Saturday, December 5, 2009

That week with all the memorials

This wasn't the entry I was intending to write, but it just seemed to write itself:

It's the smell that gets you-- the lime they used to preserve the bodies. The windows are covered, and the doors kept tightly shut, locked, when visitors aren't around. So it just hangs in the air, in these rooms of death.

You're reminded of your seventh grade science class with Mrs. Busch, the day you walked into the classroom and gagged at the smell of formaldehyde used to preserve the frogs you and your classmates were about to dissect. But eventually you grew used to it, and wielded the scalpel with a steady hand when the other girls at your table found it too icky to manage.

Here though, you don't get used to it, not at all. Whereas you'd been stuck in that science classroom for nearly an hour, forced to breath the formaldehyde-permeated air the whole time, here you keep going in and out, in and out. You enter a room but then you leave it soon thereafter, walk out on alien legs, blinking at the brightness and beauty of the hills, of the countryside, gasping lungfuls of fresh air. Over and over you repeat this process, nearly three dozen times-- gagging as you enter a classroom and gasping as you come out. It's the only thing that makes this real, that makes you believe that what you see spread out on the platforms millimeters from you are the corpses of actual human beings, and not the elaborate decorations of the waiting line to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, or the special effects and set decoration of a scifi film.

After, after you've gagged and gasped, gagged and gasped, you stand on a green, green hill, fertilized by the decomposing corpses that were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves and just breathe. In and out, in and out. You listen to the wind, watch as it moves the clouds, reshapes them into fanciful figures you concoct in your mind.

You don't really want to talk about it later, which is fine because nobody else wants to, either. And you definitely don't talk about how an unusually large percentage of you get drunk that night.

You've put the smell out of your mind by the next day. You're slated to visit the national university and you realize you're looking forward to being on a college campus again, even if it's not your own.

But then towards the end something shifts in your tour guide's face, and he tells you how, 15 years ago, 450 to 500 students and faculty were slaughtered here by their classmates and colleagues. And you walk down a lovely wooded path to a stone and wood shelter, with a purple banner that reads YOU ARE THE LOSS THAT SHALL NEVER BE REPLACED. And you find that it's harder to look at pictures behind glass than corpses at your fingertips because that's you, and your freshman roommate, and your advisor, and the annoying kid who sits front and center in class and always has something to add. This is your reality. And your brain just can't process this-- school is safe, school is sacred. That this madness, this blood lust, tainted it, desecrated it, makes you sick to your stomach.

You read Austen in a room of death. Pride and Prejudice is a highly coveted commodity among the girls in your program, and you'd managed to get your hands on a copy. You're at a church where 10,000 people were cut down in a single day. The bodies have been laid to rest in mass graves out back, but inside they've collected the clothes and spread them out over the dozens of rough wooden benches-- you can't see wood peeking through anywhere, though. They're piled so high.

There's a Virgin Mary figurine mounted to the wall, staring serenely down at the scene below. You wonder what she's seen. (There's a spot of red on the altar cloth). You pull up a spot of floor beside a friend, and read about Mrs. Bennet's poor nerves.

Outside are the mass graves, where you can descend into the tombs. It's deep in the ground, dark, with impossibly narrow paths leading off either side of the uneven concrete steps. There are eight? nine? shelves stretching high above your head, packed with coffins draped in white and purple cloth. Most contain more than one wearer of the clothes you just walked amongst.

The second grave is set up like the first, only its shelves don't just hold coffins, but rows of skulls, femurs, tibias, etc. They're grouped by type and crowded onto the shelves-- not enough room for all of them, so some of them protrude beyond the edge of the shelf and you look up to see someone's jaw hanging above your head.

You've never thought of yourself as clumsy before, always been possessed of pretty good balance, but when you step down to the short corridor of shelves your legs are shaky, and you nearly stumble coming off the last step when the lowest level of shelves on either side, just an inch or so off the ground, is thrown into the light and you think you're stepping down onto a floor of skulls.

When you return topside, you join the others sitting on the tile covering of the graves for lack of anywhere else to sit, and lose yourself in Mr. Bennet lamenting the lack of any sense in his household.

It's almost a relief to visit Gisozi. Because it's a museum, with exhibits and multimedia features and artifacts and you can do that. You did it fine at the Holocaust museum in D.C. when you were fourteen. With five minutes until it closes you head to the top floor and duck into an empty-looking entryway only to discover that it's an exhibit about children-- babies, really-- that were murdered in the genocide. And it makes you pause, but only for a moment. You give yourself a mental shake and dive in, quickly glancing through each display that offers the child's profile: their name (Innocent), their age (18 months), their favorite person (their older sister), their favorite toy (truck), how they died (bashed against a wall). Above the profiles on the wall are pictures to put faces to names, but you don't really pay much attention-- you're too busy looking at everyone's ages and causes of death. But at some point you look up, and stare straight into the face of who you first think must be Ruby, a little neighbor girl and friend of Tigger who touched your skin in wonder. How died: shot through the head. You can't get out of there fast enough.

But by the time you collect your bag and head out the door, you're more steady than shaky, and when you spy a fellow program-ite sitting alone on a bench and looking a little lost, you go over and sit down. You're not surprised when her breath hitches and eyes start to water. You tuck your hankerchief into her hand, throw your wrap over her back, settle your arm around her shoulders, and hold on.

All of you are more than ready for some R&R in Kibuye, and something in you grows calmer just by hitting the road. When you get to your hotel, you can't quite believe that this is actually where you'll be staying-- this paradise right on Lake Kivu.

You hit the water as soon as you possibly can. It's cool, but not cold and utterly, utterly perfect. You float on your back and stare at the clear blue sky overhead, your ears filled with aquatic nothingness, and drift.

Later, when your hair is dripping and your fingers are pruny you sit on the porch of the hotel's restaurant and order a kid's portion of mac 'n cheese with a beer to wash it down. (You've always had a fine appreciation for irony). And the mac 'n cheese doesn't taste like any you've had before, and you actually haven't ever been able to manage finishing a single bottle of beer on your own, but in that moment, filled with nothing but water and wind and sun and sky, it really doesn't matter.