Walking in the Shoes of the Rwandans


Walking In the Shoes of the Rwandans

By Fr. Vazken Movsesian

Metal knives and forks on an airplane? No, this wasn’t pre-9/11. It was just a few months ago on board an Air Rwandan flight to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. This was a country and people that had recently been raped by Genocide and in perspective, that metal knife was too small to stir any fear.The scene at the airport was surreal. Following 23½ hours of travel – 10 time zones ahead, here I was an Armenian priest in Rwanda. Twelve years ago one million people had perished in an act of Genocide. Blaring over the TV monitors in the airport was news coming in about the death of Slobodan Milosevic and of course, the stories of Genocide in Bosnia. I don’t think Salvador Dali could have melted another clock to make the scene more surreal than this.

This was a trip put together by my former instructor at USC, Prof. Donald Miller, Director of the School of Religion at USC and Executive Director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture. In 1993, Professor Miller and his wife Lorna Touryan Miller co-authored “Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide.” Among the 100 interviews they conducted for that study they interviewed both of my grandmothers, one from Palu and the other from Sivri-hisar.

When Dr. Miller asked me to join them on this trip, along with six others from the University, I had no apprehensions or second thoughts. It was very clear that I had to do this. It would be a chance to answer some fundamental questions that we might never get a chance to answer otherwise. For instance, what would it be like to be in Armenia circa 1925? I know what it was like to grow up with the stories of genocide some 50 to 60 years after the event, but what would we find in a land and people hit by genocide only 10 years later? Would there be comparisons? Would I understand them? Would they understand me?
In a sense, going to Rwanda in 2006 was like traveling back in time to Armenia, 1925. It was a chance to stand in the shoes of my grandparents, by standing in the shoes of the Rwandans. And so, in March we took off for the “Land of 1000 Hills,” Rwanda.
Our first stop was the Genocide museum. I don’t know if it bothered anyone in our group that before going to the hotel (or doing anything else for that matter) we went directly from the airport, tired and worn, to this place of remembrance. Of course, for me, this was just natural, in a morbid kind of way. For us Armenians, opportunities to connect with our Genocide preempts all else, especially personal comfort.

The museum is in the middle of the city. Kigali is remarkably clean for being a city at the center of so much poverty. The Genocide museum was well maintained. It was a showpiece and as we quickly figured, it is a must-stop for tourist.
What strikes you immediately are the large concrete slabs that serve as walkways leading up to the building. Every so often we noticed bouquets of flowers laid on the concrete walk, in the same manner they are placed next to tombstones. It was our first hint that this was no ordinary sidewalk. We turned the corner and saw one of the slabs had been lifted, revealing a row of coffins underneath. We were walking on top of a mass grave!

Two hundred and sixty thousand (260,000) bodies were accounted for here. As bodies and remains are found (even now, after 12 years) they are moved to this mass grave and given a dignified interment. Inside the graves we saw the caskets – stacked. Each casket contained 4 to 60 bodies. That was the rule. The bodies were sometimes decomposed, sometimes ashes, sometimes bones. They all represented people. They all represented souls.

Welcome to Rwanda, I thought. I wanted to get up close and personal with genocide and there I was. The mass grave was the first of many impressions that would replay in my mind in the coming days. I knelt down in a small corner and recited the Armenian requiem prayer, “Hokvotz” for the souls of the departed. It felt inadequate, but I was overwhelmed. I was thinking of the graves that our grandparents never had, thinking of denial and barbarism, and hatred – how it could be so powerful as to take out an entire populations? I touched the grave. A light powder of cement stayed on my hands for the rest of the memorial tour.
Entering the two-story building, we began our tour of the museum. One million Rwandans were massacred during an organized Genocide in 1994. As we walked through the museum we became familiar with the stories and the events leading to these mass killings. We read about tribal stories between Hutu and Tutsi. Explanations were given, by citing underlying causes dating back to the 19th Century. France, Belgium, the Catholic Church, were all part of the process leading up to the Genocide. And most importantly was the reoccurring theme: the silence of the world. (Remember 1994? The O.J. Simpson trial was consuming the lives and minds of so many of us that the Genocide was just a side note in the news.)

