July 6th, 2011 by Tom Andrews
It was remarkably green as we touched down in South Sudan late yesterday afternoon.
Rainy season brings new life and hope to this dry land.
Hope is trying to get a toe hold here as the people of South Sudan prepare to celebrate their independence from Sudan on Saturday July 9th.
It is early morning as I reflect on this juncture of our journey. The only sounds are neighboring roosters and clicking computer keys.
We arrived yesterday from Rwanda. The images of that beautiful and haunting country woke with me this morning and will forever be etched in my mind. I found myself repeatedly in awe of the remarkably beautiful “land of a thousand hills”. Our long drives in the Rwandan countryside provided endless opportunities to see one breathtaking vista after another. As Rwandans walked or cycled by, I struggled with how such beauty could have become the venue of such unspeakable horror.
The contrast haunted me. None more so than at the Murambi Genocide Memorial Exhibition, a three hour drive from Kigali in southern Rwanda. Vulnerable Tutsis were told that this local technical school would provide refuge. The local mayor assured them that Murambi would be a safe place for themselves and their families.
What they thought was safety became hell on earth. After holding off their attackers with sticks and stones, the 50,000 Tutsi men, women and children who had gathered at the technical school for protection were slaughtered by waves of attackers. The numbers are virtually impossible for me to grasp: 50,000 murdered as they desperately tried to escape or begged to be shot so that they could die quickly and avoid the slow agonizing death that followed being bludgeoned with a shovel or hoe. 50,000 murdered on the grounds and in the classrooms of a local technical school that stood amidst the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding hills and farms. 50,000 victims of an unfathomable horror. It is the same number of Rwandans who I joined at a stadium in Kigali the day before yesterday to celebrate their fourth of July or “Liberation Day”. 50,000.
The Murambi Genocide Exhibition is a brutally graphic and disturbing display of the truth of that day. Most of the victims are buried in large crypts on the Murambi grounds. 848 of them were covered in limestone and laid out in the classrooms where they died. The first limestone covered body I saw as I entered a classroom was that of a woman clutching a baby in her arms. In the adjoining classroom lay the body of a very young boy, his little hands and arms trying to cover his head. He could not have been much older than my young son Hooper is today.
As I stepped from the small classrooms and the smell of limestone and death, I was struck with sunlight, a cool breeze of fresh air and the sight of a family working on their small family farm. A young boy smiled and waved from the adjoining field. Hooper was never far from my mind as I continued to walk the grounds of Murambi.
Earlier that day I visited the Kigali Memorial Center where 259,000 genocide victims are buried. AND COUNTING. The latest funeral and burial had occurred the day before of a victim whose body had been only recently discovered following the confession of his killer. Additional burial space has been prepared for the victims that have yet to be discovered and buried. The local judicial hearings known as gacaca – from a long tradition of justice in Rwanda – continue to occur, unearthing new information and the locations of the bodies of yet more victims.
Among the those buried at Kigali is David Mugiraneza, age 10. His picture is displayed on a wall in the children’s section of the Memorial Center. His favorite sport was football. He dreamed of one day becoming a doctor. He enjoyed making people laugh. His last words: “UNAMIR (the United Nations) will come for us.”
They didn’t. The United Nations, the United States, the world failed David and nearly one million of his fellow Rwandans. Their systematic murder was made possible by the willful ignorance of the world’s leaders – including our own – who refused to recognize and act on what had become a politically inconvenient development in a distant land.
It is for David and for all of the victims of genocide and mass atrocities that we take this journey. And, it is for all of the innocent men, women and children who today find themselves in the cross-hairs of the perpetrators of mass killing and genocide – including those who live in this remarkable part of the world – that we commit ourselves to this work. Their lives are literally in the balance.
Welcome to South Sudan where poverty, volatility and the threat of yet more mass violence co-mingle with a hope that has arrived with the rainy season and the birth of the world’s newest nation.