dove the size of a bus

Our second time at M’panga prison (Rwanda). 7,200 or so inmates, 6,000 of whom are genocidaires, men and women. Also included, a few international war criminals from Sierra Leone (it is Rwanda’s intention to become a lead player in international justice). Last year we caught the warden by surprise a bit, and we stumbled into wider access. This year, the administration was more self-defended; assured and cajoled every step of the way, we were offered access to the general population – and finally quite denied. We were shown the cells of the Sierra Leonians (DVD players, computers, privacy, space) and invited to meet the prisoner’s executive committee. Prisoners are organized by officers from their own ranks: ministers of information, security, etc. The prisoner-administration mirrors genocidaire administration – the organizers in ’94 are organizers in the prisons now.


I know from last year that the bulk of the inmates live in dire straits; the main facility is formed by tall empty chambers squared around a concrete courtyard open to the weather. The rooms are stacked with bunk beds three or four high; you either sleep or stand, essentially. Some basic skills are taught (basket weaving), and there is a counselor (I’m unclear – one counselor for 7,200?). The members of the executive committee are serving sentences ranging from 20 years to life.


Tight as these conditions are, they are not openly squalid. We walked among the prisoners without anxiety, and noise was modest given the density of the crowd. In terms of overall government policy, Kagame has banned the death penalty, purged the prisons of thousands of inmates through a mass act of clemency, modified sentences with community service, and is developing vocational training centers for those pegged with minor offences. I am remembering a number like 65,000 for the total number of prisoners in Rwanda – a very low rate of incarceration in a country of 11 million.


Relating to ideas in the Murambi post – the prisoners to whom we spoke on the executive committee this year are defended in static narrative. While they admit, without hesitation, to organizing the genocide (one was a mayor), they do not associate their actions with killing. They describe themselves rather as obedient (successful) administrators (per: “we were only following orders”). They express a distaste for genocide, but indicate that it could be mobilized again if authority mandated it. Tellingly, one man offered that when he’s eventually released, if genocide is once more the work of the day, he will pretend to be sick and hide in a hospital – He implyies that there is no resistance to the genocide other than feigned incapacity; he relates peace to sickness. (This is a severe reading, I realize; I’m trying to translate here the terrible severity of the man’s affective callousness; he was smiling, smiling).


The rhetoric is familiar. “I did it; I was forced to do it; anybody would do it; therefore I didn’t’ really do anything punishable; there are those who are wrongly accused held here; you may as well call me innocent; please be my advocate and argue to the government for my release.” We thanked the committee members for their time, applauded politely, and shook their hands.


This exchange sickened some of us. I can only escape perfect self-censure by thinking that we applauded not the men but their sharp performance of blamelessness. We shook their bloody hands because prison offers them enough of a fist, and better that charity be indifferent. But – I don’t know…


An image from the day: a Rwandan members of our team (say, “J”), translated for us, sitting thigh-by-thigh with the genocidaires on a wooden bench. J is a young man (20’s), and was in Rwanda during the genocide; he lost family. He translated steadily, struggling for faithfulness, maintaining consistent respect… as the perpetrators minimized the cost and wrote themselves out of the script of guilt. I asked him later how he stayed so even; he said he’s studying law and may be a judge one day – everyone will need a fair hearing. He spent the rest of the day vomiting. He blamed it on gin the night before, but – I don’t know…


Today, staying at a convent by the Congo border. There’s a bird in a complex tree making the sound of a dove, but hugely loud. It will take a dove the size of a bus to serve the needs of peace here.

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