Photo: Chris Noble


Beauty and healing amid the shards of Rwanda

AWOMAN STANDS AT THE OPENING of a descending staircase. Her eyes — her red-streaked eyes — see inside me as she puts her arm through mine. We kiss each other on either side of our cheeks, one-two-three, Rwandan style. Her eyes. She directs me down to the basement, where there is a pyramid-shaped glass case of bones rising from a floor of white square tiles. The bones — skulls, femurs, ribs, vertebrae — are organized in rows, columns, piles.

You can look through the glass floor of the bone pyramid to another floor below where a single coffin rests. We are told that inside is the body of a mother holding a child. “I saw this woman,” a man interrupts. “I knew her. For years, her skeleton was exposed for everyone to see.” As we listened to what happened to this woman, what was done to her, the repeated rapes and a violence impaled with a gun, I didn’t want to hear it. And now that I had, I couldn’t get this image out of my mind.

Rwanda: I didn’t want to come here. I didn’t want to be in a place so familiar with death. I had seen enough in my own family. I was also scared. The only thing I knew of Rwanda was genocide, the weight of that word. Nineteen ninety-four, the year we Americans turned our backs. No. I would not go to Rwanda.

I said no. And then I said yes. I said yes to Lily Yeh, a Chinese-American artist who understands mosaic as taking that which is broken and creating something whole. She helped to create The Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia from the poorest of neighborhoods. She stood in the center of an empty lot littered with glass, picked up a stick, and drew a circle around herself. One by one, a curious community came to see who this tiny Chinese woman was and what she was doing. She invited them to pick up shards of glass and together they began making art. Mosaics. A Tree of Life was constructed on the only standing wall of a building otherwise destroyed. It was the first of many mosaics to restore beauty to a place of violence and abuse.

“Barefoot Artists,” she said as she began to describe the Rwandan project. She had been asked by a member of the Red Cross to help design a genocide memorial in the village of Rugerero, very near the town of Gisenyi, on the border of the Congo. “Will you be part of our team? I need you as our scribe.” I said no. And then I said yes. I knew in my heart that my own spiritual evolution depended on it.

There are four of us: Lily Yeh; Alan Jacobson, an environmental designer; Meghan Morris, a graduate student whose work focuses on the effects of war on adolescents; and myself. Rukirande Musana Jean Bosco is our sponsor from the Red Cross, the man who invited Lily to come work with him on this project. He is accompanied by Damas Ndebwohe, a tall, impressive young man with a broad smile. We are traveling on a red dirt road outside Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, on our way to see two churches that are now memorials to the 1994 genocide. Large expanses of wetlands are on either side of us. “This is where many Tutsi hid,” Jean Bosco tells us. “It is also where many were hunted and butchered by the Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe.” We cross a bridge. “There was a time when this river was choked with bodies,” Jean Bosco says.

Inside the church at Nyamata, my eyes are drawn to the ceiling. Holes from grenades appear as stars. Light is streaming down onto the empty pews. There are rooms full of bones. Bags of bones, bulging, closed. Sacks of skulls. Piles of faded clothing. The altar cloth, once white, is brown with blood. Ten thousand people were murdered here.

Belyse, a young woman, twenty-one years old, is the witness here at Nyamata who tells the story. She shows us where the door was kicked down. She shows us an identity card. Hutu. Tutsi. “It came down to this,” she says. She tells of those murdered, bodies piled over one another on pews. She tells of how the Virgin survived and points to a statue on a shelf, the Blessed Mother perfectly intact.

Beautiful in her ethereal presence, Belyse is barely here. She inhabits the past, hunkered in the grasses, nine years old, listening, waiting. Her parents told her to hide in the fields. She remembers the screams, the silences, looking for her parents, searching for her parents, and then the years of wandering. She has come back. This church is now her home. Her parents’ home. Their bones are in the church. Purple fabric covers coffins. Flowers now dried are draped over the wooden boxes.

Damas is standing in front of an alcove inside the church. The brick wall is stained with blood. Wild with grief, he tells me about babies pulled out of their mothers’ arms and thrown against the wall by the killers. “In that moment,” Damas says to me, “the devil came into the churches and murdered every Tutsi.”

My eyes follow the birds flying inside, swallows banking before stained-glass windows — red drops of blood, rendered in glass, below a window of deliverance, blue, yellow.

Outside, the sun is blinding. I can breathe again. I look back at the church with its red bricks of sandstone. Swallows circle the white cross. Purple ribbon is strewn through the wrought-iron fence like crepe paper woven through the spokes of bicycles.

We descend into what looks like a root cellar. There is just enough light to see that it is filled with coffins covered with purple cloth. Some of the coffins are open. “That is not one person — but many persons,” says Belyse. “Each coffin contains many people.” She pauses. “Whole families.”

This is a hell of our own making — those who killed and those of us who looked away. No surgical strikes, computerized by military minds and carried out by top-gun pilots, the eyes of these killers were on the eyes of those they killed. By hand. Nearly one million Tutsis murdered by hand in one hundred days, murdered by their neighbors with farm tools, machetes, and hoes. Hundreds of skulls, shelves of skulls — ten thousand bodies — are here at Nyamata.

We are walking inside a mass grave, genocidal tourists. I am sick to my stomach. All I can see are the whites of Belyse’s eyes in darkness. I cannot walk any farther down this narrow, damp hallway of bones, shelves and boxes of bones. Damas calls me back. “Here, look, the skin has not separated from the bones…” From the corner of my eye, I see a flesh-fallen hand, disembodied. Below, a large, amber cockroach scurries across the cement floor. Inyezi. Cockroach. The Hutu name for Tutsi.

Back outside, I sit in the garden and take a picture of white blossoms against red sand. Damas sits down next to me. Lily, Alan, and Meghan are still underground.

