Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Memorial Day

This is an extract from my African travel blog, where you can read all of my adventures in Rwanda. 

Memorial Flame

Yesterday was national Genocide Memorial Day. Nothing in my life could have prepared me. It was intense.

Loona, Alicia and Morley (VSO vols) all work up at Gisozi Memorial Centre, the epicentre of national mourning. Loona said things would probably start about ten, so I took a moto and arrived about half-nine. The police had stopped people from going up to the gates on moto and everyone - hundreds of people - were walking the long winding road up the hill. It was baking hot already, but there was something spiritual about being amongst this procession.

Paula had arrived there before me. She texted to say that she was waiting at the gates but, as I got to them, they closed - too many people. I was wondering what to do next when Hattie, Loona's colleague, saw me in the crowd and came to rescue me. She took me round the side to the gift shop where Charlotte, one of the VSO Programme Managers, was helping out. Paula found me soon after, and we went into the Centre and up with Loona and Alicia onto a balcony overlooking the main entrance square.

Loona explained on the way up that earlier in the year Gacaca (community genocide courts) had extracted a confession from a convicted man about where they had buried the bodies. That morning they had re-interred a further 100 people from about ten or twelve families, so emotions were running high.

The courtyard was packed. Someone was talking in Kinya over the loud speakers. Then a choir started singing the most beautiful melodies. Alicia and I were just chatting away, mostly about our placements.

Then the screaming started.

I just remember sitting up and looking at Alicia, saying "What's that?"

"The grieving is starting," she said. "It has a domino effect."

She was right. Within minutes it had spread around the entire court - screams like you've never heard; wailing, crying. I thought it'd be like Diana's funeral - quiet mass sobbing. I had no idea. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

The Red Cross were there en masse and every so often they would wade into the crowds. Up to five men would bodily carry a man or a woman out, restraining their kicking legs and thrashing arms. They were shouting out in Kinya, often names. One man, I will always remember his voice, shouted out names and then gave this soul-deep gasp: 'Ooooh!' - reliving what he saw in front of him. It was the saddest thing I've ever heard.

Originally, there was a room set aside upstairs for people in trauma. We had a trauma specialist on hand. As the day wore on, more and more casualties came in and soon there were people lying in every room in the centre. I was drafted into the effort with boxes of water and piles of toilet roll to hand out. I stood in the lobby for a while with the tissue, but soon went out into the crowds just to be outside. The sounds were heartbreaking - just the screaming and the calling of names, people reliving what happened all over again. Morley spent two hours with one lady, who drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes she would suddenly sitting bolt-upright and reaching out, crying.

It was really, really hard.

I held together well, and was hugely grateful for the sanctuary of the balcony. There was a one minute silence. This huge sea of people walking down to the graves, just stopped. Like the world had stopped.

At the end, they lit a flame in the middle of the fountain. It burns for 100 days. 

This is when I lost it a little. I just stood, watching and crying. It was the image of the flame - the souls of all the people lying in those four metre deep pits. Not even whole people, but the bits recovered, and the little children. All those who have passed through that flame, as the living walked away. The crowds dispersing whilst the flame burned is this picture in my head that seemed so unutterably sad.

I'd never seen someone in real trauma before. Not like that. It was difficult, but I'm glad I went. It was an experience - a very human one - which is what I guess I went for in the first place. It was something very real, and something very surreal, all at the same time.

Soon after, Alicia and I escaped with another volunteer. We came back to Kisimenti. Kigali was a ghost town, not a shop or a bar open and no one on the streets. We walked for a while and eventually found one solitary bar willing to feed us. It was honestly the only one in the area.

We were all wearing purple ribbons and scraps of cloth - the colour of the memorial week. We sat and unwound with a beer and brochettes then went our separate ways. We needed that debrief.

I came home. D was here. I thought I was fine, but then I had a good cry and I was really fine. It had been a bit of a shock. I've never seen grief like that, not on that scale.

It's still really quiet outside, but there's a bit more traffic. Everyone's back to work today...

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