The stories continued from tableau to tableau, enough to incite the interest of anyone new to the study of Genocide. But what struck me was not the history. It was my familiarity with the crime. I saw the disgraceful face of humanity, over and over. I saw what role the Church had played in promoting separatism and class struggle and thought of our Armenian Church today. My emotions were profound. I was frustrated and sad. My tears were flowing as I looked at the pictures of Rwandans and saw the faces of my grandparents. I saw pictures of massacred children and one lone exhibit with the title, “I Did Not Choose to be an Orphan.” I found refuge in one small corner of the museum where I could be alone with my thoughts. I sat there a

Walking in the shoes of the Rwandannd looked at the face of a child in a large poster. I saw my grandfather who was the same age during our Genocide. This child’s skin was black, my grandfather’s wasn’t. This kid was tortured and separated from his family in Rwanda and my grandfather in Armenia. I stood in silence, in tears because it all made sense. I was color blind. I was living a dream. I was seeing all of the children, as children of God.

One of the tour guides noticed my uneasiness at the exhibit. She approached me, “Bonjour.” Going back to high school French, I said the only sentence I had remembered, “I do not speak French.” She turned to English. In reaction to my u

ncontrollable tears, she touched my arm and said, “I’m sorry.” What was there to be sorry about, I thought. Her pains were as much as mine.
I explained to her that I was the grandson of genocide survivors and was very moved by the exhibit. She inquired, “Which Genocide?” What a bizarre question in a modern world! How primitive we must seem to anyone from the outside: How many genocides could there be?

When I revealed my grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide she nudged me to continue on the tour of the museum. The second portion of the museum was dedicated to victims of all genocides, and to begin with, there were two walls dedicated to the Armenian Genocide!

Here in the middle of this poor country called Rwanda, in the middle of Africa, I found a museum with the pictures I had grown up with. Wall maps, posters and a video dedicated to the Armenian Genocide of 1915. I was too overwhelmed, standing there and reading the stories I knew so well – the stories of the Syrian Desert, of rape, of massacre, of butchery. It was the same stories I had heard as a child, the same stories that we read about on the first floor regarding the Rwandan Genocide, the same stories over and over again. Is there a greater argument against evolution, than this? Do the creationists need another argument? How dare we say the human species has evolved when all around us we see the proof of the same hatred and the same killings?


I was silent from this point on. I couldn’t contain my emotions. I couldn’t help but think that the United States still denies the Armenian Genocide. I couldn’t help but remember the Museum of “Tolerance” in Los Angeles, which was anything but tolerant, with its exclusion of the Armenian Genocide. And here, for these Rwandans, we Armenians were the “pioneers.” Genocide started with us.

I never felt more convinced that my personal mission, the In His Shoes Ministry, was on the right track. We as Armenians have a responsibility to walk in the shoes of all those suffering, because we were the first. They all look to us as the pioneers and we have to live up to that expectation because it is all in the call to justice.

That night we checked into the Hotel Des Milles Collines, a.k.a. “Hotel Rwanda.” This was the hotel where the heroism of Paul Rusesabagina took place, but apart from a movie poster in the video store next to the hotel, there were no hints that there was a Hollywood version of this Genocide. I turned on the TV to pick up the latest news. The BBC and CNN were both blaring the news of Slobodan Milosevic’s death. One genocide was melding into the other, even as we arrived here in Rwanda – even for me, a grandson of survivors with all the feelings and pain that we’ve known throughout our lifetime.

Imagine no possessions… it’s easy if you try…(John Lennon)

For little over a week we went through Rwanda. Each day brought new insight into the human condition. Suffering and pain cut across all ethnic and geographic boundaries. I was in Armenia 1925 – visiting and witnessing post-genocide society on its road to recovery.