“It is impossible to imagine — “I say to Damas.

“It is impossible to accept,” he replies. “When I see those skulls, I see me.”

WE ARRIVE IN GISENYI at dusk. Smoke. Shadows. Figures caught in headlights. Lake Kivu is a long reflective mirror. I am reminded of scenes captured in a ring I once had as a child; inside a plastic orb were the silhouettes of palms against a twilight sky made of iridescent butterfly wings, turquoise blue. We are surrounded by enormous mountains, a crown of peaks, snow-tipped and jagged. And then, suddenly, an eerie red glow is emanating from the Congo. An active volcano.

Jean Bosco refers to the volcano as a woman, Nyiragongo. He tells us that three years ago when she erupted, Gisenyi needed no electricity at night, the sky was so bright. Louis Gakumba, a young man of twenty-two years, tells of carrying his mother on his back across the smoldering lava, how they fled their home, carrying mattresses to the hillside where they watched as Gisenyi burned.

“Louis will be our translator,” Jean Bosco says. Louis shakes our hands. He is elegant and poised. His eyes are almond-shaped, brown with curled lashes. And when he smiles, we relax, believing joy can cohabit with hardship.

Louis tells us that he taught himself English through books and by watching American movies. “It was a competition with my brother,” he says. “I wanted to speak English better than he did.” His native language is Kinyarwanda, spoken by both Tutsi and Hutu. He also speaks French, Swahili, and two Congolese dialects. “This is his first experience as an interpreter,” says Jean Bosco. Louis’s formal education was truncated by war. “I was nine years old when the genocide began,” he says. I notice a long centipedelike scar on his left hand. “Yeah, we all have stories.”

A deep silence takes hold of us on the porch of the house where we will be staying for a month. In candlelight, Lily says, “The results of the violence we witnessed today is not just outside us but within us, capable of erupting at any moment.”

ON MY FIRST MORNING IN GISENYI, I take a brisk walk through the town to orient myself. As I head toward the market, groups of men, young and old, begin to heckle me, jeering and laughing. I look straight ahead only to be approached by a man with a crutch who is missing his left leg from the knee down. He speaks to me. I don’t understand. He holds out his hand. Now I do, and give him the Rwandan francs that I have in my pocket. It isn’t enough. He grows impatient, shakes his head, and moves on. Women pass with baskets of bananas on their heads and smile. I smile back. Four small boys follow me, practicing their English, tugging at my shirt. Hello, madame, how are you? Muzungu! Muzungu! they shout, using the word for white person.

Bicycles flash by, their drivers ringing bells to tell me that I am in their way; trucks and motorbikes speed by too close for comfort. Dust envelops me, and I cover my mouth with my scarf. The chaos grows as the crowds grow. All roads lead to the market, where the pulse of Gisenyi intensifies. Western Union is on my left. An internet café with wooden benches outside is on my right. There is a bank with people openly making deals for the best exchange rate. A barbershop. A bike repair shop. A hardware store with men next door shining shoes. Six women are crouched down around a blue plastic tub outside what appears to be a clinic. Looking sideways, I see a baby with its eyes closed and legs folded. I think the baby is dead. On either side of the dirt road are trenches half filled with water and trash; the acrid stench of urine and rotting food swirls around toilet paper, discarded diapers, and single shoes floating sole-side up.

Inside the market, the labor of women is on full display: tall triangular mounds of potatoes, purple, red, and white; string beans, yellow beans, black beans, kidney beans, more varieties than I could ever imagine, which women dip from full burlap sacks with tin cups, selling them to other women. Carrots, cabbage, corn, cassava, spinach, sorghum, and all manner of grains from oats to barley to wheat create a color wheel of produce next to piles of polished avocados. The smell of coffee alone induces a euphoria in me, and I purchase a pound.

Deeper into the market, there are clothes of every kind: shirts, blouses, skirts and pants, new and used, and I duck to avoid brushing my head against all that is hanging above me. An acre of shoes stretches toward socks and bras and panties and briefs. Bolts of colored cloth, Indonesian batiks, some already cut to wrap around waists, are clothes-pinned on rope lines, flapping like sheets. Soccer balls; brushes and combs; creams and cosmetics; radios, records, and a tower of cassettes, from rap to jazz to African music; videos; magazines; dishes, pots, and pans; appliances. And then, at the far end of the market, I can first smell, then see, live chickens, eggs, baskets of fish, fresh and dried minnows from Lake Kivu. And then, hanging from hooks, is the red marbled meat of goats and cows. Anything you could want or need is here.

JEAN BOSCO EXPLAINS the Rugerero Survivors Village to us. “After the war, the government thought about how they could help the survivors of the 1994 genocide to find security and shelter, so they set aside small tracts of land and built simple, adjoining brick structures covered in gray adobelike material for those who needed homes. One ‘house’ is built to accommodate two families.”

The village in Rugerero is made up of genocide survivors from Gisenyi, Cyanzarwe, and Kibuye. The individuals and families are not related. And for the most part, they did not know each other before being placed together in this makeshift community. “The people in the Rugerero Survivors Village have nothing,” says Jean Bosco. “Worse than nothing.”

The memorial site is less than a mile from the village. It is a field of lava stones with the humblest of structures to protect the bones buried there, a corrugated-tin roof above a cement slab. Banana trees border the field. A primary school is adjacent to the memorial. Eldefons, one of the community leaders, says, “This is the place we buried our people with the little money we had to keep the bones safe. This is a matter of security to us, the safekeeping of our beloved. We will move the bodies while the new memorial is being built. There will also be new bones added as we uncover more loved ones’ remains in the fields. And then we hope to make a big house where people can meet and talk about the genocide.”

