The closest I came to laying down Genocide remains was on April 14, 2007 at the Kigali Memorial Centre at Gisozi. Thousands of mourners had come to accord their loved ones a decent burial. They had exhumed remains of victims from pits and mass graves – the remains of their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and relatives.
A river of coffins covered in white clothes, along with flower vases, wreathes and crosses bearing names of the people who perished, carried us in collective grief.
Hymns of comfort were sung and echoes of agony were felt across the valley. I remembered the story of Ezekiel in the Bible, walking in the valley of dry bones when God asked him “Son of man, can these bones live?” The bond we share with the remains can never be broken and the memories of our loved ones will forever live with us.
The image of a young woman staring at an old picture frame wiping silver tears, and that of a man hugging a cross have never left me. That valley was filled with loneliness. Choking grief and cries of bonding memories reverberated on mountain flanks. I looked up at the sky with falling tears of rain and all I could think about was the transformation of remembrance.
Among the coffins was a small casket of a baby who was mercilessly hurled against a wall and thrown in a pit latrine, it still hounds me to date. Hearing the testimony made my hands shake and my knees unsteady. Unable to process the level of cruelty, my eyes blurred, the hair around my neck rose as I froze on my feet.
Behind me, I heard aching yells calling out, “God! Mana urihe!” I turned around only to see a man lying flat in the mud, unconscious, wailing and crying out the name of God – as men in Red Cross jackets rushed over to help him. Many more simply fainted in silent trauma. My heart was heavy, sinking in my chest – I prayed, “Be Still My Soul, Be Still,” as burning tears fled my eyes.
I stood quiet and scared. The presence of sacred memories of loss hunted me. Screams of pain pounded in my ears as I felt a blade of terror slicing through my intestines. The serene existence of life inside the coffins was the only place of peace; my heartbeat resumed as sweat of fear drenched my face.
That night uncle Sendegeya burst into tears, and shouted: “Small casket…Little One…Kibondo, what had you done little child to deserve that?” He consoled himself by singing “Rock of Ages Cleft For Me” his voice barely coming out in a hushed tone: (Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling) – he cried louder as we sang quietly – drowning in tears around the gleaming candlelight.
It was the eve of my departure to the US. I kept imagining the pain that comes with surviving, the nostalgia that will never be satisfied or the courage to go on when nothing is left to hold on to. I imagined the strength of survivors who keep digging in hopes of finding one more remains of a beloved one – I imagined the remains, a human begging for mercy, or of a child smashed against a rock, one life at a time, a million lives lost in Rwanda.