Feature: Why Rwanda? August 1994

When the August 1, 1994 Newsweek Magazine arrived in the mail, I took it into my comfortable living room in suburban Los Altos, California.

When the August 1, 1994 Newsweek Magazine arrived in the mail, I took it into my comfortable living room in suburban Los Altos, California.

The Newsweek headline read: “HELL ON EARTH – RACING AGAINST DEATH IN RWANDA” and there in the forefront of the cover was a bewildered, crying three-year old boy who the race against death had passed by.

If you carefully counted them, there were 21 dead bodies strewn out on this road. There were also 17 adults, who were alive, hovering around one would assume to see if anyone is still alive. But the three-year-old boy, wrapped in torn blanket someone tied in a knot on his chest, is looking down at somebody he loves, probably his mother, who is dead and he is afraid. He doesn’t understand why this is happening.

We are together here. I do not understand either. I will call him “The Unknown Orphan of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide”.

I needed to understand why this “hell on earth” happened in Rwanda in 1994. I wanted to honor the victims like this boy’s mother, by taking the first steps to make a list of all those who died.

While at the same time, serve the living, the survivors, especially this boy and the thousand of other orphans. I would do the simple, almost insignificant act of taking a generator to an orphanage where boys and girls like this are now trying to carve out a life.

To call this effort, a drop in the preverbal bottomless bucket would be generous.
   Achieving both goals, a list of the dead, and a generator to an orphanage, appeared to be at first, the most basic and simple tasks. Or I am a fool not to seem it will be hard and frustrating experience at best.

What I will learn is that doing good is fulfilling, but, above all, doing good is complicated. Finding this three-year boy to see how he was surviving was impossible.

My Trip to Rwanda- Why?  This tragic Newsweek cover was just the final straw in August 1994 of agonizing summer. The baseball players in the US are on strike, the Health Care Bill is up in the air in Washington, summer is coming to an end, and I am going to Rwanda.

All summer I have been helplessly obsessed, just ask my wife, Sherry, with following the Rwanda Genocide and refugee situation. I was more there, than here, and that can be hard to live with. I saved every newspaper article, every article on the web, and watched every TV report.

It is not just those gut-wrenching reports, besides the Newsweek cover, Time matched it with a cover heading “There are no Devils left in Hell” the missionary said. “They are all in Rwanda”. It was the enormity of the suffering and death that grabbed me.

It is those nagging questions. Why do these all too efficient genocides, using gas chambers, forced marches, killing fields, even machete-armed ones like Rwanda, continue into the end of the second half of the 20th Century? What can be done?

Finally, sensing my need for a personal response, my wife Sherry hinted, suggested, then demanded, “ Go to Rwanda to see for yourself how you can help and understand their plight. You can only do so much from here.”

And I am going to Rwanda, as I sense the world’s fickle attention is starting to turn away from the tragic situation in Rwanda to other all too pressing matters like Bosnia.

A group of Rwandan refugees and friends in the United States are concerned that the victims of April/May/June 1994 genocide not be forgotten.

I am joining Alexandre Kimekgi and Mathilde Mukantaban, of the Sacramento-based Rwanda Refugee Association in the ambitious, if not impossible goal, of compiling a list of those who died in the genocide.

In embarking on the difficult undertaking, we would be following in the tradition of the “Yad Vashem” (Israel Memorial Authority), which after 49 years of searching was able to come up with names of almost 4,000,000 of the estimated 6,000,000 Nazi Holocaust victims. In the United States, we followed that tradition by listing 100% of the American dead on the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington D.C.

It is definitely the mot personal of memorials as friends and family search for the beloved’s name. Could Rwanda have such a moving wall?

This is not simply just a body count project. Every name symbolizes a life-story. They should not be forgotten. “Understand, forgive if you can, but Never Forget!”  And “Never Again” must be the cry and message of these projects.

“The Unknown Orphan’s mother and father, and brothers and sisters, must not be forgotten.

In a country like Rwanda, where accurate birth and census data is not available from all I hear, (they are not the exacting, Teutonic Germans) so this becomes a challenging task indeed. But ironically, for that reason, it is even more compelling that it, at least, is attempted.

Alexandre Kimekgi just returned from Rwanda with a one-page, 14-person list of friends and relatives who died.
I am planning to visit Rwanda for two weeks from August 20th to September 2nd to further work on accumulating a larger list. I plan to start in the Capital of Kigali with hopefully more accessible groups.

Unfortunately, large numbers of professors, teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges, lawmakers, journalists, editors, publishers, priests, nuns, and business people, mostly Tutsi, and moderate Hutu, were all genocide victims and the ones who could have helped me the most.