A SMALL CHILD STANDS against a brick wall, singing. I am sitting against a tree wishing I could disappear. The physical and psychic assault of Africa has deflated me. I close my eyes. Three girls suddenly grab my hands and pull me up, pushing me toward the school, where dozens and dozens of children follow, running, laughing, and tugging at my skirt. Meghan is behind me with her own group of children. Desperate to stem the chaos, I turn around and sit down on the ground, making a circle with my hands. Miraculously the children sit down with me. Louis gently asks the children to move back to enlarge the circle so more kids can join us.

“My name is Terry,” I say, then clap, looking at the child sitting next to me. “My name is Olive,” she says, and claps! “My name is Jean Claude.” Clap! “My name is Vincent.” Clap! The tempo picks up. “My name is Yvonne.” Clap! And so the children’s names move energetically through the circle like an electrical current. And then, spontaneously, the children begin to sing. Olive sings with a deep, haunting voice. More songs emerge — many of them Christian songs the children learned in church.

Suddenly, the children start clapping their hands and calling my name. I don’t know what they want. Louis turns to me and says, “They want you to sing them a song — teach them a song.” My mind, in a panic, goes blank. A song? I can’t remember any song. Finally, (with Louis translating) I say, “Okay, this is a very silly song. It’s about a food called Jell-O.” I jiggle my body, they jiggle theirs, all of us laugh.
I begin to sing:

Oh, the big red letters stand for the Jell-O family.
Oh, the big red letters stand for the Jell-O family.
It’s Jell-O — yum, yum, yum.
Jell-O Pudding — yum, yum, yum.
Jell-O Tapioca Pudding — try all three!

The children are laughing hysterically at me, at my singing, and I cannot believe that the only song that came to me was a Mormon camp ditty glorifying a food staple that I learned when I was eight years old.

Louis tries to explain to the children what Jell-O is. He looks at me completely puzzled.
“What should I say?”

“Tell them it looks like a fat man’s belly that jiggles when he’s laughing. Tell them it’s green and comes in cold square cubes.” Louis raises his eyebrows. “Tell them it’s like squishy candy that you can eat with a spoon.” Whatever he tells them, the children burst out laughing.

At the genocide memorial site, there are more children still. Lily calls them together. All eyes are on her. She picks up two rocks and raises the lava stones high above her head. She then ritualistically places them down by her feet beneath the line of twine that Alan and Damas have used to stake out the boundaries of the site. Lily makes a rectangle in the air with her hands and then points to the children and claps. The children understand and begin gathering rocks and placing them below the twine. Within minutes, the children have enclosed the sacred space with lava stones. The boundaries of the memorial are set.

When I asked Lily how she had thought of this, she said smiling, “I’m Chinese, I know a workforce when I see one.”

“RIGHT NOW I THINK GOD IS WITH US,” Lily says to Alan, Meghan, and me, as we sit outside on the patio. “The Chinese contractor is here in Gisenyi once every two months. Mr. Yu works for a company based in Beijing with ties in Rwanda for the past eight years. I spoke with him on the telephone today. He will meet with me tomorrow. Cement is very expensive, eight times what it costs in China. I will show him the design. He said they will do whatever we need.

“The first stage will be to level the site. We will need surveyors. Mr. Yu promises to give me the best price because I speak Mandarin. But I have no idea how much it is going to cost . . . thousands, tens of thousands?

“Lava stones or bricks?” she asks Alan.

“We’ll just have to price it out,” says Alan, “and see what is available.”

Lily tells Alan she will price out the room for bones with Mr. Yu as well. “There has to be an underground room for the bones with ventilation.” Lily is thinking out loud. “Cement is too expensive. Lava with cement binder will be better. Mr. Yu will supervise.”

Lily double-checks her drawing of the memorial. “Yes, the Bone Room is here. You will walk to the back of the pavilion and descend into this private space for families. Toward the front of the memorial will be steps ascending to the altar. The village will decide what words will appear here.” She pauses. “The last stage will be to cover the memorial with mosaics. We can find broken pieces of tile that can be used to embellish the surface of the outside walls.” She smiles. “I will teach the men and women in the village how to create beautiful mosaics with what has been thrown away.” Lily turns to me. “We are all broken somewhere. Putting the pieces back together while using vibrant color creates joy in the bleakest of places.”

She then looks at Jean Bosco. “So we start on Monday.”

Damas stands up and begins chanting “Oh-oh-oh-oh” and clapping his hands. Jean Bosco lets out a deep belly laugh and raises his hands up to the sky. “God places his benediction on this,” he says. It begins to rain.

A WEEK LATER I meet Vincent Juarez, a U.S. Marine who arrived in Rwanda on September 1, 2005. He can’t tell me why he is here. But he does say, “The government doesn’t like the vibes in Kigali. We’re here to protect the U.S. Embassy.” He is the first Marine to be sent to Rwanda; five more troops are being sent in October. He is staying at the Kivu Sun Hotel with his new girlfriend, who works with USAID. He has been in the country all of five days. He is from New Mexico and recently served in Iraq but was sent home because of injuries. A long, jagged scar runs across his shoulder and down his right arm.

“I’m fine now,” he says. “Listen, can you help me out with something?”

“Of course — if I can.”

“There was a war here, right?” He looks directly in my eyes. He is serious. “I mean, could you sort of fill me in on what happened?”

MR. YU HAS DELIVERED. The ground is being leveled. Hundreds of children stand on stone walls watching the rich black soil being moved. One Caterpillar with a central blade is clearing the lava field. There are twelve Rwandan men with shovels. Mr. Yu is helping. The Bone Room is being dug.

