Tag Archives: understanding

It Doesn’t Make Sense

I moved to a foreign country with no solid contacts, no job, and no idea of where to live. People called me crazy. I don’t live by other people’s standards of success, but I am not crazy.

Honor and Dustin were best friends as children. D came from a more well off family than H, so he often brought extra food to school to share with H. D and H lived on the same hillside outside of Kigali, so they saw each other all the time. They laughed about giving each other piggyback rides to and from school, and the amount of time it took because of this game.

When H was 14 years old, both his parents and 5 cousins that lived at his home were killed in the Rwandan genocide. He fled into the hills surrounding Kigali and hid for two weeks, until the rebel soldiers gained control of the area and created an environment of safety. His home was torn apart, literally—his neighbors used their own hands to tear pieces of the roof and walls apart. His parents, his cousins (who were for all intents and purposes his siblings) murdered. H harbored hatred. H said that if the killers and thieves died, he would feel no remorse. As H grew up and matured as a human, he recognized the humanity in his neighbors, and realized that they were “not inherently bad people, they were the same people after the crimes as they had been prior.”

In 2006, H attended a community trial. The purpose was to exchange lesser punishment for statements of the truth. Accusations abounded, and when H heard other convicted genocidaires accuse D of killing members of H’s family, he was dumbstruck. This didn’t make sense; H could not fathom his best friend engaging in violence against his own family. D was prison, but so was half the country, so H didn’t think it was actually for murder. He went to the prison in-order to find the facts for himself. H said that he needed to see D in person to confirm that he wasn’t a monster. He needed to see that he was still human.

During the first of April 1994, D heard the sounds of a mob taking apart the neighbor’s homes. He ran to join in the destruction. After tearing a roof completely apart, some members of the mob took off to find the residents of the home and kill them. H and his entire family lived in this home. And D joined the factions that sought out the family. He was part of the group that beat and killed two of the eldest boys, H’s cousins. When the law swarmed back through the land, D was sent to prison with close to a million others, just another participant in chaos.

H naively walked into the prison, wanting only to reconfirm that his childhood best friend was still what his memory told him. When D saw H approaching, he was terrified that H knew what he did and was going to take revenge.

“Because I loved him very much, I wanted to forgive him. I wasn’t scared of him, but that he would be scared of me,” H explained of his purpose there.

H asked straight up, what D did. D openly admitted to participating in the deaths of H’s family. H merely said that D should ask for forgiveness. They did not speak again until D’s release one year later.

This is where H went crazy.

After D’s release from jail, H immediately called him up and said you need to come over and meet with my family and I, so we can work out our relationship from here.  The entire family sat and listened to D’s account of the murders. Then, they agreed to forgive him and invited him back into the family. He is treated as a blood member of the family, closer friends than when they were children.

That is crazy.

This story was part of the project I worked on with Jeremy Cowart through AWFRI. H and D were part of his photo series. This is them.

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It’s true, I am back in Colorado. And to be honest, I’m not really sure what to say.  What was Rwanda to me? Peace, reflection, struggle, confusion, beauty, frustration, connection, learning.

My questions are still unanswered, and my research far from complete.  “But I am okay with that now.”  Everything about my experience taught me so much about patience and acceptance.  We cannot control the majority of what happens in our lives.  In a world and culture that operates on a schedule with systems intended to make life easy, it seems like we have control.  But we don’t.  And honestly, it is a lot more fun to just take life as it happens anyway.  Which is why I can say that I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do and that it doesn’t matter; I know I will accomplish it one day.

In the meantime, I learned so much about the emotional complexity of the human spirit.  I have never been so confused and heartbroken, but so at peace.  I ran into a wall of frustrating cultural norms, but in the end I totally understand the norms and cannot blame the way things operate.

As a journalist, nothing is more frustrating than a person who tells me what they think I want to hear.  My project relied entirely on hearing and understanding the heart of a person: his hopes, fears, and reasons for restoring a failed relationship.  And if that relationship is not restored, I need to know that too.  But most of what I heard was rehearsed stories of “I forgave him and now we visit each other for drinks or seeing each other’s families.”  Seriously.  I have 19 stories that say these exact words.  This is frustrating.  But I cannot change it.  I cannot teach a man of 54 years old to express himself honestly, when he has spent the last 20 years restraining his emotions and responding to the demands of the authority.

