Sylvestre's Stories

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 | Nyamata, Rwanda

Sylvestre has taught me a lot during my visits to Rwanda.
Of the small group of young Rwandans with whom I work each time I come here, Sylvestre holds a special place. The other Rwandans on our team call him Mzee, a Swahili term reserved for respected elders. He gets that nickname in part because he's the oldest, but at roughly 33 (his exact age is sort of a guess) Sylvestre is barely older than the others, so there is more to it. It's not rank or education either—he's our office's driver and fix-it-man. Rather, they treat Sylvestre with an extra touch of respect in part because he is "a survivor." (In Rwanda, that term has only one meaning: a survivor of the 1994 genocide.) None of the others are; they all returned to Rwanda in the aftermath, having grown up in Burundi, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, or Tanzania. But Sylvestre and his family stuck it out in Rwanda, despite being of mixed ethnic heritage, and thus subject to the anti-Tutsi campaigns that erupted with increasing frequency throughout the '80s and early '90s before fully exploding in 1994.

A few nights before I left Rwanda on my most recent trip, Sylvestre was driving me back to my hotel when he decided to recount one of his stories. He tells them at seemingly random moments when we are together, perhaps whenever he finds the right words. Piecing together phrases from his limited English vocabulary, he revisits in a gentle murmur the horrors that he witnessed as a teenager. On this night, I listened carefully, and when he had finished I asked him as plainly as I could: Would it be ok for me to share some of his stories? His eyes grew wide and he broke into a smile. "Yes... Sure!" A moment later, he explained, "Me, I have very many stories, too much stories. But, very little English."

* * *

In truth, I still know very little about Sylvestre. He was born in southern Rwanda, somewhere west of Butare, and fled his home during the genocide, somehow ending up in Kigali. After my trip to Rwanda last fall, I recounted one of the first stories Sylvestre shared with me from 1994, about hiding in a house in Kigali while g√©nocidaire gangs roved the neighborhood streets, fishing out and executing those they figured for Tutsis.

Everyone who spent the spring of 1994 in Rwanda—survivors and perpetrators alike—remembers these stories, but few speak them aloud as Sylvestre does. Every time he meets foreign visitors, Sylvestre wants to take them to some of Rwanda's many memorial sites, despite the horrific memories that those visits must drag to the forefront of his consciousness. (Or are they always there? The weight of that question overwhelms me each time it enters my mind.) When I asked him why, Sylvestre told me he wants people who didn't live the genocide "to see what really happen, not just in books." Reading about it isn't good enough; Sylvestre wants outsiders to feel a trace of the voracious evil that he and so many others remember.

Driven by this mission, Sylvestre is not content to let visitors just stand in the doorway when they visit a memorial. A few months ago, when he took a colleague to an infamous memorial site near Kigali and she hesitated to enter a subterranean crypt, Sylvestre told her she could not turn back. Then he took her hand and guided her down into the darkness.

* * *

On an earlier trip to Rwanda, I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which tells a story of the genocide's beginnings, its atrocities, and its ongoing aftermath. Though it is still chilling, the museum's bird's-eye view doesn't quite bring the event to life in intimate terms. When you read a plaque that says, "In 100 days, almost 1 million people were killed by their own countrymen," it's easy for the brain to lump those incomprehensible numbers in with history's long line of man-made tragedies. Even the bones, stacked neatly in glass display cases, have a clinical air. And outside the museum, the visitor sees only a few wide concrete slabs—but not the mass graves beneath them where over 250,000 victims are buried.

But last month—after much urging from Sylvestre—I visited the Nyamata memorial site for the first time, and found it to be an incomparable experience. Back in 1994, in this rural town some 30 km south of Kigali, the guide told us, around 2,500 Tutsis from surrounding villages took shelter in the local church, hoping that the Hutu mobs would respect the sanctuary. They did not, and instead began dragging their victims outside to kill them in small groups. But finding the traditional means of slaughter—machetes, clubs, and farm implements—too inefficient, they called in the national army to help speed up the operation.

