A Poet Encounters "the Horror" in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel
"Three things cannot be hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. "
THREE YEARS AGO I VISITED RWANDA AND EASTERN CONGO. IN KIGALI I paid my respects to the hundreds of thousands of infants, toddlers, teenagers, adolescents, young engaged couples, married people, women and men, grandmothers and grandfathers, and brothers and sisters of every facial shape and body size, who had been hacked into sometimes quite small pieces by armed strangers, or by neighbors, or by acquaintances and "friends" they knew. These bodies and pieces of bodies are now neatly and respectfully buried in mass graves. Fifteen years ago, these graves were encircled by cuttings of plants that are now sturdy blossoming vines that cover their iron trellises with flowers.
Inside the adjacent museum there are photographs of the murdered: their open smiles or wise and consoling eyes will remain with me always. There is also, in the museum, a brief history of Rwanda. It tells of the long centuries Tutsi and Hutu lived together, intermarrying and raising their children, until the coming of the Belgians in the 180Os. The Belgian settìers determined, because they measured Hutu and Tutsi skulls, that the Tutsi were more intelligent than the Hutu, more like Europeans, and therefore placed the Tutsi above the Hutu. The hatred this diabolical decision caused between these formerly friendly peoples festered over generations, coming to alethal boil in the tragedy of genocide.
Though I had done research while in college, and written a thesis of sorts on the "Belgian" Congo, where King Leopold of Belgium introduced the policy of cutting off the hands of enslaved Africans who didn't or couldn't fulfill their rubber quota- collecting the latex for the rubber that made tires for the new cars everyone was beginning to want, in America and Europe- I had not known these same activities spread into the Kingdom of Rwanda. But apparently, to the Belgians, it was all one vast "empty" territory, to be exploited without any consideration for the people living there. Indigenous Africans didn't seem to exist, except as slaves.
While I was visiting the set for the film The Color Purple, many decades after college, a sad older man from Africa- who had been a doctor in the Congo, and was now hired as an extra for our film- lamented the loss of his country, his people, and his land, telling me that the Firestone Corporation had taken millions of acres of land, "leasing" it for pennies an acre, in perpetuity. The people who'd lived there since the beginning of humanity had been forced to tend the trees planted there on Firestone's vast rubber tree plantation. Needless to say I immediately thought of every car I'd owned and all the tires that ran under them.
The Woman in Purple and White
FROM KIGALI, AND MEETINGS WITH SURVIVORS, WITNESSING THEIR COURAGE AND fortitude, their willingness to move on and beyond unspeakable tragedy, I went to Eastern Congo. There, I met with women still victimized by the killers of Kigali who had been chased across the border into their country. These women had been the victims of rape on so large a scale- rape as one ofthe cruelest weapons of war- it seemed impossible they had not, in their despair, chosen to destroy themselves. Their villages had frequently turned against them, because of their abuse; if their husbands were still alive, they regularly dismissed them, refusing them shelter in their own homes.
One beautiful woman, who came to meet me wearing white and purple, had been a sex slave in the bush for over a year, forced to carry loads that bent her double, her eyes repeatedly struck to damage her vision so that she would not be able to identify her assailants, her whole body beaten until, over a year later, there was still a discernible limp when she attempted to walk with what one assumed was her former grace. …