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Diary from Rwanda: Day One

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A year ago, I was invited to join a very special group of women in London in supporting the multiple award-winning NGO, Women for Women International. Women for Women is highly respected in a field of hundreds of NGOs because of the effectiveness of its programs, the strength and integrity of the women who work in the field, and the values and courage of its remarkable founder, Zainab Salbi. It is one thing to read about how an organization—which has served over 148,000 women in war-torn countries since its inception in 1993—helps women move from victim to survivor to active citizen, and quite another to witness it first hand.


For the next week, in addition to writing the monthly advice column, DivineGuidance, I will be reporting daily from the field in Rwanda and sharing the stories of the women I meet. Their stories are inextricably bound up in the events of 1994, when close to a million people were murdered while the world stood mostly idle, waiting for the conflict to settle. It is my hope that by giving voice to these women and their stories, you share this journey with me. It is one of hope and despair, of natural beauty and inexplicable horror, and of tuning your mind and heart to the Rwandan people as they move into the future by healing their past.


Day One
I land in Kigali, the largest city in Rwanda with a population of one million people, Saturday evening. The breeze is gentle and the clear evening sky shows no sign that heavy rains will fall intermittently tomorrow. My initial tour of the Kigali city center happens the following day with a fellow member of Women for Women. We notice the gorgeous green of this land of 1,000 hills, the restored streets, and buildings in the city center. Kigali is sparkling clean and new. Our driver informs us that no plastic bags are used in Rwanda and that people will wrap items in paper or use re-usable baskets for all shopping. He then proudly adds that the last Saturday of each month, every Rwandan, including the President, Paul Kagame, cleans the streets for half the day. It is called community service and people are happy to do it. I think about my husband and his childhood dream to become mayor of Boston so he could ban all litter. Then the psychologist in me takes over and I wonder about symbolic meanings of cleaning and scrubbing and making right, of our driver’s emphasis on what is positive and his single-minded focus on pointing out the beauty that surrounds us. He drives us past the Kacyiro monument of a mother and child holding hands. The father is absent, but after the genocide, children were lucky to be alive and most no longer had a father. In 1994, 70 percent of the post-genocidal adult population in Rwanda was women. 


On Monday, we visit the Gisozi Memorial Museum. We are each given a purple scarf to wear as purple is the color of mourning here. Our guide directs us to a mass grave that houses the remains of thousands of victims and we have a quiet moment of silence as we each lay a single rose on the grave. Our guide explains that even late last year, thirteen years after the genocide, victims’ remains were still being found, identified, and given a proper burial. This evokes a different form of cleaning up, one that is not about making sure the streets are free of litter.


Every guide who works in the museum experienced the genocide and now shares his or her story many times a day. We learn that racial divide in Rwanda is attributed to the European colonists’ separation of the Rwandan people into Tutsis and Hutus based on their physical features and assumed levels of intelligence and refinement. This separation was made concrete with identity cards which labeled the population as either or—either Tutsi or Hutu, either preferred or cast aside, and later, mostly either dead or alive. I hold it together through descriptions and pictures, through films of children screaming and attempting to flee, through statistics that boggle the mind: 800,000 people killed in one hundred days. Can I comprehend an average of eleven people being killed every two minutes? Or 500,000 women raped and more than that number orphaned? We reach the room where in beautiful glass display cases, cases that might house jewelry from Barneys, or treasures from ancient lore, lie the bones of the dead—the skulls, the femur bones, the bones of the arms, and other parts of the skeleton. The bones are alive and their pain is palpable and present. My heart takes over and I start to cry.


As we prepare to depart, we are privileged to hear a story, through an interpreter, of a survivor of the genocide. This survivor has come to the museum to beg for money today and the museum director decided that she should share her story with our group. Her name is Mukagihana Wifreda and she is forty-eight years old. On April 15, 1994, less than a week after then-President of Rwanda Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and the Hutu power militia began their highly efficient plan to kill all the Tutsis in Rwanda, she watched as five of her six children were killed. Eight months pregnant at the time, she was bound by chains in her home and raped repeatedly over the course of many days. She then had her womb cut open and was released into a field where she watched as her baby perished. Our interpreter said, “She wants to show you.” Mukagihana stood up and lifted her skirt. She showed us the scar where her baby had been cut out of her womb. She showed us her permanently bruised hipbones that had been forced apart through repeated rape. She showed us the marks on her body and ankles where she was cut. Zainab Salbi stood up, walked over to Mukagihana and simply said, “Come with us now and we will help you.” Somehow, it was enough. 


If you would like to learn more about how to help a sister who has experienced the trauma of war, please log on to the Web site where, for as little as twenty-seven dollars a month, you can help a woman survivor of war rebuild her life.

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