Reader discretion - this story contains graphic descriptions of atrocities committed during the Rwandan Genocide.
My daughter sits beside me with tears in her eyes. A boy in her class has been calling her names. Making silly faces at her. Taking the only green pencil at the table when he knew she had to colour in her grass. She’s sure that he hates her.
‘He doesn’t hate you,’ I tell her.
She turns to me with fiery eyes. ‘How do you know?’
‘Because I’ve seen hatred. Only once. And I know exactly what it looks like.’
And with intrigue in her voice, she asks me: ‘What does it look like?’
When I travelled to Rwanda, I didn’t want to visit the Genocide Memorial. It seemed wrong. Disrespectful of a white European whose entire continent had largely turned a blind eye towards the horrors of 1994. An inconsiderate westerner come to marvel at what the Africans did to each other while the rest of the world claimed it was none of their business. But my South African companion wanted to pay her respects, and our Rwandan friend said we should go. So we went.
The Rwandan people here were no different to the ones I’d met around the country for the previous three weeks. Warm, friendly, welcoming. No entry fee into the memorial and museum, but donations were welcome. It all seemed so strange to me. This area was the final resting place for some 250,000 people, yet some of their remains were on display. Staring out at passers-by from behind glass walls, placed next to some of the actual weapons that were used to end their lives with such violence. Brutality on display for the low price of a donation.
In one part of the museum, photographs of victims hung in rows across the walls, displayed like my grandmother used to do with the cards she received in the post at Christmas. Pictures displaying happier moments from lives that ended in unimaginable pain. Seeing the smiles spread across the faces of these people, knowing what fate awaited them in the future, was a chilling and sorrowful experience. Each face was a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, a child. Each lost soul, someone important to the people who dearly loved them. And if these pictures didn’t tell a compelling enough story, the skulls in the next room would.
I knew about them before going in, of course. But actually seeing them set out, arranged in neat rows like jars of pasta sauce in a supermarket, was frightening. It might have been easy to think of them as nothing more than movie props, things that had never actually belonged to a living person. But they were real. As real as the one sitting inside my own head. Some were displayed alongside the belongings that were once held by the same living being that owned the skull behind them. A torn handbag. A rusted necklace. Although their eyes were long gone, some skulls had sockets that drooped to the side as though sad. Forever watching a world before them that should have belonged to them, but was mercilessly ripped away.
I walked among them. Tried to look at each one of them. Acknowledge them. Give them the respect they deserved. Each one of them told a different story. Each story, a thing that I could never fully understand. And as I went, I wondered; if these skulls could talk, what would they say? What tales of terror and woe would come from their shattered mouths? Stories that would send a sharp chill down the spines of even the most steadfast, that would turn the stomach of those who sat thousands of miles from the horror and despair of it all.
Perhaps they’d tell tales of how desperately they’d attempted to hide. Of how they’d found themselves stowed away in a dreary and dull cellar where they thought they might have been safe. Only, they’d been found the next day and slaughtered. Or maybe they’d tell of how they’d refused to participate when asked, and of how swiftly their own people had turned on them.
That one over there. The skull with the hole in the centre of the forehead. What would that one say? I was lucky to have been killed with compassion; a shot from an Interahamwe man’s gun. A crack, a flash, and then darkness. But the next one, with the large crack running from the top of the skullcap to the left eye. What words would that one have? The machete had not been sharp enough, precise enough. I felt my head shatter, saw my blood spill through the eye that had been left intact. I tried not to give them the satisfaction of screaming. I failed. And the one that was barely a skull at all, the one whose pieces had been re-assembled as best as the recoverers could manage, the grey shards, carefully preserved, lying in a dishevelled heap behind the display glass. What stories would that one tell?
None. That one would be silent. That one stopped talking long ago.
As I imagined these skulls’ stories, I could almost hear them. Whispering their tales of sorrow, echoes of pain and fear escaping their dead mouths and picked up by ears that could not begin to understand them.
Knew I would die…
Saw them kill my family…
Tried to protect my children…
And the more I thought about it, the more I realised I did not want to know those stories. Not at all.
The weapons used in the genocide were an indication not just of the brutality, but of how one side thought of the other. Inyenzi, the extremists called their victims. Cockroaches. Nothing more than vermin that needed to be terminated. But some of the atrocities spoke of a deeper feeling towards the victims. Slow, painful deaths instead of merciful, painless ones. These people were killed by those whose hearts had been poisoned with the deepest kind of hatred; a clutching, biting, unforgiving kind that latched onto them and refused to let them go until their vile and horrifying acts were thoroughly carried out.
The most chilling thing of all about the photographs and the skulls was the sheer volume of them. Hundreds of strangers, everyday people, looking through a mirror from the past, straight into a future unknown and unreachable to them. Hundreds here, yes, but hundreds of thousands more lay dead in mass graves. Almost a million people around the country. A million souls with voices lost to the ether.
That was why they were laid out in seemingly endless lines. To remind people of the mass of human life that was lost in the genocide. And I was glad to have visited this place, to see the reason for displaying the things that most people would much rather forget. Because while it’s right to move on, we must never forget what we are moving on from. I visited Rwanda at a time when the healing process was not yet over, but the atrocities of the past were put behind. Many Rwandans had chosen something for the perpetrators that I could not fathom: forgiveness. For them, it was about healing. Never going back to what had happened in the darkest days of their country’s history.
Perhaps then, if those skulls really could talk, they might tell a different tale altogether. Perhaps they would talk of their nation’s recovery. Its incredible journey. A journey that is not yet complete, but one that has taken its people on such remarkable and previously unfathomable paths that the place they died in is now unrecognisable. They might talk, with enthusiasm or hope, of the courage of their people. They might tell of the giant steps taken by feet once so shaken and afraid, that now stride with confidence towards a future much brighter than before, one their ancestors could never have dreamed of.
They might talk about their people’s remarkable journey to forgiveness. The Gacaca courts, run by members of the community, where perpetrators confessed to killings and were forgiven by the families of those whom they had murdered. What would the skulls say about this? Would they be pleased that their families could find peace in such a way? Would they give their blessing? And if one of those murderers walked through the doors of the Genocide Memorial and came face to face with the skull of the person they had slaughtered, what words would that skull have? What wishes or curses might it whisper?
How many of those skulls would utter those extraordinary three words that I never could: I forgive you?
The visit to the memorial was a day I will never forget. The only day during my three-week visit that I didn’t write about in my journal, because it’s an experience forever anchored in my memory. A story of a nation’s remarkable journey from destruction to rebuilding. From despair to hope.
From hatred to forgiveness.
I look at my daughter and I wipe her tears from her eyes.
‘Hatred, my love… Hatred is a bad, bad thing. An evil thing. It consumes you. It seeps into every pore and creeps into every crevice. It controls you. It makes you do things you didn’t think you were capable of. And when it’s finished with you, it leaves you stranded in a world that no longer recognises you as the person you were before. That boy doesn’t hate you. He just doesn’t understand you.’
She doesn’t know what I mean, but it’s the best I can explain while she’s so young. For now, she agrees to ignore the boy and focus on the positives in her life, of which there are many. And when the boy is ready, he may become a different person altogether.
When she’s walked enough steps on her own journey, I’ll tell her about the skulls.
This story was shortlisted in Writing Magazine's contest on the theme of "Journey".