Instead, I learned to see him as the man he is.  With a past that explains his current actions.  He is not less of a man.  He is not wrong, or right.  He is human, like me.  So sadly, dear reader, this has made it difficult for me to find exciting ways of talking about the people I met.  I don’t want to make them out to be extravagantly different people living exotic lives.  Its just life to them.  Eating, sleeping, loving and hating their families, and working hard to do these things.  Just because their lives appear to be different from yours does not make it necessary to put them on a pedestal.

So for now, I am processing what I have seen and felt.  And I hope, one day, that I will be able to eloquently write about it all.

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I don’t understand anymore. Nevermind, I never understood. And the thing is, when dealing with interpersonal conflict, I never will. I will never, ever understand what the other person is thinking. Which means I can’t understand how they react. I can only accept the facts and act accordingly.

“It’s not knowing that hurts so much. If I could understand, if I could, then it would be all right again…

-Why do we have to understand? Has trying to understand been so wonderful?


Milan Stitt “Runner Stumbles”

“[That is arrogant…]

-To know the truth and to understand it?

-Yes, with respect, Commander, I think it is…[a]n arrogance, and perhaps, an impertinence.”

P.D. James The Private Patient

“What will happen will happen, whether I wish it or no. So, yes, I accept. It does not mean that I like it or wish it were not otherwise.”

Kate Mosse Labyrinth

I’ll Never Understand.”

P.S. The woman speaking in this song is on the board of AWFRI (and Shad K’s mother). That is her personal story she is telling. I am in love with this whole family.

Acceptance and Understanding

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Getting Along

“On Monday he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known. The tons of steel o f the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensifies by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Heavy or not, compassion alone is the way to reconcile. Without imagining the pain of the other they will never be human, and never be worth getting along with. Understanding requires the intertwining of personal stories and individual histories.

In June, AWFRI will host a “Week of Truth, Unity, and Reconciliation” with the aim of providing a forum for Rwandans from differing generations and of differing experiences to tell their stories.

By carrying the pain of another, feeling his pain as your own, he becomes someone worth caring for.  And personally, there’s not a whole lot I wouldn’t do for those I care about.

“I want so much to open your eyes, cause I need you to look into mine.” Snow Patrol

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Keeping the Peace

My roommate and I were talking the other day about getting what we want and being polite.  She admitted to asking her bosses for time off to attend a training on the genocide and the importance of remembrance with As We Forgive, instead of straight up saying ‘I want to go visit a memorial site with my roommate’.  Now seeing as how I do help teach the tenets of reconciliation and represent As We Forgive, her excuse was not entirely wrong. But it wasn’t the truth of her heart.  She just wanted to see a memorial with a good friend.  I wondered then, why are we so afraid of saying what exactly it is we want?

In our jobs, like my roommate’s story demonstrates, we have learned how to ask for what we know we will get, rather than what we actually want.  In our relationships, we just keep quiet and “go with the flow”; afraid of admitting deeper feelings and finding that they aren’t reciprocated (or worse, afraid of admitting a loss of feeling and hurting the other. Thus we drag each other on, leading another to believe that we feel something we don’t actually).  After being insulted or embarrassed, we don’t speak up.  But our thoughts of doubt do more damage to these relationships and inflict more harm than the truth would.

I live in an incredibly polite society.  Appearance is everything. The streets are swept free of dirt, leaves, and what little trash is lying around every morning.  Leaving the house requires business attire or dress clothes. And everybody is always fine and wearing a smile.

Which is a little unfortunate.

I admit that I wouldn’t want to be honest with my emotions if my past was filled with feelings that cannot be described. Plus, expressing oneself is terrifying. First, it is incredibly difficult figuring out what exactly you are feeling. Second, we have no idea how people will receive our hearts. So yes, it is much easier to bury it all, and deny your emotions, and put a smile on your face.

But forgiveness and reconciliation cannot occur on the surface.

Healing is possible from storytelling because hearing another’s experiences invites personal connection and thus a restoration of humanity. And the overly polite come across as inhuman. Too good to be true. And if they really are okay, then I cannot possibly admit to my inner sadness or frustration.

It is terrifying to be honest. But doing so ends in fuller understanding of the situation, and often closer friendships. And that is what it means to be human, right?

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