When fathers are killers and killers are those whom you love

Based on the interest and warm reception of a post written this spring, I launched a series of reflections featuring stories which prompt an understanding of the world that better considers the experience of others. The series asks: how do I come alongside people within marginalized communities?; what have I learned from this pursuit of mutual-freedom?; and what do I do with the lessons imparted?. In all of this, you’ll encounter people, places, conversations, and moments that inform an understanding of what it means to be Standing in Solidarity.           

“Your host dad spent a year in prison, you know.” As he says it, he looks at me with expectation. We sit beside the tree where we hold all of our community meetings. It is a hot day. The naked limbs fail to protect from the scorching Rwandan sun and the truth of his words ringing in my ears.

Children surround us in a circle of fascination, watching our every move with an intensity that does not let on to the fact that they’ve observed us in this spot for eight long weeks. Glancing at them now, I wonder at the allure of White skin that has yet to fade despite the regularity of our routine.

I pick at a twig idly, contemplating a reply. My lack of response prompts my companion to reiterate his point. “1995,” he adds.

The message– though unspoken– is clear: for two months now, I’ve lived under the roof of one of the many who killed, by hand, neighbors and friends in the name of “Hutu Power”. The man I’ve come to know and love as a father was a genocidaire.

This is not actually news to me. It hit me suddenly and unexpectedly on my very first night in their home. One minute, I was enjoying the hospitality of my new host family, eating the generous mound of rice on my plate with an eager smile to affirm that I liked the food. The next, I stared across the table at my homestay father, struck with the image of him with machete in hand.

His round face, flat nose, and square short body gave away his identity as Hutu. While it is illegal to discuss your ethnic identity in Rwanda, the same physical markers that prompted the Europeans to privilege the Tutsi minority still exist in straw-person form that East Africans often sheepishly confess “seeing” clearly.

As soon as I conjured the image, I knew that it was one not simply imagined. Between the lines of concern on his face, I read the burden of responsibility. His presence held the power of a past unspoken.

A gut-wrenching fear gripped me. I did not feel in danger in any way, nor have I in my time in their home. Rather, I feared the proximity of atrocity. Underneath this, I feared the potential of the love I feel today. In that moment, I knew– from an inner and inexplicable place– my father’s role in the conflict. I also knew that this would be the summer I learned to allow a murderer to also remain a human.

This, perhaps, is what I feared the most: the capacity to see him with machete in hand and still see myself in him.

When the genocide was something I’d merely read about in books and discussed in college classes, when Hotel Rwanda’s scenes were the closest I’d come to considering the experience of living through such horror, it was easy to distance myself from what we as humans are capable of doing to one another.

Now, such distance is not possible. Unwrapping a package of glucose biscuits the man in question gave me as a gift, I stare into the eyes of my student who delivered the news.

“I thought so,” is all I muster.

Feeling simultaneously non-pulsed and shocked, I sit with a lesson that has been building beneath the surface of my daily experience in our village.

They say that it was either hunt or be hunted. And while I refuse to excuse the crimes of massacre, I struggle to identify the criminal. Is it the executioners, often common farmers brainwashed by the government’s propaganda? The orchestrators, convinced of their superiority and determined to find retribution for years of oppression under Tutsi feudal rule? The international community who ensured the safety of their own people and left Rwanda to her own destruction? The colonial powers that formed nations with no regard for boundaries of terrain or tribe? Or perhaps Rwanda’s colonizers who constructed the ethnic distinctions as they exist today?

To draw blanketed conclusions about the evil of a group of people, delineating “good gal” from “bad” is a privilege (read: ignorance) of my life pre-travel. All my globetrotting has taught me the fallacy of most neat categories: developing/developed, poverty/wealth, oppressed/oppressors.

The temptation to maintain said categories is further combatted with the inconsistency of such a choice. In every case, genocide is made possible by the other-ing of a group of people to such an extent that they are no longer seen as human. Cockroach was the pejorative term in the events of Rwanda. What word could I settle on for my father and others like him without participating in the same cycle of simplification and violence?