By the second or third day I realized that there were very few grey haired people. In fact, once I realized this, it became harder and harder to spot older people in the crowds. I learned that the acts of Genocide on the Rwandans followed the same patterns that they had for Armenians. The men (husbands/fathers) were removed from the families and killed. Women were raped. The children were killed or taken away to be used by the enemy in despicable fashions. So many of the people we were now meeting were small children at the time of the Genocide.

Traveling between locations in Rwanda, at one point our car went on a bridge crossing over the River Nile. It was the Rwandan counterpart to the Armenian Euphrates. Here many women threw themselves into the Nile as our Armenian women used the Euphrates as their escape route out of the living Hell. But for those who remained to witness the atrocities, Hell was continuing, with some glimmers of Heaven in sight.

We drove a very bumpy road (holes that could pass for valleys) to the village of Bugesera where Solace Ministries, an NGO, had set up programs for widows and orphans of the Genocide. There we were greeted by scores of children playing in the street. They were so excited to see their visitors. “The white people are here,” they said with excitement. Each face of a child was decorated with smiles and a look of contentment. It’s hard for us to understand this in a country where poverty is all around. Perhaps it was the innocence of youth peeking at us through all the troubles. Perhaps it was the connection with true happiness which is not qualified by material possessions.

They were playing soccer and enjoying themselves when we arrived. They approached our car, hands extended ready to shake, “Bonjour.” We met the goalie who was now holding the ball. It didn’t look as round as it did when they were playing. Actually it was a bunch of shredded papers – trash – formed into a ball, held together by rubber bands. They were playing soccer with this. And their smiles… you couldn’t contain their joy at being young and carefree.

They moved us to a sheltered area where some 200 women had congregated. This was a support group for widows. It’s not even possible to imagine that someone could lose more than their husband and family, but soon we were going to find the bigger losses sustained by these widows. The women in this group were in their 30’s and 40’s, though the toll of life betrayed them to older looks.

We sat in some comfortable chairs across from the group of women. Some of the ladies stood up and shared their stories with us. One beautiful woman with a huge scar on her cheek also showed us her back. The scars were the gashes of a machete blade. From one side of her back to the other, she told us she watched as the enemy raped her mother, beheaded her and then came after her to do the same. It’s difficult to kill someone with a machete, she explained. You need power. You need to repeatedly hit and beat. She saw her whole household – parents, brothers, sisters die. And her story was not unusual. It was the story of most of these women.

In the next few moments the “grey-hair riddle” was solved. We came to find out that most of these women in front of us were raped. Most of these women were infected with the HIV virus and had AIDS. This is why they were allowed to live long enough to have grey hair. The perpetrators of the Genocide, they told us, would not kill women that they raped, because once infected, they could then spread the killer disease to others.

The president of the Solace Ministries was a man named Jean. He stood in front of the group to introduce us. “Twelve years ago everyone abandoned us,” Jean told us. “Some thought that even God had abandoned us. But today we know He hasn’t because you are here. You have spent your money and time to come and visit us.”

Professor Miller addressed the gathered group. This was the eighth trip to Rwanda for him and his wife, Lorna, the daughter of Armenian Genocide survivors. Rather unexpectedly he turned to me and asked that I say a few words to the widows. He introduced me as a grandchild of Armenian Genocide survivors. The ladies listened attentively. I usually do well off-the-cuff, but not this time. I tried to speak but got choked up. It was like looking through time in the aftermath of our Genocide, where women, children came together, where songs would lament and also give hope, where good intentioned-souls tried to help, but realized the inadequacy before an entire nation in pain. Did our mothers have the same support as these women have? Would they have broken their silence of shame and anger had they had some support?

I was at a loss for words, but I knew I was standing amidst kindred spirits. I explained that as Armenians we had known persecution since the early centuries but knew very well that God never abandons us. I spoke of resurrection, that beyond every crucifixion there was hope because good is always more powerful than evil. The women nodded in agreement. But never was it as emotional as when I told them that I was looking out at them and seeing my grandmothers. And they, looking at me, should see their grandchildren, who one day would rise beyond the tragedy and extend themselves to others.

