Imiryango was a finalist in the 2017 LUMINA Nonfiction Contest, judged by Leslie Jamison.
What she had unexpectedly met there in the village church was not God; it was beauty…the mass was beautiful because it appeared to her in a sudden mysterious revelation as a world betrayed. From that time on she had known that beauty is a world betrayed. The only way to encounter it is if its persecutors have overlooked it somewhere.
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
i call her “mama”
as if she is mine
but i only know her
because of the Rwandan hands that killed in 1994
because of the absence
she sleeps next to every night
i am here
because her husband is not
at dinner, we play a game of charades
her hands explain what
broken words forget
she points to the doorway:
“umuryango” | | “umuryango”
door | | family
i can barely detect
when we lay in bed
her hand in mine
i barter for her
replacing my hand with his
so she can feel his touch
backing from her doorway
so he can enter instead
ii. Stolen Paradise
The endless hills below us adorn the edges of the genocide memorial like a gated city, giving the illusion of protection. We could easily be in heaven. But we are in Murambi.
On April 16, 1994, as many as sixty-five thousand Rwandans sought refuge at a vocational school atop the hillside. They were told the French army would protect them. But in the course of about a week, the Interahamwe, a Hutu militia group hunting Tutsis, slaughtered nearly fifty thousand people. Their carcasses, now preserved with lime powder, lay on display in rooms inside the school. The Rwandan state fancies itself powerful enough to manipulate time and place, juxtaposing an eternal restlessness against the quiet stillness of the landscape.
These memorials do not honor the dead like we have been told, but use and abuse their bodies as tools of state repression: Tutsis equal genocide victims and Hutus equal genocide perpetrators. The indigenous Twa people did not experience the genocide. Or so the state-sanctioned narrative goes. To claim the events of 1994 were anything but a Hutu-led genocide against the Tutsis is a crime punishable by disappearance or death. “We are all Rwandan now,” smiling government officials assure visitors incessantly. “Post-genocide” law decrees that, for the sake of reconciliation, Rwandan ethnicities no longer exist. It is not until I return from abroad and see the mass graves of Rwanda mirrored in the streets of Baltimore—and every city in the “post-racial” United States [insert yet another state-mutilated black body here]—that I understand the absurdity of Rwanda’s memorialization techniques.
Our tour guide, a Murambi survivor, unlocks the door to the first room. I push past the wet, formaldehyde stench and stare into the decayed holes where the corpses’ eyes used to be. Babies clutch their mothers’ sunken chests. Agonized, decrepit faces scream. Small tufts of black hair cling to their bashed skulls. Twisted, bruised legs have been left spread, mid-rape. Machete marks line their fragmented limbs. Stray bloodstains cake the walls.
In each room, their maimed hands reach desperately, achingly, as if still in search of relief. Who loved these hands? Embraced them. Shook them. Held them in the midst of a morning exchange. Rwandans consider handholding a hobby. Then I imagine the bodies rising from the dead and telling me their stories. The Bible makes Christ’s resurrection seem so easy.
After only entering three rooms, our tour guide asks us if we have seen enough of the corpses. We all nod, as a light breeze brushes over us, lingers on our skin, and reminds us that, for no reason at all, we reside inside our bodies, not theirs. Later, in the months and years to come, I will often wish I could place my body down next to them on these wooden tables. Hold their hands. Trade my life for theirs. Open the door to the next room, I would have said to our tour guide, had my classmates’ consensus not stopped me. Next one. Next one. Next one. I am ashamed I want more. There is certainly terrorism to the way I long to live beyond the borders of my body.
I wonder where God was on the day men with machetes ascended upon Murambi. I know something divine carved these hills, and I consider the possibility that God used the seventh day to handcraft Rwanda. But then he left it. In all its strange newness.
“What lesson will you take back as ambassadors to your country?” our guide asks us. His question makes me uncomfortable. It seems too final. As final as the wounds etched into the curled bodies arranged in the rooms nearby. His voice is strained and robotic. The same urgent tone of every Rwandan we have met. “You must never forget what happened here,” he says. It is not he who is speaking. But the state. As we walk away, I am struck by my desire to stay on this hill with the dead. I could reside in this purgatory forever, if it means I get a glimpse of paradise.
iii. Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda
They take us to a place filled with placelessness.
