we give them an AFP bracelet) they are extremely interested and impressed.  In typical Rwandan nature, they feel VERY bad for Anne Frank and what she went through--this from Rwandan survivors; one of the world's largest atrocities ever.  Their first response:  Pure compassion.  Their second:  She is just like me.  You can imagine how confirming and defining this is for me, my students and colleagues...

It was a relief to head outside into the gardens--the deep darkness I had just experienced was showered with bright, beautiful light.  The grounds are spacious, lush, tropical and expertly maintained.  On the lower terrace are mass graves where the bodies of over 250,000 Tutsi murdered are buried,  These are large, simple cement slabs--that's all.  I greatly appreciated the simplicity--it made for a powerful walk amongst the perished souls without attempting to make it anything other than what it is--a seemingly endless illustration of wasted lives--a horrible tragedy--the picture below will show you...

Carl and I reconnected in the front plaza.  We talked more with the staff, I had an opportunity to interview the manager of the center, Serge, who shared his amazing story and feelings and we even witnessed a surprise visit from  a high ranking Rwandan official (the Minister of Sports and Culture, I believe) who was in Kigali to salute the Rwandan National Junior Futbol (soccer) Team for making the Junior World Cup.  This is a huge deal for tiny Rwanda (about the size of Maryland), as this will be the first time Rwanda has been represented ever and all of these boys are 17 years old...the genocide happened in 1994...a perfect symbol for the post genocide success of Rwanda.  We also had a lively discussion about genocide, politics and world myths with two new friends from Tanzania...very enlightening.

We concluded our visit by visiting the busy archival work happening at the center.  The archivist/activist/humanitarian, Shannon (a Canadian grad student), was kind enough to invite us into her high tech lab where she was preserving photographs, newspapers, magazines. letters and videos.  This is a vital piece of the post-genocide recovery puzzle:  to maintain proof of the atrocity for future generations.

These are pictures of victims--family members have provided photos.

Clothing from those killed--note the "Cornell" sweatshirt


The lush grounds of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

The entrance

"A tree can only be straightened when it is young""

Carl with a tour guide who recognized him--"Thank you for what you did."
The mass grave
We finished this powerful day by visiting the The Kigali Belgian Soldier Memorial.  This is the actual site where 10 Belgian soldiers were killed in the hopes that Belgium would remove all of its peacekeeping troops--which they did.  These were young soldiers with families, stories, lives.  The power of this memorial site (and there are many throughout Rwanda) is the "reality" that is maintained.  The bullet and grenade holes in the building are not repaired--they have been left to remind us of the stark truth of the event.  Inside this ghostly war post exhibit are plaques, images, posters and information...again, surrounded by original bullet and grenade holes everywhere.  The simplicity of the monument was further illustrated for me by the wonderful night watchman, Joseph, who opened the gates for us even though it was past closing time.  He gently and peacefully accompanied us throughout.  He is a survivor so willing to share his story, his person.  Our visit was completed joyfully by a welcomed laugh as I discovered he was a dedicated Los Angeles Laker fan!!! Good thing my son Nate donated several of his Laker hats to my trip to hand out.  I will be dropping off Joseph's hat this week from Nate.

What a world we live in.

Our new Tanzanian friends
The Belgian Memorial

Joseph--Go Lakers!


  1. Greetings to you and Carl. Thanks for sharing your journey to/in/around Rwanda. Every sentence you write takes me back to places I know so well. See you soon back in Buffalo, NY.

  2. Thanks again, Drew, for powerful....I appreciate your compassionate description of your visit to the memorial. I put your blogs on my Facebook page....hope you don't mind!