Saturday, June 22, 2013

Forgiving and Negotiating with Evil: Memoirs of the Rwandan Genocide (1/2)

Immaculeé’s faith carried her through the darkest days of the Rwandan genocide.  For about one hundred days thousands of Hutus armed with machetes and other makeshift weapons hunted Tutsi neighbors like 24-year-old Immaculeé Ilibagiza and her family. Her memoir, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, gives a harrowing account of survival under the most stressful of conditions, as she and six other women hid in a Hutu pastor’s small bathroom for three months.  Immaculeé became a U.S. citizen a couple of months ago and continues to write books about her Catholic faith.
Over the years I’ve had students read memoirs in order to understand a historical event.  Immaculeé’s account and another memoir, Paul Rusesabagina’s An Ordinary Man, discussed below, can draw the student into this somber topic more than a straightforward history book, and fortunately I have the academic freedom to choose my texts and experiment with the curriculum.  To supplement these personal accounts with a wider perspective, I usually include a short online article that gives students the necessary background information.  In the case of Rwanda, it’s important to show that both the perpetrators and victims were real people who made moral choices and faced the gravest of moral dilemmas.  The subject requires careful analysis and measured discussion, as many students tend to write off the “Dark Continent,” to use the old colonial phrase, as a place where life is not valued and mass violence is the norm.  We know that the genocide could have been avoided every step of the way; it was not the product of inevitable “ancient tribal hatreds.”  What I hope my students realize is that political forces on the local, national, and international level instigated the flames of hate and allowed them to continue unabated.  A Tutsi army invading from the north of the country managed to end the holocaust without help from the United States and in spite of French assistance to the Hutu opposition.
After the spring of 1994, Rwanda is not so much the country of mountain gorilla preserves, banana groves, and free trade coffee as perhaps it once was in the eyes of the international community.  The Land of a Thousand Hills is the site of one of the worse and most systematic massacres of a people in world history, and it continues to offer lessons in humanity, or the lack thereof.  The genocide tested the resolve of the United Nations, United
States and France to intervene and save lives, but the international response was found wanting in the small African nation’s hour of direst need.  We also get insights into the fragility of civilization.  Victims suffered excruciating death at the bloodied hands of neighbors and old family friends, as well as professional death squads.  Motivated by fear or a sense of ethnic obligation and historic comeuppance preached rabidly by Hutu extremists, the perpetrators were relentless in their pursuit of “cockroaches” and “snakes” hiding in the swamps, churches, or a pastor’s secret bathroom.
As the subtitle of her book suggests, Immaculeé searches for God in the darkness.  The author’s religious faith gives students another perspective, as the other texts in my course give a secular or Muslim point of view.  The physical comfort was bad enough, but the “mental anguish,” she writes, “was even more intense.  I was trapped alone with my thoughts, and the dark fears and doubts that had haunted me since my arrival became relentless—they wormed into my heart and undermined the foundation of my faith.”  Killers lurked outside and on a few occasions they entered the house looking for victims.  Fortunately they never spotted the bathroom door hidden behind a large wardrobe.  “When the killers were out of earshot, my thoughts drifted away from God, and the negative energy rushed in.”
A key theme of the book is forgiveness.  Admittedly, I have an issue with her view of forgiveness, though I don’t necessarily share my opinion in the classroom.  I understand the therapeutic importance of forgiveness.  Bitterness and hate can destroy a person.  It’s important to let it go and not keep it bottled up inside.  To a certain extent I admire people who take this road less travelled.  Most of us want vengeance.  Still, forgiving those who commit heinous acts can border on the ridiculous and even irresponsible.  And I think it’s great if someone can “discover God” during evil times, but one must keep things in perspective, no? “I thanked Him for delivering us to the bathroom,” writes Immaculeé.  “I truly believed that God had guided Pastor Murinzi to bring us here.”  That’s wonderful, but what about the other victims who weren’t so lucky?  Did God, a “cosmic sadist,” abandon them?  I like to elicit the students’ opinion on the following statement from Immaculeé: “The killers are good people, but right now evil has a hold on their hearts.”  Readers of this blog know my view here, but it's open for debate and I welcome the students' take on evil provided that they give a decent rationale for their view.  In sum, Left to Tell yields good classroom discussion and students learn some things about genocide by reading a survivor’s memoir that they would not otherwise learn.