Sitting on the grass contemplating this complexity, the words that do come to mind are forgiving and intimate. Predominately, healer jumps out. My father was the one who leaned over me with a cool wet towel when, wrought with fever, my body convulsed under malaria’s grip. I close my eyes and see his own, brimming with concern as he searched my face for signs of progress. For weeks after, he insisted on performing even the simplest tasks, encouraging rest and pressing my eleven siblings to give me space.

These memories crowd my mind as I observe my student working with his team of community members. They are designing new technologies for cow-feed during the dry season to help improve the nutrition and dairy production of cattle. I listen as they talk through the merits of creating a concentrate versus managing a silage system to keep grass in reserves. I distractedly study the lines of each design team member’s face, mentally doing the math to approximate ages during the genocide. They sit, Tutsi and Hutu alike, gathered to better their livelihoods and their community.

I think to myself, “If they can do it– love people beyond this history– certainly, I must pursue the same.”

The face of one woman captivates me in particular. She is my family’s next-door neighbor and my mama’s closest friend. Tall and proud, she walks with a confident gait. It is her stare that captures, though. Beneath her right eyebrow is a messy marring that invokes images of a scalding spoon, her eyelid now permanently closed from scar tissue. She certainly knows of my father’s imprisonment, she likely heard–if not witnessed– far more than I know. Yet, friendship perseveres. I meet her single-eyed gaze now and attempt to silently communicate what an inspiration she is to me.

When the meeting concludes, I walk with my student down the now familiar dirt path.  A breeze rustles through the cornfields providing a melodious backdrop to our stroll. Children’s squeals add to the music as “good morning, teacher,” rings out behind our every step, packed with the pride of sharing the favorite English phrase.

We pass the village shop that is always crowded with patrons of the neighboring bar. As I do every day, I wonder at the correlation between past-trauma and the prevalence of alcoholism in the community.

Smiling at the shop owner, my student and I exchange the usual greetings with friends on the road as we meander towards our respective homes. Progress is slow as I stop to talk with members of every household. Rounding the corner of my street, I head down the long path that reveals a view of Lake Muhazi tucked between the quilted hills.

Neighborhood children run to greet me with hugs, high fives, and a chorus of salutations and questions about my day. Annie, my five year-old friend with special needs, takes her privileged place at my right hand. Mazie, my baby sister, joins the crowd and I place her on my hip with learned ease. We arrive at the house as we do every evening, echoes of laughter announcing our presence.

Papa walks out to greet me. Taking my face in his once bloodstained hands, his eyes sparkle with light. Feeling their warmth penetrating any lingering reservation within, I wrap my arms around him in an embrace of knowing, acceptance, love.


Author’s Note: Wondering why I am writing about Rwanda’s genocide as a post for the fourth? Check it out here.


Please excuse these tears

Building C. Room 11. Cell 5. She catalogues this in her brain and steps inside. She does not want to be here: standing in the former cell of a prisoner likely killed. The practice in empathy feels important.

Resisting the urge to distance herself from the pains of war, she sits. Takes a deep breath. Observe, she urges herself. Feel this, she implores.

The bloodstains on the floor draw her in. The questions of whose and why and when overwhelm. Perhaps most shocking, what were the crimes? A college diploma? A job in the city? The tragic timing of being in the path of the Khmer Rouge?

Turning to the side, she sees a long crack in the brick. Did they talk to one another? The neighboring cellmates. She saw the rules posted: silence unless responding to an order. In the veil of night, were hushed whispers exchanged? What were the consequences of such a breach?

Consequences: torture tactics prominently displayed in the adjacent building. Forced, though false, confessions. Bodies laid in the fields. Killed by machetes or buried alive with DDT to finish the job.

Oh, God- those fields. The stench is gone, swallowed by forty years of history. But the remains refuse to keep quiet. With every flood, new bones surface. Clothing- ragged and weatherworn- caught her eye at every turn. And that tree. No longer a symbol of life. The trunk stands tall, bellowing its horror at a body used to smash the skulls of children.

Inside the city, the prison served as a holding pen for those yet to be shipped to the “truck stop,” death’s door. Today, it is a site for people still in search of family members. The endless pictures of prisoners posted are almost too much to bear. She averts her eyes as a Cambodian family searches the faces of every photograph.