SITTING ON THE PORCH with a cup of ginger tea, my journal, and bird book, I am watching through my binoculars what I believe to be sunbirds in the garden — elegant, purple-iridescent birds with a decurved bill.

It is cloudy with intermittent rain. The roads are muddy, deep with puddles. Still, the sound of children playing creates joy, alongside the sound of chickens and roosters, birds, quiet conversations on the streets, and always the clicking of bicycle bells.

A wagtail, black and white, has just landed between the upright metal arrows that serve as a deterrent on the cinder-block wall. Its lyrical song softens the edges between this porch and the street.

I am touching only the surface of things.

AT EACH MEMORIAL WE VISIT, I read Ntidigasubire, which means “Never Again” in Kinyarwanda. But each time I see these coupled words and think about the ongoing genocides occurring in the Congo and Darfur, I want to add a comma between them: Never, Again.

And still, we look away.

THE RIVERS ARE RUNNING red once again — not with the blood of the people, but the blood of the land. Steep quilted mountainsides are cultivated clear to the summits. The green and yellow squares look like a stretched quilt being pulled apart by rain and gravity. Every day, I watch women walking the winding roads of Rwanda carrying their burdens on their heads so they can continue to feed their children.

Erosion is the other genocide in Rwanda — the one no one mentions. Rwanda is a country that is literally slipping away. My hope is also eroding the longer I am here, even as my faith is deepening. I am too tired and overwhelmed to reflect on why.
Who has time for reflection?

OUR DAYS HERE are taking their toll. I see it in our eyes. It is not the physical fatigue of working in the village, but the mental stress of moving in a world we don’t understand. It’s as if we are walking inside a hologram Rwandans can see but we cannot.

Echoes of war reverberate in each conversation. Every square inch of this country has been bled over. Nothing is neutral but perhaps the sky. Even the thought of God feels suspect. It is hard for me to reconcile myself to a god that allows this kind of suffering, and one that is indifferent to it. Both action and inaction cut into my conscience as a sharp-edged conundrum. Those who were perpetrators and those who were victims now all bleed together as one nation’s casualty. We cannot tell who is Hutu and who is Tutsi. But the people we are working with know. There are tensions, I watch eyes. They see into one another’s histories, but they remain silent.

How can I even begin to think about asking a woman about the war when it inevitably leads to memories of physical violence and revisiting the death of her children? And what are we doing disturbing the dirt where bones are buried?

Over and over again, I am reminded to live and work out of my strength, not my weakness, to stand in the center of my most generous self and trust what is good in humanity. But here in Rwanda, all these platitudes evaporate on the dusty red roads. Neighbors murdered neighbors. Priests called the machete bearers into their churches and allowed them to slaughter their congregations.

I think of the word aftermath — the aftermath of war. After the numbers, after the blood-drenched days of death, how does one reconstruct a life? “Alone, and now together, we are still displaced,” one of the women in the Rugerero Survivors Village tells me.

So little makes sense. My heart trembles. I become my own darkness. At night in Gisenyi, the only buffer between me and the haunted streets of Rwanda is a torn mosquito net.

THE SANDY BEACH OF LAKE KIVU is utterly still. You would never know that less than a mile away is a prison packed with genocidaires dressed in pink, that the hospital has no more rooms left for the sick, and that the streets of Gisenyi are filled with orphans begging and wandering among the unemployed men who sit on the curbs of the dusty streets. Nor would you know that a stone’s throw across the Congolese border another war is raging. The stillness and peace of this lake, barely a ripple, betrays its history. During the genocide, Lake Kivu’s shoreline rose not by inches but by feet from the mass of bloated bodies floating like an enormous raft of death, a stinking sink of cholera and diseases.

Twelve white egrets skim the lake, their wings barely, just barely, gliding above the water. Beauty is not a luxury but a strategy for survival.

WE HAVE BEEN INVITED to be guests at the local gacaca in Gisenyi, just down the road from where we are staying. “Gacaca,” says Jean Bosco, “is pronounced ga-cha-cha. It refers to the traditional form of justice practiced in villages throughout Rwanda before colonial times. It was a way the community handled disputes over property rights, goats, cows, all manner of discord from marriage to theft. The community would sit on the lawn or hillside, listen to the quarrel at hand, and decide the outcome through consensus.”

Jean Bosco tells us that throughout Rwanda, ten thousand gacaca courts are now trying genocide suspects in the communities where their crimes were committed. Perpetrators currently in prisons and jails are being tried by their friends and neighbors. If the suspected criminal shows proper remorse and tells who he killed, how he killed them, and where their bones are, the community will grant him forgiveness and fold him back into that community. But if the suspect lies or shows no remorse, or if the crimes he committed are particularly severe, the judges, empowered by the people, can exact a sentence, even execution, and send the perpetrator back to prison. Jean Bosco quotes statistics that are difficult to comprehend. There are 1.7 million displaced Hutus who are afraid to return to Rwanda for fear of reprisals. Many of them have taken up residency in the Congo. There are 400,000 widows and 500,000 orphans created from the 1994 war. And 130,000 individuals in prison upon suspicion of committing acts of genocide.

“Gacaca’s goal is to bring restorative justice back into the country so we can live in harmony with one another,” he says. “Gacaca is held once a week in every village, town, and city. Attendance is mandatory.”

Louis whispers, “Gacaca is very difficult for me. All the terror returns to us.” He pauses. “But I will come. You need to hear about the nature of these crimes and how we tell the truth from lies.” I cannot help but look, once again, at the scar that traverses his left hand.

I look at my own two hands. On this hand, good. On this hand, evil. I am capable of both altruism and atrocities, blessings and brutalities. With both hands open, how can I judge another?