Today, bullet holes fill the brick walls. Shrapnel scars pit the floors. The victims' clothes, muddy and slowly decaying to dust, have been carefully stacked on all the pews. With Sylvestre by my side, I walk downstairs, where a single white coffin holds the body of a woman who was tortured and mutilated in ways I wish the guide had never recounted to us.

Outside the church, Sylvestre led me to a set of stairs that disappeared into the ground. I walked down behind him. At the base of the stairs, wide shelves of human skulls and femurs stretched back into the dark corners of the room, leaving only a narrow space to stand. We stood for several moments in chilly silence, then gladly returned to the daylight.

Above ground again, we paused nearby at the top of a second set of stairs leading down into the darkness. "This one, very dangerous," Sylvestre whispered. He uses "dangerous" to cover anything harmful, scary, or just plain evil, so I took this one alone while he stayed above ground. Though it was even larger, this second crypt overflowed with human remains nonetheless. The air was thick with a damp, oppressive silence.

Afterward, Sylvestre and I sat on a low stone wall across the street from the memorial, while children from a nearby primary school shuffled past, kicking puffs of red dust up into the late afternoon light. He was visibly shaken, and I was close enough to breaking down and sobbing that I welcomed our silence.

But after a few minutes, Sylvestre suddenly spoke: "My family, before 1994... we have 50 people."

I didn't hear the laughing schoolkids or chirping birds around us anymore.

"Today, we have five: my mama, my brother, my sister, my cousin... and me."

Every muscle in my neck and face was tensed. I focused all the concentration I could muster on holding back tears. My sinuses filled with snot, my eyes welled, my chest began to tremble. But what right did I have to cry? I wasn't the one who had suffered this.

A minute later, Sylvestre stood up, turned to me, and shrugged his shoulders. "It's ok. Let's go."

He walked toward the car.

* * *

The night before we were to wake at sunrise to visit the gorillas (the other "g word" that Rwanda is known for), Sylvestre and I readied for bed in our hotel room. He took off his shirt, revealing the scar that I had first seen back in October.

I didn't think twice about seeing it again on this night, but for some reason, tonight Sylvestre wanted to show it to me. He turned his back toward me and craned his neck around, pointing at the thick black arc across his otherwise smooth shoulder. "This, from 1994."

Standing across the room in my boxers, I nodded, somber and lacking words. An inadequate "sorry" worked its way past the lump in my throat.

"Yeah, it's ok," Sylvestre replied softly. He offered no more details. We climbed into our beds, and I turned out the light.

Sylvestre fell asleep in seconds, while I stared ahead, sleepless, as the moonlight crept across the wall.

* * *

A few days later as I was preparing to leave, a few of us went out for farewell beers in Kigali. Sylvestre drove me home. When we pulled into the hotel driveway, he turned to me and said, yet again, "Me, I have many stories. But English is, for me, verrrrry small. So... sorry."

"Don't be sorry," I told him. "You're doing great."

And he is. In a place where such stories are charged with either tremendous pain or tremendous shame, where survivors still live next door to the people who killed their families, and where healing is a carefully scripted national exercise, genuine release is hard to come by. Sylvestre seems determined to build an outlet for his stories, charged as they are with dark emotions. I hope the many others like him can find the right words, the right audience, and the right moment to share their stories. Because anyone who has heard those stories knows that from the horrible pain of their retelling, some small goodness can emerge.

Thank you, Sylvestre, for sharing your stories.


Andrew G. Farrand said...

Added to my "Best Of" page by popular demand.

Joshua Peck said...

Thanks for writing this up Andrew.

Sarah Jane Fohl said...

moments like the one you had with Sylvestre are hardly ever describable at the time and especially after the fact. i can imagine myself in your shoes, feeling lost and petty and without enough of the love or care i wish were possible for anyone to give to someone else who's experienced the kinds of things from which we are so far removed. i ache for the world sometimes and i am so happy for people who just live in it, no matter what. i know you know you're lucky, andew. xoxo

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