The power of words


I first wrote these words after a visit to Rwanda during the period of commemoration of the Genocide. It seemed appropriate to re-blog them this HMD weekend where the theme if the power of words. The original title was: Favourite Food: Chips.

It is truly impossible to comprehend what happened in a little over three months in Rwanda in 1994. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum I visited today offers a detailed and vivid insight into those one hundred terrible days when it seemed that hell had been unleashed on this beautiful country. As the exhibition itself says, genocides are not spontaneous but the culmination of months and years of rhetoric and tiny actions that, in themselves, can be dismissed. But together, they become the rationale for extermination.

It was hard not to be overwhelmed with the volume of suffering and the brutality of the manner of killing. Men, women, children, babies hacked and bludgeoned to death. Stories of victims paying their killers to shoot them rather than endure a long and brutal death. It is impossible to hear the narrative of that time, to see a room full of simple family photos of those who died, without shedding tears.

But it is the Children’s Room that really brought it home. A number of rooms in the museum are set aside to tell the stories of just a few of the children who perished. And as you are confronted with the beautiful pictures of Yves, Yvonne and Fabrice, so you are also given their biographies:

Favourite food: chips

Favourite drink: milk

Best friend: my mum

I weep again as I write these words. Simple facts that narrate a life too short for complexity where each day was too full of wonder to worry about tomorrow. But these young eyes saw too much before they closed for good, forced to witness the rape and death of parents and grandparents before their turn to face the genocidaire. The butchering of innocence ….

Emil Fackenheim spoke only of a commanding voice coming from Auschwitz; there could be no redemption. It is certainly harder to construct meaning in the aftermath of such crimes against humanity and it feels somehow dishonouring to the victims to try. But it feels equally important to self-examine and not to leave a place like that without repentance. Repentance for the impulse to simplicity, the desire in me to understand everything and everyone, which can only be achieved if stereotypes are true. Repentance too for the times when scale trumps depth in the mathematics of suffering. For the failure to see that, if the Talmud and Quran are correct and the saving of one life saves the world, then the loss of a loved one is also the destruction of a family’s world.

I don’t think this will be the last time I weep when I think about those stories. And with each tear, I pray to God because otherwise, words fail me.

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