GENOCIDE. THE HOLOCAUST. The displacement of First Nations in North America. Habitat destruction and climate change. It is not in our psychology as human beings to respond to the grand abstractions of catastrophe. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, calls it “psychic numbing.” But we can respond to the suffering of another human being. To hear and share one another’s stories becomes the open channel to compassion.

One man, Jean Bosco, inspired one woman, Lily Yeh, with his story of war and the need for healing. She responded to his call for help and came to Rwanda. She returned home with a vision and inspired three more colleagues to accompany her. There will be others who follow.

I TAKE ONE LAST WALK on the shores of Lake Kivu. Flecks of mica become tiny mirrors in the glistening sand. A pale chanting goshawk flies over me — the gift of a feather at my feet.

We are leaving tomorrow.

At night I dream that my husband, Brooke, and I are presented with bones — leg bones: femur, tibia, fibula — the bones by which we stand on the Earth, the bones that give us stature. We cannot see who is giving us these bones.

We hold them in hand as weapons. We rattle them. We play them like flutes. We bang them like drumsticks on hollow logs.

The bones of our ancestors are speaking. There will be nothing left if we do not listen. The scaffolding of our communities is collapsing.

In the continuing dream, we are presented with mounds of dirt in various colors — where life begins, where seeds are planted, where food is grown.

We place our hands in the soil. Our fingers wrap themselves around bones until they become trees, firmly rooted.

EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER, we return to Rwanda. The memorial rises from the volcanic rubble like a prayer. We walk down the center path of inlaid stones surrounded on either side by lawn. The white undulating wall defines the sacred space. Some of the tallest pinnacles, call them standing waves, are painted in Rwanda’s national colors of turquoise, yellow, and green. A purple band is painted around the base of the white wall, the color of mourning.

We stop and look up from the base of the stairs that lead to the blue-roofed pavilion with turquoise pillars that houses the altar that will bear the word TWIBUKE in glass-jeweled mosaic: LET US REMEMBER.

Jean Bosco places his hands on his heart. Lily presses her palms together and bows. She walks up the steps first and greets Siboman Francois, the man she trained last year to oversee the mosaic work that is embellishing the altar. Dortea is completing a mosaic of a red flower with a green stem and leaves that will adorn the right side of the altar. Her eyes are focused on the work at hand.

Consulata is an elder dressed traditionally in a sarong and blouse with her head wrapped in a red scarf. She sits on an overturned bucket and breaks tile with a small hammer. She then takes the broken pieces of white, beige, and terra cotta tiles and tailors them to size with large clippers. I sit down beside her. She hands me another set of clippers and we cut and shape tiles together.

Francois points to the contour of one of the leaves and traces it with his index finger. “This,” he says. “You must do.” I nod.

For hours, we work on the mosaic. Cement on trowel, pick a piece of tile, set it, smooth the surface, and see that it is level.

A mosaic is like a puzzle. It engages the mind through a sequence of possibilities, trial and error. You look at the broken fragments of tile. Your eye assesses the space to be filled and searches for a corresponding shape. Piece by piece, you come closer to the desired form and effect. Mosaic is not simply an art form but a form of integration, a way of not only seeing the world but responding to it.

Consulata and I sit side by side creating a red flower together. She works on the petals.

Francois returns and points to the leaf I am working on. He runs his fingers across its uneven surface. “No good.” I remove the green tesserae. He demonstrates quickly. His placement of new tiles chosen from the pile at my feet creates a much tighter and smoother construction.

“Murakoze,” I say.

With his finger, he points to the line once again, the contour of the outer leaf, and walks away.

All of Consulata’s children were killed in the genocide. She points to the brick house next door, now collapsed. “My home,” she says. The work she is doing at the memorial is for her children. Every day, she mourns them. “Ten years, thirteen years — it was yesterday.”

A BANK OF CLOUDS covers the green canopy of the Congo. The smell of rain is wafting on the wind. It is April, the Rwandan month of remembrance. What was hidden in our last visit is now exposed in a collective, public keening. Purple banners are everywhere and music, explicit and charged with lyrics of loss and lament, fills the streets.

Dortea takes my hand and leads me to the bone chamber. The last time I was here it was still a hole in the ground being dug by men with pick axes and shovels. She has just finished painting the cement floor green and the walls turquoise. The coffins will be brought in tomorrow, covered with purple and white cloth, and placed on the shelves. However, one coffin rests on a wooden platform that is displayed against the wall. It is made of glass with an intact skeleton inside.

“When I am here,” she says, “I am not alone. I am here with my family.”

DORTEA, CONSULATA, and I are now working on the flower on the opposite side of the altar. It measures close to five feet tall. As we finish, Francois’ son surprises all of us with round jewel stones that Lily had given him. He places them like secrets in the white-tiled mosaic background. They take on the countenance of eyes.

Through the meditation of mosaic, both Hutu and Tutsi, perpetrators and victims, masons and mosaicists, are working toward a unity of expression by taking that which is broken and creating something whole. These tiles, now the structure of mosaic, are the fragments of war reimagined.

APRIL 5, 2007. The mosaic work is finished. The jeweled letters are complete:



Young women are mopping the mosaic floor of the pavilion. Consulata continues to clean each tile, each letter. A few final paint touches are being made on the turquoise pillars. The dedication is set for four p.m.

Three mosaic sunflowers stand as guardians above the bone chamber, whose yellow doors, newly painted, are locked. Last night, the purple satin coffin covers edged with white lace had been washed and draped over the trees to dry.

Behind the memorial, dozens of men and women from the village are hoeing the ground, making it level for the thousands of people to come. A policeman is standing guard. His club is painted purple and yellow. Young women, bent over with straight legs, are sweeping the stone pathway to the pavilion with bundles of fine sticks.

