We didn't mean to write about the genocide

… But we did. It’s in the air you breathe in Rwanda, in the food you eat and in the way people look at you, or don’t. It’s unavoidable, inescapable and it would be a fallacy and a betrayal to go there and ignore it.

Everything is done and said in the context of the genocide, whether a Rwandan was in the country or not, born or not, a victim or a perpetrator or a family of either, they were affected.

Before visiting, I felt that Fergal Keane‘s book on his experiences of reporting the genocide was typically Western in its self-interest, but now I understand; by simply being there afterward, he was profoundly affected. Everyone who visits Rwanda, even at this remove, is touched. The human mind finds it very difficult to comprehend solid evidence of the great evil people can do one another.

At the monastery and hostel Home Saint Jean, which sits high on a promontory overlooking the gloriously serene expanse of Lake Kivu on three sides, surrounded by a chocolate box Alpine landscape, there is a sense of perfection achieved. A tiered flower garden falls down towards the mirror smooth, almost boat-free waters of the lake. Airy and white with a roof tiled in terracotta, it’s a little patch of central Europe far from home. French and Belgian missionaries stationed here would have felt quite at home in these green hills.

Up a dusty track from Home Saint Jean there is an accompanying church. Stained glass windows in riotous colours are the most obvious sign it has been redecorated in recent years.

In 1994, almost 11,000 people were hacked to death by their neighbours after seeking a safe haven at the church where they were christened, made their Holy Communion, went to mass every Sunday, got married and buried their loved ones.

There are so many questions.

The lively crowd conducting Sunday school in the churchyard beside a genocide memorial that reads ‘Never Again’ – with laughing children roleplaying a marriage through Kinyarwanda – looked askance at the bazungu entering their church long after mass was finished on Sunday morning.

We went in for a look. Concrete floors, simple stations of the cross in a row across the back wall, wooden benches and those glorious stained glass windows. A man sweeping. Officious six-year-olds with the self-important pufferfish chests of those on a mission filing in to bring out benches for the Sunday school, and banging those benches off the walls, the doors, the other benches, before turning them to right angles.

All the doors open overlooking that peaceful lake, and laughter and the murmur of instructions coming from outside as the benches reached their destination.

A hot day, but cool inside the church. The weight of history is felt in all sorts of places, but the weight of 11,000 deaths, and those outside observing the childish marriage, with the knowledge and consequences of those deaths bearing down heavy, is overwhelming.

An old woman murmured in response to my whispered ‘Mwaramutse’ as I went outside to compose myself overlooking the water, and held out her hand. I gave her the 500 franc note in my pocket. She was the first old person I saw in Rwanda; the first of only three.

There are so many questions.

CMK022013 Kivu 003

Photos by Clare Keogh. Visit supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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