Specific skills have all but disappeared. For example, one of the reasons the U.S. Air Force is running the control towers at the Kigali Airport is that all the Rwandan Air Traffic Controllers were killed.

From there I would hope to make local contacts that would help compile the list throughout the country from town to town, and village to village. Along with Alexandre and Mithilde, we have developed an English /French/ Kinyarwanda questionnaire that will lead to accumulating as accurate as possible.

We would hope to bring life to this list of victimized dead. So when the world sees 21 bodies on a Newsweek cover or 17 bodies washed up on the Kagera River on the Tanzanian border with Rwanda, and cries out to know who those people were, the list would help bring them to life, and maybe, they did not die in vain.

I have been asked by many, “Why are you going to make a list of the dead when there are so many needs of survivors?”  So address the compelling, immediate human needs of Rwanda, with special concern of orphans roaming the country, my wife, Sherry, and I contributed and raised money to purchase and take a $1,794.39 Honda 3500 watt generator to an orphanage in Kigali.

We had to find out, almost too late, that the generator has to be able to run on the European 220 voltage, 50-hertz frequency to run anything in Africa. Obviously, why take a generator that would not work? However, these generators were the most expensive. The $400 one would not do it.

If my wife Sherry was understanding of why I was going to Rwanda, my 79-year old mother was not. I put off calling her with the news. “Mom, I am going to Rwanda and I am using the $5000 gift you gave me to pay for the trip.”

“What! That gift was for useful things like a new car down payment.”
    “I know it was, but I am using it rather to splurge on those who mostly are without cars and parents. I know you will understand. “
   “I don’t understand. You are foolish. I wish I had not given you the money.  But be careful and call me when you get there.”

   “I will be careful, but the genocide is over now and it will be safe.”
   I hope this was not wishful thinking. I still had some doubts about why I was going. I made an emergency meeting with my former counselor, Dr David, whom I had not seen in two years.

In his mid 50’s, Doctor David was definitely a caring but non-interventionist therapist. However, after I rambled on for 30 minutes or so, he did interrupt me. “What would be your goals in going to Rwanda?”

   I paused. “Well…you mean besides the obvious one, being that I am an English teacher?”

   “Obvious one?”
   “ Material for my ‘What I did with my Summer Essay’ for the first week of school.” I laughed. Dr David did not.
   “I thought students write that essay, not their teachers.”

   “I always do the essay topics I assign students.”
    “But seriously…” Dr David intervened again as if to say, “I was on the clock after all.”

   “Ok,” I would try to get serious. “First, the challenge to just actually get there…to Kigali, Rwanda itself. I am able to get an airline ticket only as far as to Nairobi, Kenya about 400 miles away.”

   “But you assume you can get there?”
   “Yes, people get in, people get out, but I am used to having a ticket in hand for my final destination.”

   “Ok, the challenge, but what else?”
    “Second, then, would be to hook up with some like-minded helpers, get the generator to an orphanage and up and running, and help with ongoing aid.” Dr David nodded.

   “Third, after that, get my book of articles I have collected to a documentation department in the government or a library, assuming they would value them. I value them”. I showed my binder of 100’s of articles.
   “I am impressed.”

   “But my goals are not to impress. So fourth, to start to make contacts for my Genocide Victim’s List to get it going at least.

 And, what is the count now of goals? Fifth, I think, in doing so, starting the List, hopefully give some comfort and support to survivors and caregivers in Rwanda and morn the dead.

And sixth, try to grasp the place called Rwanda, and what happened and the elusive “why this damn genocide” as if the world needed another one.  Seventh, in my small way, re-distributed some of my limited wealth in this poor country. And finally, I must admit, I am looking for an ‘adventure or two’ before school starts.”

   “All right”, I think Dr David might even be impressed. I was not living the un-examined life.
   “Yes, I have given it some thought.” I was proud of myself.

   “Yes, you have,” Dr Dave agreed. “But in my experience people don’t make lists, and then decide to do something. Call it existential, but I believe one has a strong feeling to do something, then one comes up with reasons to justify it.”

  “Are you accusing me of that?”
   “Well, no.”

     But I am ready to plead guilty… Feeling to go came first, reasons followed. But what finally tipped it towards going were enough concerned, good people saying to me: “It is a good and noble idea, but you have other responsibilities to family and your job, so the mature thing is not to go, but send money and support.” 

    “There is some wisdom to that argument.”
   “You are not taking that position too.”
   “No, you know I do not tell clients what to do, but I would not go if it was me. Too much risk for me.”

   Hearing that wise advice once too often did it.  “I am going! Doctor David.”
   “In that case, let me write you a small check of my support.”
   “Thanks.”

   And I was off…
--August 17, 1994

Bob Langfelder is a retired teacher living in the USA and works on some projects in Rwanda. The paper made the author come to Rwanda