She moves on, searching instead the cells once filled.

The second floor is worse. The wooden panels threaten to close in, compressing the distress that surrounds. No sitting this time. The space is too crowded for that, filled with the spirits of the long dead. Overflowing with the agony of injustice. The claustrophobia mounts, making her wonder at the human capacity for resilience.

The human capacity for atrocity, though, is what is most disturbing. Maybe that is what she is trying to look at, to understand: what we as humans are capable of doing to one another.

What she might be capable of doing. She knows enough to not trick herself into thinking the enemy is clear. Distance from the pain is not the only temptation. To separate herself from the psyche of an executioner, to remove the common humanness of a murderer, that is the ultimate allure.

The stories of the child soldiers turned genocidaires echo in her mind. It was kill or be killed. I did not have a choice. We were running for so long; when they caught us it finally provided a chance to stop. I just wanted relief from watching one more family member be murdered. Most loudly, she hears the question: Why am I, the common peasant, being punished while the orchestrators of the genocide remain untouched?

Genocide. No word in the English vocabulary can illicit such a visceral reaction as this one. Chilling, incomprehensible, wholly inadequate in naming what happened here.

Not just here. Rwanda. Bosnia. Germany. Today: Darfur and the DRC. South Sudan and Syria in tow. (Let’s not forget we too belong on this list if we go back just one century more).

And how do we name such a reality? More importantly, how do we face it? Because without looking, we will never interrupt it. Dare she say eradicate. “Never again” is the slogan for every memorial, remembrance the ideal we espouse. But what of the continued, the current, the undeniable repetition?

Staring squarely into the face of our darkest potential, she fights the urge to put her fingers to her ears, squeeze her eyes shut, run out of the museum and far from the questions and implications of this place.

She can’t hold its gaze for long.

Mentally, she writes a story. Third person. Distant. Impersonal. Anything to keep these truths- these fears- at bay. Left on the soon-distant shores of Cambodia’s coast.

Memorial Musings

I am in the midst of a longer post introducing and reflecting on the principles of ThinkImpact and the program structure that will come soon. In short, it is a program that seeks to expand what we as humans think is possible in terms of creation, using local partnership and design-thinking to introduce new ideas, products, and services to rural communities.

Today, I am not exploring this creation process, but rather destruction when yesterday we visited the genocide memorial in Kigali. I am struck by what we as humans are capable of when we let fear, hate, and division guide us. And, I am in awe of the Rwandan people for their capacity to forgive and live in community still today. It is illegal in Rwanda to ask someone what tribe  they are (Tutsi or Hutu) with the idea that, in a few generations, people will literally not know the distinction.

As I arrived in our community, I realized that we will come to know many Hutu people (who were the genocidaires), and I know that we will grow to love these people. As I journaled, I was glad, for villainizing an entire people group- even with the history of Rwanda- would do no good. But when I first had the thought, I was terrified. Not because I think Hutus are inherently scary, or because I am literally afraid for my safety, but because I could picture a community member with machete in hand and maintain his humanity, even see myself in him.

And I remembered in the memorial, as we read about the strategy used to instill fear of a Tutsi revolution as propaganda for the Hutu Power to rise, my fellow advisor Kathryn said, “this is what Freire talks about.” She is right: the genocidaires, the Hutus, were also oppressed peoples. It is like a women in a video at the memorial said, “the government killed my family; it was the government’s genocide.” Many perpetuated the system, but they were bound by it, too.

And I wonder, can making it illegal to talk about your ethnic background develop a liberatory consciousness? Is it not the same as being colorblind?

Furthermore, is it  even my place as a cultural outsider to ask these questions? And how do I ask a question that presupposes I can understand living through events that I was unaware of until twelve years after they occurred?

With this, I am inspired in awe and sometimes disbelief by the continued integration of Tutsi and Hutu in the village. And if not discussing tribal backgrounds (that were socially constructed by colonial powers, by the way) with a vision of their children and children’s children not seeing them helps facilitate this, then I will respectfully follow. And I will continue to reflect on what I learn about love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and social justice in doing so.