Jean Bosco is slowly walking the grounds, his chin raised, smiling. I put my arm through his. “This is a great day in my life,” he says.

Louis arrives in his best clothes. He will be translating the ceremony from Kinyarwanda to English and back to Kinyarwanda. Lily walks with her son, Daniel, to the altar. He leaves her at the steps. Dressed in purple, she walks forward alone, places her hands together and bows.

More policemen arrive with men in military uniforms carrying guns. “For security,” Jean Bosco says to Lily. “Just a precaution.”

A quarter mile away, on the side of the road, we can see a procession of children walking from the village, led by their teachers. As they approach, we can see they are dressed in gold and white costumes, prepared to dance, their faces sprinkled with glitter. The women dancers from the village are dressed in yellow chiffon caftans with gold headbands. They, too, have glitter sprinkled on their faces.

As we all stand outside the memorial entrance watching the dignitaries arrive, from the governor to the mayor to various local officials, extra security gathers anticipating the arrival of Joseph Habineza, the minister of culture, youth, and sports.

Habineza is well known for organizing a volleyball game between the Rwandan Patriot Front (Tutsi) and President Habyarimana’s Rwandan Army (Hutu), just months after the Arusha Peace Accords were signed in August 1993, establishing a truce on paper between Hutus and Tutsis, an attempt to stem the escalating violence of the previous three years. If the handshake meant something between the warring factions, then why not participate in good sportsmanship on the field? Thousands of people were packed into the stadium in Kigali to watch.

On January 29, 1994, the day after the volleyball match, Habineza drove home to find Hutu extremists waving machetes in front of his house. In a split second, he turned another direction, seeking refuge at his neighbor’s, where he found his family in hiding. A moderate Hutu who suddenly found himself at risk with many others during the buildup to the genocide, Habineza joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front and fought alongside Tutsi leader Paul Kagame in the bush. As he tells the story, the two men were actually talking about the volleyball game when they received the news on April 6, 1994, that Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down, the event that triggered the war.

Paul Kagame never forgot Joseph Habineza and his daring volleyball match. In 2000, when Kagame became president of Rwanda, he appointed Habineza as part of his cabinet.

Over an hour passes in the hot Rwandan sun as we wait, listening to the music played only during the month of April. Genocide music. Music of remembrance.

The minister’s entourage of black SUVs arrives. The crowd backs up. Joseph Habineza steps out of the black shiny vehicle, dressed in a black, well-fitted suit and black patent-leather shoes, an impressive man in his early forties. He adjusts his aviator sunglasses and is greeted by the governor of Gisenyi. He is then introduced to Jean Bosco and Lily.

Dortea, now dressed like a Greek goddess in a sleeveless white chiffon gown with a purple sash over one shoulder, holds a silver tray with scissors at the entrance of the Rugerero Genocide Memorial. She stands stoic and regal, her eyes focused down. The minister of culture, youth, and sports steps aside as Lily is invited to cut the purple ribbon. The ribbon flies open and the crowd claps.

There are many speeches, many songs, and many tributes to the genocide survivors and those who died and are buried here.

Joseph Habineza delivers his speech in both Kinyarwanda and English. “May we never forget that the genocide was a result of bad governance. May we never forget the consequences of prejudice. May we never forget our loved ones who are buried here and all over the countryside of Rwanda. May we never forget the power of forgiveness and reconstruction. We are no longer Hutu or Tutsi, we are Rwandans.”

Lily rises and walks to the podium to deliver her speech. It begins to rain. A woman appears behind Lily with an open umbrella. Jean Bosco whispers to me, “In Rwanda, when it rains it is a sign of blessings.”

The dedication ends. Music resumes. Many people walk up the steps of the pavilion to lay bouquets of flowers at the base of the altar. “More of our dead are at peace,” Consulata says, wiping her eyes. “But we will never be.”

AT A DINNER following the dedication, Habimana Martin, director of good governance in Gisenyi Province, said to me in an unguarded moment, “It would be a beautiful place if the dark things in your heart hadn’t happened. But things change. What I would want you to know is this: Please do not close your eyes or ears when you know people are being killed. Because if you close your eyes, I will go out and act on it. While you are sleeping, people are dying. The world was told, ‘People are dying.’ They closed their eyes. Right now, people aren’t sleeping. They regret what they did and did not do.”

THEY WALK. They walk with the memory of the genocide. They walk in remembrance of those who died, their loved ones among them. We walk with them. It is a river of solemnity winding through the roads of Rwanda.

It is April 7, 2007, the thirteenth anniversary of the day when Hutu extremists turned simple machetes into sabers of war and filled stadiums with young men whipped into a frenzy, waving their farm tools, crying “cockroaches” and “snakes.” Machete season. April. May. June. The people walk with their memories. Eyes straight ahead, covering familiar ground.

We stop. A particular family is remembered. Here. This house. See the burnt foundation. Still. The names are read. A silence is held. We walk. We remember.

The procession gathers in size as men, women, and children, the young and the old, enter into the respectful flow of feet walking together to mark the National Day of Mourning. We walk. We stop. We remember. The names are read. The soil is red. A silence is held. We walk. We walk together. This is storied ground.

The governor of Gisenyi walks wearing a black pinstripe suit; his hands are clasped behind his back. The mayor walks next to him. The colonel walks to his right in full uniform with a purple scarf tied around his wrist.

Purple scarves are being worn by most around their necks or arms or wrists.

We cross the river on a wooden bridge. We stop. Stories are recounted. Jean Bosco whispers in my ear that this river ran red, choked with bodies. The bodies created a dam and the bloody river flooded people’s homes.

The procession turns. We pass a graveyard. We walk past a Catholic church. We stop. The story is told that only two people survived the mass killings here. Those two survivors step forward and speak. We listen.