The Rev. Chip Murray, retired pastor of First AME Church and now at USC was with our group. He gave a final prayer and blessing. One woman stood up with a smile that didn’t masquerade her pain, but certainly revealed her joy. She insisted that she needed a hug before leaving. The next few minutes were what we could describe as a hug-for-all, or a hug-fest. A lot of energy was passing through that gathering. It was the most simple of expressions and at the same time the most necessary. These were women who were isolated from the world because of their condition. Much like the leper colonies of the past, these women were stigmatized and alone to live out their lives in pain. A hug goes a long way. It becomes the one possession we all have and we can all afford to give away.

I had some small brass crosses from Etchmiadzin with me. We distributed them to the women in the shelter. In a small way, a blessing from one Genocide to another was passed on through this symbol of suffering and victory.
Machete is a verb

Ironically, one of the sites of a large scale massacre was the church at Ntrama. There we had the most graphic depiction of the Genocide during our trip. In this church, 5,000 Rwandans had been hiding. They were betrayed by the priest and then massacred by the enemy. The bones were still there. It was truly silencing. What could you say against an atrocity the size of this?
We walked through the church. The bones were still on the floor, mixed with shredded clothing, littered with odd debris. A few hundred skulls had been rounded up and placed on a display. The skulls spoke to the inhumanity in the world. Some skulls had gashes where they were hit by hammers. Others showed markings where machetes had repeatedly hit them. Still others were the skulls of babies. Why would anyone kill babies? Because, they told us, those babies would grow up to be the enemy. On the side, there were bags filled with bones. And all this under the roof of a church.

I remember some years back when my spiritual father Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian had returned from Der Zor. He recounted placing his hands through the sand and feeling the remains, the bones of our people in that sand. I can never forget the deep sense of emotion and pain in his voice and his expression. And that was some 80 years after our Genocide. I looked at these bones – only 12 years since they have been exposed and thought of all the pain and suffering the survivors would have to deal with in the decades to come. Their quest to rebuild their lives and country would be marred with psychological questionings and realizations.
I learned two things here. Machete is a verb. A person is macheted to death. And I learned that “inhumanity” is truly an inadequate term to describe this kind of crime. This is more than inhumane. As Samantha Powers refers to it, it is a “Problem from Hell.” You can’t find words or expressions for Genocide.

There were many events and stories that made this trip a time-travel. In a sense I brought in another piece to the larger puzzle of life. I saw just a glimpse of Armenia 1925. Of course, there are many places where our worlds did not intersect. In the case of the Armenians, our enemy was a different people, not just a tribal conflict escalating to Genocide. We Armenians were taken out of our homeland, the Rwandans remain in their own country. That brings other issues – living with the perpetrator. One of the most difficult things to understand is how Rwandans live today, next to neighbors who killed their parents or raped their families.
I’m thankful that I had an opportunity to visit this area with the Millers. Watching them work and interview these Rwandans made me appreciate the importance of documentation. What if we had had people like the Millers in 1925 who documented our pain and suffering? Perhaps Hitler would not have had the strength to say, “Who after all remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” Would it have stopped genocide from occurring in the future? We may never know, but we certainly have the power to stop genocides from this point on.

We have an opportunity to look at Darfur today and react. On our way home, our plane flew over Sudan. Below us women were being raped, children sold and traded, men were being killed. And like the world, we just flew over it. It happened in 1915 the same way. Despite the articles in the NY Times and Ambassador Morgenthau’s letters, the world turned its head. For this reason we have started a non-profit organization called “In His Shoes” which challenges individuals to walk the walk with others in pain. Through this organization we take on the responsibility that history has hurled at us, as being the first genocide survivors and now being the first to respond to acts of genocide. It’s an open invitation to all people to participate at www.inhisshoes.com.

In His Shoes – for Armenian Arts Magazine

©2006 Fr. Vazken Movsesian


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