Einstein said that the faster you travel, the more time slows down. In fact, if you travel at the speed of light, time slows down a lot.
What Einstein never mentioned though was that time also slows down with grief.
After my first few days working at the Memorial Centre I noticed there were piles of mattresses in the storage cupboards. No one ever slept there so it was curious, although I never bothered to ask why. That day my question was answered in full measure and rather shockingly.
This post continues the series Letters from the Heart of Africa about my time as a volunteer working in Rwanda. This post can be read as a self-contained piece of narrative, or for context and a table of content click here
Every year on April 7th, Commemoration Day, Rwandans mourn the start of the 1994 genocide. It is a difficult day, that lasts an age, it is the saddest day in Rwanda, a day when it usually rains, it’s as if the clouds weep; TVs show footage from 1994; it is the nation’s 9/11, Armistice Day all in one.
Thousands of people flocked in to the Memorial Centre that day, wearing purple scarves, shawls and ribbons in their hair, for purple is the colour of remembrance and mourning. They came trudging down distant hills, up the hairpin bend in Gisozi and waited patiently in queues to get through the security checks; they flowed through the gates and down the steps of the Memorial Centre, a gushing stream of human purple, and they sat in silence in rows of plastic chairs, in silent contemplation as the sound system played gentle tunes rich in harmonies, deep African voices singing songs of peace, healing and forgiveness.
Quite why the ambulances of the Red Cross were lined up in the car park, I didn’t cotton on – it was the first hint of the events about to unfold.
It was for once a sunny Memorial Day when it didn’t rain; as the sun got higher, water bottles were handed out; people fanned their faces. A row of coffins came in to the centre draped in purple – 138 genocide victims were being buried in the mass graves. One of the concrete chambers was being opened up as coffins were ceremoniously lowered in to the cool darkness of their deep interiors.
Here we were 14 years after the genocide and the remains of bodies were still being discovered; victims which were laid to rest that day would have remained forever a mystery, kept as a guilty secret in the back of an evil mind, cheating many bereaved families of closure. Perhaps it was something small that enabled their discovery, like a stray football kicked in to a thicket landing amongst exposed bones; perhaps it was a confession videoed at a Gacaca “grass court” where a perpetrator confessed to the killing and showed the location allowing remains to be exhumed and buried, finally achieving dignity after 14 years of hurt.
Speeches were made; the Mayor of Gasabo lit the flame-holder which would burn for the 100 days of the mourning period; people wept silently the whole time, the occasional sniffle and cough; under a shade giving umbrella, a baby slumbered in her grieving mother’s arms oblivious to the commotion around her.
It was a cackle at first, a haunting, solo laugh which was so out of place on day filled with sorrow. Amongst the throngs of seated mourners, it was hard to make out who she was or where she sat, but she continued her bewitching wails till they extended in to long drawn-out lung-stretching, ear-piercing screams.
Her arms and legs flailed as people tried to restrain her; Red Cross workers pulled her out from the audience and carried her up the stairs in to a room in the centre which was specially prepared with rows of mattresses carefully laid all parallel to each other for the events about to unfold.
The observation of grief is harrowing, it carries a new intensity born from the magnitude of loss that Rwanda suffered. People around seemed to absorb her grief; arms and necks felt the ice of goosepimples; rib cages turned warm, poured full with sticky treacle sludging around inside like dredged up sediment. Grief must be the most contagious of all the emotions, its transfer immediate like hot radiation unlike joy or laughter which moves in warm, convection currents. When people heard her screams, others started. Shouts in Kinyarwanda abounded. The contagion spread.
“They are coming to get us again.”
“Mama, papa! Don’t leave me.”
“Brothers and sisters. Where have you gone?”.
They were sudden eruptions of raw human emotions, still hurting, still unhealed, still totally raw. Spontaneous outpourings of deep sadness from a traditionally reserved people. More than 14 years afterwards, these people were still living the depths of horror of the Genocide. In the whites of their bulging eyes, their icy stares, the possessed glares that looked straight through you at the wall behind, lost in hypnosis, the genocide continued in flashbacks to a horrid past. Sensory perception, irrespective of reality, sometimes is the arbiter of what is of substance.
The people who were suffering from this involuntary memory recall, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), were brought in to the main building and helped on to mattress in a large room and were given water bottles.
A woman tried to jump out of the first floor window – she where she said her parents were standing. A young man, his eyes streaming tears, was convinced that there was a grenade in the room, about to explode. The decibels increased; the screams of over 60 people lying on mattresses merged in to a cacophony of noise, an intense, disturbing frequency, like a million finger-nails scraping on a million blackboards. The experience was close to unbearable. For them, time had not healed, it had only hidden.
The counsellors were trained to bring them back to the safety of today’s Rwanda. They worked fast. “We need more mattresses, we need more water bottles,” they ordered. They stroked faces. They spoke calming words that nothing was going to touch them, not now. They gave out water and mopped brows and hugged lovingly. It went on for four hours but felt much much longer. Only the energy drawn from the sadness kept them going.
It is curious that energy could ever be a by-product of grief, from it emanated an overpowering sense of perspective, a formidable reminder of how lucky we are to have not been in this horror of 1994; a redefinitioon of the word loss, for these people had lost their families, their property and houses, and even the ability to control their own thoughts. It highlighted for me the importance of the Memorial Centre in holding together the fabric of Rwanda
And so ended Commemoration Day in Rwanda 2008 – the day that felt like an age, when minds became weighed down with grief and sadness, when memories resurfaced in a shocking way, on a day when time slowed down.
This post is part of the series called Letters from the Heart of Africa. To see the background and the full table of contents click here.