“These are the criminals. The genocidaires. The reason for all of Rwanda’s tears.” The Ugandan official’s words an extension of the Rwandan prison-surveillance state. “Ask them anything you would like, but they will only tell you lies. Remember: Rwanda is a peaceful country now. Rwandans have all forgiven each other. They are safe to go back, but they refuse.”
And so we begin, bearing witness to a people we have been brainwashed to dismiss from the start:
“You must believe us!” the Hutu refugees say to us. “You have not considered the truth.”
“Because you are still young, you’ve been told that we’ve killed people, but we are innocent. We are the victims, too.”
“You say Rwanda is a paradise, but it is like a coffin—dead inside.”
“As Americans, are you obliged to like your country like Rwandans are?”
“You and your government and President Kagame are the reason we are here.”
“You must understand. What happened in 1994 was a double genocide. Because the genocide never ended. It is still going on today.”
“You will tell our stories to the world and then there will surely be change for us.”
But we do not need to hear from the living. Because we have already seen the dead.
The weeping women arrive at their lord’s tomb only to find his body has been scattered everywhere.
We break bread with them in silence. They bow their heads in prayer. Thankful for this lavish U.N. meal. Provided by our white presence. We find we are gods of sort. Conjuring miracles. Transforming water into wine. Feeding the five thousand.
“We will tell your stories,” I say to them. “But we can’t promise change,” my friend adds.
Then we get on a bus and go back to their homes. Flaunting their right of return, as we wave from the window.
in the city of kafr kana
where christ turned water into wine
the israeli government turns palestinian houses into rubble
and then puts their owner under house arrest
and so we meet the man under house arrest—
in the house
that’s not his house
because israel demolished
—not far from where his family once lived
“will my story change the world?” he says
pleading with the journalist
will my story change the world?
v. mapmaking in the galilee
we sit in the back seat of our palestinian teacher’s car
watching the galilee pass us by
the oud on the radio sounds like nostalgia
low and yearning and tired
wary of more revolutions
“let’s play a game,” our teacher says
name that village:
arab or jewish
we are confused
for our american eyes have not yet adjusted
to searching for traces of the absent
“this game is easy,” he says
and he drives on
through a land that is his
a country he cannot recognize
soon, the minarets come into focus
world cup flags
substitutes for the flag that was quieted
emerge through the rush of the landscape
and we laugh uncomfortably
all too aware of the ways our game
breathes reality into the mapmaker’s antics
yasmin drives me to the sea
“I would rather explain to my kids
where babies come from
than this occupation”
how do you tell your children
they are not free
she tells me of how samar once cried on independence day
(read: genocide al-nakba the catastrophe)
longed to wave the israeli flag like everyone else
the way a child simply wants a lollipop
i have to teach her hebrew soon, she says
yasmin and i arrive in akko
(read in hebrew: until here)
in a coffee shop, she sits plotting slow revolutions
nearby, the sea crashes on the shore
god’s first border crossing
there is a story that in the beginning
the land feared the sea’s invasion
until here, the land whispered
until here, the land said, drawing a line in the sand
and yet, the sea knows its home
knows its right of return
vii. abu arab’s museum
in a basement under his makeshift nazarene home
a gaze away from the wreckage of saffuri
abu arab collects absence
proof that once, not so long ago
they conquered saffuri
and called the village: zippori
an alien tongue, just similar enough in sound
to deceive even the best mapmaker
behind his museum’s door
cabinets hold memory, delicate
dresses, stitched and restitched like
the borders of his homeland
abu arab shows us a graveyard
in other words:
i stand beside a wall that cuts the sky
tears wounds the size of a betrayed country
into the bodies of the evicted
they don’t say your name enough
so i’ll say it now:
tourists gawk and glorify
of a wall built from prejudice
the bodies of the oppressed
tourists take selfies
it is art now
at the u.s. | | mexico border
the mouth of the american empire
twists words like
into speeches about laziness
and homeland security
while oceans away
the hands of the empire
build more walls
across the bodies of palestinians
i weep at the bethlehem wall
try to hide my pain from the people
who live under its bricks’ regime every day
above me, stands a tower
with a man and a gun the size of my body
a god far too dignified
to house people
instead of his own fears
holocaust part two
the graffiti on the wall reads
the ghettos of warsaw reflect back at him through the tower window
and i can’t help but think:
there is certainly terror
to the guard’s understanding of territory
ix. A World Betrayed
“There are two realities in Jerusalem,” our Palestinian tour guide says as we stand upon the Mount of Olives. “The one here.” His hand brushes across the iconic landscape before him. “And the one that lives in here.” He touches his hand to his forehead.