We hold the silence between the names that are read. We walk through the religious grounds that are now graves. Buzzards and kites follow the procession.

“These are the same birds that followed the Interahamwe,” Jean Bosco says to me as he looks straight ahead. We walk and we walk. The width of the road is the measure of feet, walking, in front of us, behind us, on either side, all sizes of feet, some in leather shoes, some in sandals, some bare, worn, walking, slowly walking, belonging to the memory of genocide.

“No one asks God who is a Tutsi or a Hutu,” the voice from the loudspeaker utters. “We are all God’s children. We only ask God to stop the genocide.”

The procession is a spectrum of colors. The woman in front of me is draped in orange cloth with designs of gold dolphins. Her shoes are black patent leather. Next to me is Aimee, a young woman in her twenties. She lost all her family in the war and is dressed in a black suit with a long narrow skirt, a purple scarf tied around her neck. She carries a handbag with a photograph inside: a picture of herself kneeling in front of a line of skeletons, identifying her family.

We pass another church, this one made of lava stones. We stop. Another story is told. The priest and sisters were murdered. They tried to hide Tutsis. Grenades were thrown. Houses were burned. All were killed.

Names are read. Prayers are given. We proceed. We walk. Bits and pieces of broken tiles are everywhere.

Another turn. We walk on a dirt path through green fields, feet traversing over red and black lava stones, uneven ground, the glint of mica. Banana palms are waving in afternoon breezes. Blue sky. Cumulus clouds. The cry of kites. Always, the circling of kites and buzzards.

Jean Bosco wipes his forehead and then takes my hand as we enter the grounds of another genocide memorial. We follow the procession inside. Public officials take their seats. Some people stand, others sit on the lawn. Jean Bosco follows the governor of Gisenyi who leads us down to the bone chamber. We hesitate. His eyes say, come. We follow.

Inside there are fifteen coffins, each draped in white cloth with a purple cross appliqué. On top of each lies a wooden cross. Each person is invited to sign the guest book, which we do. The room is small and crowded.

We walk around to the other side of the memorial to find a place to sit. There is another bone chamber. Aimee takes my hand and pulls me inside. It is damp. We are the only ones here. Suddenly, as if in a gesture of defiance, Aimee walks up to a coffin, pulls the cloth away, and opens it, then, just as quickly, lets the lid slam shut. Exposed were small cloth bundles of bones, bones wrapped in the brightly colored, now faded fabric of women’s sarongs, holding the remains of their loved ones together in motifs of flowers and birds.

We leave quickly. Aimee says nothing, just walks outside where people are singing and sits down. I sit beside her on the cement steps against a chainlink fence. Jean Bosco joins us. Lily is sitting with her back against a white cement wall. Her eyes are closed. Meghan and Alan are sitting on the other side of the memorial. The midday sun is bearing down on the speakers, on everyone. All of us are dripping wet with sweat. Thousands of people are gathered on these grounds.

A woman stands in the center and speaks. The crowd is rapt. Many women are wailing uncontrollably. Jean Bosco shakes his head. “I am sorry, I cannot translate.” He wipes his eyes and pauses. “This woman’s name is Ubuhamya. She is very strong,” he says. “She calls for unity. Unity. This is what she wants.”

At noon, everyone stands in silence. All over Rwanda, silence. There is no one working in the vertical fields, no cars, no motorbikes, no ringing bells of bicycles, even the birds are quiet.


On our way back, graffiti appears on a collapsed building: STRIP US OF OUR SKIN AND WE ARE ALL THE SAME WITHIN. At night, bonfires burn across the land.

“I WANT TO TELL YOU A STORY,” Louis says as we sit on the porch where we first met almost two years ago.

“There is a woman who was married to a pastor. It was a happy family. Some people say they were a family of six, others say they were eleven. The woman was away and when she returned she saw how the Interahamwe were butchering her children on the ground along with her husband.

“After the war, the man who murdered her family came back from the Congo, and when gacaca called him to explain what he had been accused of, he said, ‘I accept everything I have been charged with and from the depth of my heart, I apologize.’

“The woman said, ‘I saw everything happen. I know you killed my family. I loved my children and my husband. I am alone, I have nothing, but I now choose to forgive you and take you into my home. You will live with me, and I will do whatever it takes to make you feel like my own son.’

“Can you be in the same shoes with this woman?” Louis asks.

Louis then says, “Rwanda is struggling with peace one person at a time. This is as hard as growing wheat on rock. We are finding our way toward unity and reconciliation on a walkway full of thorns and we are walking barefoot.”

He stands up and walks over to the balcony that overlooks Gisenyi into the Congo where he was born. “We are trying to forgive, but to forgive is to forget, and we cannot forget. Perhaps there is another word. I am searching for that word.” O 

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  1. This year, in April, I went to Rwanda for the third time. I was in Butare and in Cyangugu for the Commemoration. I had just finished writing a novel on Rwanda, and I went to pay tribute to the voiceless who had given me their stories. I began this essay nodding and nodding, understanding so completely what Terry Tempest Williams was saying. I ended the essay weeping and weeping. Twibuke! Amahoro!

  2. I usually find myself avoiding stories such as this one, because I can’t bear to be confronted with another of the world’s horrors, to be reminded of the horrible things we human beings do to one another. But I forced myself to read it because I know Terry and love her work. And I realized that my “depression avoidance technique” of not learning more about what’s going on in the world is just like closing your eyes and not speaking out against a wrong. Thank you, Terry, for your honest, heart-rending piece that opened my eyes in a way they needed to be opened.

  3. “Twelve white egrets skim
    the lake, their wings
    barely, just barely,
    gliding above the water.
    Beauty is not
    a luxury but a
    strategy for survival.”

