Tuesday, June 10. Kigali, Rwanda

 

Last night was surreal. Shirley casually asked if I cared to go to the U.S. Embassy, where the Kigali chapter of the Rotary Club meets. Of course! She had to work late, then rushed home to pick me up and drove hell-bent through Kigali’s darkened streets in her match box of a car. Scary.

The Embassy opened in February when George W. Bush was here for the formal dedication – a dubious distinction. It’s an enormous, cold block of a building – a prison. After leaving our passports with a guard, then passing through countless security clearances and massive steel doors, we enter a lobby with oversized portraits of Bush, Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. Each with a huge, fun-house grin. The effect is comic. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I murmur under my breath.

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Marthe Bappock, first woman president of Kigali’s Rotary Club

(For more on Marthe, see www.ifuw.org/rwanda/profiles/bappock.shtml.)

In a large, utilitarian room a group of Rotarians, mostly Rwandan, are dressed in suits and acting jolly. Each person shakes the hand of every other person in the room. The U.S. Ambassador is a large, pear-shaped man who speaks adequate French, but with a ghastly accent. After a Power Point presentation on the Rotary Club’s history of polio-research funding, we move to a larger room where the group’s first woman president, Marthe Bappock, chairs a meeting.

The meetings is run according to parliamentary procedure, while the Rotarians drink and snack. Two of the men play class clown, injecting jokes and zingy asides to lighten the evening. Later I discover that one of jokesters is Jean-Baptiste Gasasira, a prominent doctor who treated the sheltered Tutsis at the Hotel Milles Collines. This is a man who lived through the most horrific nightmare; who risked his life by maintaining friendships with exiled Tutsis living outside Rwanda before the genocide, and administering to Tutsis during the genocide.

Dr. Gasasira on the right, his wife Odette Nyiramilimo on the left.

Survivors and heroes: Dr. Jean-Baptiste Gasasira (right); his wife, Dr. Odette Nyiramilimo (left).

The story of Jean-Baptiste and his wife, Odette, also a physician, is one of the plot strands in Philip Gourevitch’s wonderful history of the genocide, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.” Before the genocide he and Odette worked at Central Hospital in Kigali and, Gourevitch writes, “were living very close to the top of the Rwandan ladder, with government housing and cars and a busy social life among the Kigali elite.” As the genocide approached, Jean-Baptiste and Odette were paying $300 per day in protection money to a group of local police. One of Odette’s sisters was killed in the north, and another hid for three days in a chicken coop that belonged to nuns.

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“During the genocide,” writes Gourevitch,” the work of the killers was never regarded as a crime in Rwanda; it was effectively the law of the land, and every citizen was responsible for its administration.” So how, 14 years later, does Jean-Baptiste manage? Is this some kind of miracle, that he should be sitting next to me at a silly function in the super-fortified U.S. Embassy, playing the giggling imp and piercing the bubble of parliamentary pomposity? Did he carve a schism in his heart, so that one half of his soul could mourn and remember, and the other half forget?

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