The Palestinian Jew, a man of contradictions, lived and died in both realities. Under a military occupation similar to this one. When armies surround its walls, you will know the end is near, he told his twelve closest companions, as he stood under the shade of the mountain’s olive trees. As they slept in the Garden of Gethsemane, he lay awake obsessing over the reality of the task that lay before him. And the city that would betray him come morning.
As I step inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I am filled with anxiety. My chest tightens. My breath shortens. I reach for my friend’s hand as an attempt to distract myself from my body’s fixation on Rwanda’s genocide memorials.
I do not need to see where Christ’s body and blood lay. I have seen enough traces of his broken body within Rwanda’s hills to last a lifetime.
I look at the crowds of Jerusalem’s pilgrims laying prostrate on the Stone of Anointing, where the Nazarene’s mangled form was prepared for burial. Their hands grasp stone and mortar for something they cannot touch. Their eyes search the claustrophobic building for the face of a man they cannot see. They have come pursuing his presence. But they are here because of his absence. He is not here, the angel said to the weeping women, he is risen. The stone and mortar fill the hole in the pilgrims’ hearts where they want their savior to lie.
I visited the Rwandan village of Kibeho because of absence. There are no signs, no memorials, no prayers of remembrance for more than 4,000 internally displaced Hutu refugees slaughtered by the “post-genocide” government on the hills of Kibeho in 1995.
I came to Kibeho under the guise of a Catholic pilgrimage, for its hills are filled with the divine. In 1981, the Blessed Mother appeared to three poor village girls and foretold of genocide. There is something strange about the way She reappears like that. Emerging at sites of genocide. She appeared during Bosnia’s war as well. Mary, the Rwandan. Mary, the Bosnian-Croat. Mary, the Palestinian Jew. A vessel for the suffering of others. And a survivor of trauma as well. In Kibeho, they call her Nyina Wa Jambo: The Mother of the Word. They also call her Our Lady of Sorrow. How oddly fitting that she would be named the mother of both. For it is grief that robs us of language.
While in Kibeho, I became obsessed with the local parish church, willing myself to imagine the building as it appeared during the days of the 1994 church massacre. I couldn’t fathom how parishioners could still worship in a church that had forsaken the lives of twenty-five thousand faithful. I used to stand in Kibeho Parish after daily mass, run my hand against its bricks thick with memory, and silently reprimand the walls for abandoning the people of Kibeho. Walls, I have found, are genocide perpetrators too.
I stand on the periphery of the Nazarene’s tomb, watching as pilgrims line up to see the space he left behind. The lived reality of Rwanda is not mine, and yet, the trauma of the churches resides inside my body, and I see the building as Kibeho in 1994. Kagame’s regime has crafted its crude and meticulous political theater well; I live in a new reality now, where every worship space exists as a genocide memorial. Filled to the brim with the skulls and machetes and blood of Rwanda. The sacred protection seeps from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And only the walls remain. Looming and powerless. These walls will never save you, I want to tell the pilgrims. But instead, I walk out into the sunlight.
Christians often envision heaven, awash with grace and pearly perfection, with St. Peter at its gated entrance, orchestrating the passage of souls from one life to the next. Golden barbed wires. Turnstiles bejeweled with diamonds. Anxious lines curled around the expanse of the sky for eternity. If heaven is surrounded by checkpoints and walls, I want no part in its glory. No share in its salvation.
I wonder, then, if amidst the excruciating pain in his hands and feet, the crucified carpenter found a breath of comfort in the majesty of the city below him. Like his father admiring creation in all its strange newness. My land, my land, why have you forsaken me. I wonder if, as his eyes closed, there was an instant when both realities lingered before his line of vision: a city wrapped in walls, next to a city wrapped in light.
*Origin: Kinyarwandan. Definition: Doorways, Gates, Families, and Clans in the plural form.
Gabrielle Spear graduated from Goucher College with a BA in English and a minor in Peace Studies. While at Goucher, she studied abroad in Rwanda, Uganda, and historic Palestine, researching the state’s influence on sites of memory. In May of 2015, she was awarded Goucher’s Kratz Summer Writing Fellowship to write poetry and essays about historic Palestine. She is an associate editor at Warscapes Magazine and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace’s NYC chapter.