A palatial white stucco wall bore the hotel’s name at the entrance from the city road. Brilliant large cobalt blue letters declared a welcome to the De Mille Colline in colors that one would expect to see at a resort in the Greek isles rather than this place—Kigali, Rwanda. The wall divided the entry drive and parking lot awkwardly. At first, I thought it was an inefficient design that inhibited the ability to turn around in the parking lot without going all the way through the property. Then I realized that it was a security effort that modified how vehicles approached the hotel after the 1994 genocide. This was “Hotel Rwanda”, where hundreds of terrified Tutsis huddled for protection under Paul Rusesabagina, the general manager who had warm relations with the United Nations delegates stationed in Kigali.
Rwandans move with a poised, unhurried elegance. The bellman broke into a slow brilliant smile as he walked in graceful strides to greet me. I wondered how he managed to perform this way every single day in mid Africa in his heavy, wine-colored polyester dinner coat and pants. If he was too warm or uncomfortable, he hid it well. I felt unkempt and odorous and fully in the grip of jet lag after the previous day of flying from the east coast to Lisbon and on to Africa.
As I entered the lobby, the marble floor shone and reflected sparkling prisms of light. Majestic columns were wrapped in complimenting colors. An elegant and welcoming reception area allowed warm cross breezes that carried the scent of fragrant potted flowers. The whole back wall of the room was plate glass that yielded a gorgeous view of the hotel grounds which were enclosed by another glowing white wall, covered with vibrant explosions of fuchsia pink bougainvillea.
The swimming pool shone like a giant square blue topaz set in the middle of a yard of meticulously manicured emerald grass. The beauty and tranquility were disarming. There was a palpable, stark contrast between this scene and the horrors it hosted nearly eighteen years prior. During the one hundred- day genocide in 1994, this pool provided water for drinking, cooking, and bathing for the people who found refuge at the De Mille Colline. It gave and sustained life until it was too choked, too soiled from lack of maintenance and decay began. Once the water level was low and the remaining became unsafe to use, the pool became a cistern for waste when the plumbing was shut off by the predators who were always waiting outside the walls.
I wondered, how many hours of cleaning and rinsing, disinfecting did it take to breathe new life into these beautiful grounds? The scope of the atrocities it witnessed was unfathomable. Could every molecule of water that was present at that time—even after nearly two decades– truly be gone? The Indian poet Rumi wrote that every raindrop becomes part of the sea–the raindrop still exists in its individuality but at the same time is indiscernible from the wave that it rolled into. Was it forensically possible for every trace of those horrible days to be erased as far down as the cellular level? I wasn’t concerned with cleanliness or sanitary conditions. I wanted to respect the ghosts that I felt there. I felt their eyes on me, pleas to see and feel them, to acknowledge what happened to them and to not let them be forgotten.
I checked in with the front desk, but the room was not yet available, so I left my luggage at the concierge desk and reunited with Muzay, the driver who had offered to take me to visit some of the nearby memorials. Already overwhelmed with the weight of grief, I wondered why I felt compelled to experience such places.
The day was warm but not stifling. Stunning views revealed themselves as we drove to the edge of town and entered the openness of Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, rolling and lush, blanketed in various hues of emerald. Coffee and tea plantations grew into one another. I was overlooking the source of the product that brought my client, a prominent US business man to Rwanda to meet with President Kagame for talks on exports.
We arrived at the first memorial, a small church with a tall chain link fence surrounding it. Muzay stopped the car and parked. I felt awkward, leaving him to sit and wait for me but I could sense that he did not plan to accompany me inside. In the eighteen years since the world witnessed the mind-numbing horrors, he had hosted many Western gawkers. I wondered what he thought of me. What is the psychology that plays into the ability to chauffer guests to the very scenes of the mass murder of your own villagers and family members? Which idea is the strongest or in what order do they occur for someone who has endured so much? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Peace? Strength? Would I ever be as good and strong as these people?
A small, bored looking man at the door of the church stood to greet me. He was sizing me up, evaluating who I was and what business I had there. Of course, had every right to do so, and every second was more humbling as I told myself, “Let him feel his authority. They have to be so tired and it must feel so insulting that their tragedy is often treated as a spectator sport.” I knew that though President Kagame is credited with stopping that rampant streak of violence all those years ago and went on to promote the “reunification of all Rwandans”, the survivors are still forced to share their country with those who killed their families. Differentiation of Hutu and Tutsi was banned after the genocide—all citizens are collectively Rwandans. And all Rwandans know that on any given day, they may be looking into the eyes of an individual that they had once seen wielding a machete.
I smiled at him and patted my right hand to my heart, a gentle greeting that is recognized in many Asian and African cultures as a sign of respect. His face softened and he began to recite his soliloquy, starting by gesturing to a bent-up mess of heavy iron bars, a tangle of metal that was what was left of the gate that secured the entrance to the church. It had been blasted with grenades to gain access to the terrified prey. As the violence heightened and the danger spread from all villages, government radio told the people to go to churches, that they would be safe in the churches with their families, neighbors, and local leaders. The reality was that they became fish in a barrel.
Inside, the pews were simple benches, made of wood like that of a picnic table that has been out in the weather for many years. They were short and pieced together at thirty-degree angles to follow the hexagon shape of the room. Piled upon them were heaps of clothes and shoes that had burned edges, rips, some shredded, some slashed. All were covered in eighteen years of dust at this preserved scene. Thousands of items littered the church. Dresses, shirts, skirts, wraps, pants, headscarves, shoes.
At the front of the sanctuary stood a podium bearing small keepsakes that were protected under a sheet of plexiglass. My attention was drawn to something resting against the dark scarlet lining, a piece that was the color of a robin’s egg, a bright sky-blue. It was a singular splash of pretty in the grim scene, like a lone twinkle in an otherwise starless night sky. I stepped closer to the podium in the dimly lighted ruins.
The lovely spot of blue was a child’s coin purse that was no larger than a toddler’s fist. It was shaped like a triangle that had the top point shaved off and replaced with silver trim and a clasp. The once glossy vinyl coat had dulled but a ruffle embellishment of the same material had held its shape. It had a few scruffs and scratches, and pea sized silver bead adorned the side of the purse in the center of the ruffle, the finishing touch like a kiss that blessed it.
Breath left me. Grief-laden breath heaved out of my chest and rushed toward the little blue coin purse with a force as though it believed it could reach the little girl who clutched it as the exploding grenades tore through the church gate. As if it could swoosh backwards through the years, blow its force into the church, lift and carry her and all those terrified people into the clouds and away from the bombs, guns, and machetes.
My chest hurt. My throat choked. I felt the sky collapse and the walls were squeezing in on me. Everything in the world felt fractured. Everything crumbled and dropped apart in pieces and particles. Everything except the baked mud and blood that attached these pieces of clothing to one another, piles upon piles on the pews, as inseparable as the souls of those who wore them.
I thought of the news footage I had seen at the time of these events of the people who were filmed by journalists, begging the world for intercession, begging the US to save them. Disbelief and fury conjoined. What is the power—or the weakness– that it leads societies to do this? To allow this? To ignore this?
I walked out of the church and toward Muzay and the car. A banner was stretched between two high posts above the gates just outside the church. Every April the government hangs thousands of them throughout Rwandan towns for 100 days to commemorate the genocide. Against a purple background, weathered white script read, “Never Again”. It flapped in the breeze noisily as air passed through the many rips and holes.