Thursday, February 03, 2005

My mom and I saw Hotel Rwanda the other day. Interestingly enough, there was a class going to see the movie at the same time that we were. I thought since we were seeing a Monday matinee that no one would be in the theater. Instead, the theater was pretty full. Good to see that students were being encouraged to see this film.

About a year and a half ago, when I worked at Barnes and Noble, a nursing student came through the line. At first I thought I detected a hostile vibe, but there was something different about it. She came to my register, and we spoke minimally as I went through the process of ringing her up. She was black and wore intricate corn rows, and had what sounded like a French accent. I broke the icy silence between us asked her where she was from.

"Rwanda," she told me, and I reacted with, "Oh, my goodness." She looked at me curiously, then said, "yes." I then asked her if she was there when all was going on between the Hutus and the Tutsis. She was surprised that I knew even that much and immediately warmed to me. Since it was slow and no one was in line, we spoke a bit and she told me that she was Tutsi, and had been able to escape, but lost over thirty family members, including a brother. She told me how neighbors they'd known their entire lives betrayed her family in the cruelest of ways. One, was that they led them out into fields under the guise of a safe hiding place, only to lead them to an ambush where they were hacked to death with machetes. When she told me of that, my arms prickled. We then spoke of the senselessness of it, and I told her how I was frustrated as an American watching it and that our country did nothing to stop it.

So little of it made the news when it was happening, but I remember seeing news footage of a bunch of men hacking women with machetes. I didn't understand how someone could do that, and it was an image that still haunts me to this day. Every now and then, while in the shower, or driving, or enjoying a Starbucks in the safety of America, that image of those women being hacked to death will float to mind, and I think of how terrified they must have been. I told the woman that, and when watching it, how helpless I felt. As I looked at her, fully alive and pursuing a career, with all her human affects with her, a purse, wallet, jewelry, keys, jacket, and now a nursing book in a bag emblazoned with the Barnes and Noble logo, I thought of how easily it could have been her, this vital, smart, alive, human being who was striving to fill an alive and working brain with more knowledge. And how that could have all been erased by a machete wielding maniac.

I told her of another image I saw and knowing the story behind it. It was taken by a photographer who was there when the Red Cross was ordered to evacuate and leave behind the people that they were sheltering. There was also video of the evacuation of the safehouse, as the people pleaded with them not to go as they would be slaughtered without their protection. The workers were torn and heartbroken but had no choice but to follow orders. As they packed into the trucks, in the distance, you could hear the war cries of the Hutus who were watching and waiting until it was clear to move in on the group. The photographer took the picture of the pleading townspeople. In that still image, the terror in those people's eyes is so apparent. Again, through the years that image has haunted me, because everyone in that photograph was murdered soon after it was taken.

The woman and I spoke more about humanity, and individuals, and how every one of those people had a name. A name that made them an individual, not a group. She told me she was writing a book, but how hard it has been. I told her that I was no one to give advice on the matter, but to please write through her pain, and be a voice for those who were silenced. At the time, so little was said about Rwanda. And, so little is still said of the genocide that took place. Ten years later, Hotel Rwanda brings it to the masses. But ask anyone if they knew much about it before this film came out. Ask them what news footage they remember seeing. Probably, not much.

In 1994, calling the killings in Rwanda genocide would have legally forced the UN and other nations into action, so political bureaucrats thousands of miles from the sharp blades of machetes danced around the term as if it were a mere legal loophole. I get mad even typing this, and I remember getting mad at the time it was going on.

It was genocide, plain and simple. 800,000 people murdered in 100 days. 8,000 people a day. Radio broadcasts calling for Hutus to kill the Tutsi "cockroaches." Genocide.

There is an excellent documentary on the Rwanda genocide, called "Ghosts of Rwanda." Though it is hard hitting and brutal to watch, I highly recommend it. For you NetFlix subscribers, I believe that it's available to rent.

If anything, go see Hotel Rwanda.

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