    Divide it where you will, it can scan like a poem. To me, it is among the truths that are most important to our shared humanity.

    “Beauty is not a luxury but a strategy for survival.”

    Ritual activities to honor and grieve the stolen, towards healing the unforgivable. Dignity and presence that exposes the hollowness of blame and calls for vengeance, the useless bigotry of self protection through more of the same.

    Instead of vengeance, make beauty, make places and ways for those who were most harmed to grieve and to reclaim dignity. Allow those who were spared to honor that grief, and those who were not there and would not help to recognize, to feel what happened, both the grief and the shame.

    Thank you so much for giving me a means to share in this acknowledgement of what happened, happens, is happening — the human sacrifices that hide behind our communal denial and shared self indulgence.

    “Beauty is not a luxury but a strategy for survival.” At least the sorrow feels more clean than the denial.

  4. Thank you for this. I am at a loss for words, but I echo the comments of those who have already responded. I am grateful for this heart-breaking and beautiful rendering of a world that I am all too ignorant of and all too complicit within. Thank you again to all involved.

  5. I too was in tears during reading this heart opening piece from Terry. And like Kristen and Nora, I needed this awakening, silence is too dangerous.

  6. Thank you, Terry. All the other commentators have said all I could say.

  7. I look out from the window of my high rise office and think of all those who have closed their eyes and ears. I disgusting include myself in this group…All those that continue to close themselves off as though they are an island in the vast sea of humanity. Care for their island and its inhabitants is all that they seemingly have time to focus on in this day of high speed internet, multi-tasking, juggling kids-career-friends-family, and all the other things that fill up life…we run, no, we race steadfast pressing forward, always forward trying to maintain that island of ours. Although many pay some tribute to others in tragedy, we largely fail to truly feel compassion for what is happening off the shores of our island. Only when the storm blows upon our beach and brings tragedy to us do we truly understand. Yet it is too late to avert the tragedy then. The time for that was many days/weeks/months before when the storm was gaining strength out in the sea as other islands were being swept away. There are no islands, we are all one. What befalls on one befalls on us all. The Native Americans have a saying “Mitaku Oywasin” (Pronounced Meetaku Wayasin) which is loosely translated as “all my relations” or “the spirit of all”. I’m by no means an expert on tragedy, Native American wisdom or anything else in particular. However, we seemed doomed to repeat tragedies such as this as long as we continue to view ourselves as separate from others in the many ways that we define ourselves either through religion, culture, country, color, etc. The story of genocide in Rwanda is unfortunately not an isolated incident. America had its own genocide against Native Americans that we have still not officially acknowledged as a huge genocidal tragedy. We literally wiped out entire tribes and all their culture. To this day many of the tribes that remain are still struggling to survive. Yet as a nation and, in many cases as individuals, we have not accepted this nor have we reached out to help heal this wound. If there was a glimmer of hope in Terry’s story it was the fact that there is acknowledgement to the tragedy, justice being upheld for some of the autorcities and memorials being raised…only then can people begin the long process of recovery and healing. Terry, thank you for your most poignant story. It will hopefully touch the hearts of many and help us all to open our eyes and ears and fight to keep tragedies like this from occurring again.

  8. Perhaps forgiveness is another form of mosaic …

    … One relationship is broken, and another is created from its shards …

    Thank you, Terry …

  9. if there’s one thing that terry’s article shows us, it’s that railing against the injustice doesn’t heal anything. there has to be another way, and that way has to involve many, add dignity, and include beauty.

  10. From the NPR website this evening:

    Women Likely To Win Majority In Rwanda Parliament

    Rwanda is on course to become the only nation in the world with a Parliament dominated by women.

    Women currently hold just under half of the 80 seats in Rwanda’s parliament, and the chairman of that nation’s elections commission is predicting an even bigger showing after Wednesday’s legislative races.

    Early tallies also show a possible landslide for the ruling party of President Paul Kagame in the second parliamentary election in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

    Ethnic tensions persist, but the country has made important steps toward political and economical stability and is now attracting international investors.

  11. This is beautiful and heart wrenching. Thank you Terry for having the courage to see what needs to be seen and the courage to tell what needs to be told.

  12. Lily – takes broken pieces and turns them into beautiful works of art.

    The woman whose family was killed -took the most broken piece – her family’s killer – and enfolded his life into hers in a beautiful act of forgivness.

    Glory to those that turn the world’s cacophany into harmony, disorder into symmetry, rubble into a new foundation.

  13. Nicely written story Terri. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda in 1989-90 and have been back twice since, most recently in March. During my first return I struggled for words to describe the sadness, to reconcile the ghosts. During my second trip, a mission to rebuild trails in the Nyungwe Forest, I rediscovered hope and resiliance flowing in every clear running stream and in the hearts of all those who find forgiveness. It is the dignity of this forgiveness that I wish to keep close, as I struggle through many angry emotions about the state of our world. The genocide was borne of anger and blame, but there are trails that lead to peace.

  14. Women currently hold just under half of the 80 seats in Rwanda’s parliament, and the chairman of that nation’s elections commission is predicting an even bigger showing after Wednesday’s legislative races.

  15. I cannot imagine the suffering the people of Ruwanda have endured. I am so saddened by mans inhumanity to man, which happened then and is happening today. I am numbed in the face of so much suffering and though I want to do something, I am at a loss to know what it is. I thank Paul Weiser, of the ADL for sending me the article. I will pray; I will hope; I will treat others with kindness and try to help those in my small world. My heart and prayers are with the people of Ruwanda. This article was hard to read; but I couldn’t stop reading it. I am changed.

  16. I remember that day, I was with Terry at the church in Nyamata. So sad to hear and to speak! Rwanda is improving in everything; and hope this will not happen again.

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