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Dispatch from Ground Zero
Harry Rosenberg

Fourteen years, nearly a generation, have passed since those awful days in 1994. From America, we can only know what we read or hear from others about how things are going. When an opportunity arose to spend some time in Rwanda, we grabbed the chance. Were our perceptions right? If not, where did we go wrong, and, more-importantly, why? It turned out that we were missing a great deal of detail--not surprising--except some of it matters. Before dinner last night I was in a funk, not knowing quite why. Yes a steady stream, 15 straight days, of meetings with all sorts of people, in all ranks of society, from peasant children and farmers, through cab drivers, and business people, to university professors and hospital directors, can strain a person even without the language barrier. Few Rwandans have even a conversational-level command of English, while I have the misfortune of being monolingual in English. Much is lost in the strain of going through an interpreter.

Our guest for dinner last evening, was a well-educated and insightful man. He joined us for an evening of renewal--getting reacquainted with a childhood friend, my spouse. The conversation began conventionally enough, updating our lives and times. Gradually the conversation drifted around to genocide. “Ah, here is someone I can really talk to.” I thought to myself. There had been other such conversations earlier, but this night turned out to be as special as it was tough--after the fact. He was intensely interested in my research on violence. I was careful to explain it as a global problem in nature, even though it fits what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

We were both animated. The funk was gone. High as a kite I slept peacefully and long.

It is still early, this morning after. Only just now do I realize a reason beyond mere exhaustion for my funk. It was the ages-old question: “How could such a beautiful people, living in a paradise, do such an awful thing?” Of course! I had been in denial, and, I was hurting. Even this morning, 10 Dec 2008, with at least a partial explanation in hand, the fact that genocide resides in my genes is still difficult for me to accept--emotionally. And that is the rub.

There was more to come.

After six years of research, and the reluctant realization that whatever it is that separates our bad selves from our good selves is egg-shell thin, I, at least, was still unprepared for the emotional reality, the real essence of that conclusion. I was coming to feel what Adorno, Milgram and Zimbardo must have felt when confronted with a new mind-boggling reality. Although I knew better, “It can’t be!” my gut protested. The final jolt came when I visited the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali. It was too vivid. Broken, white bones and skulls by the hundreds, many with machete marks, in protective glass cases were on display for all to see. Mass graves were dispersed throughout the well-kept grounds. The stench of death and decay seemed to hang in the air.

It was beyond description, there simply are no adequate words to describe my feelings. No words could describe my own reluctance to accept what I was seeing--no matter how broadly concordant and well-reasoned my conclusions might be. Knowing something intellectually is one thing; feeling that truth can be quite another.

After some 21 days on the ground, I am still pinching myself at the dichotomy. However inescapably historical, logical and experimentally demonstrable a conclusion might be, there is only a "paper-thin" membrane in most of us that contains our most basic impulses embodied in our instincts of aggression, hierarchy, and conventional obedience, I was still "blown away"--in tears. To know is one thing, to believe can be quite another.

It was especially difficult to accept--when applied to me! While the hard reality may be easy to realize in the abstract, I was simply unprepared for my own emotional response to the brutal evidence. No wonder peace has been so elusive over millenniums.

As a child of the desert, I am familiar with the stench of death, whitened bones--even human. But here I was in paradise, revisiting that final specter, death. These people were helpless, alone, and in agony as that final darkness descended, not for one, but for thousands each day-for nearly 100 days! My head was prepared; my gut was not. To understand is simply to fall short--unless there is emotional acceptance and belief. I could not accept the thought:

"Except for a quirk of fate, there go I,
victim and perpetrator alike."

Is this denial similar to what drives some people to deny the holocaust ever happened?

Could be!

It ain't so much the things we don't know
that gets us in trouble.
It's the things we know that ain't so.
Artemus Ward

I know I could never do such a thing,
or could I?--given the circumstances of being a typical young, naive, brain-washed, Hutu male in Rwanda in 1994!

Could it be that most of humanity feels equally defensive when confronted with the bitter truth underlying our violent natures?

Of course, and that is the rub we all face, as awful as it is.


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