Stories from the Field R

Stories from the Field 

The following is an excerpt from I Never Cried in Rwanda, my diary from my work in Rwanda with Doctors Without Borders. 

1 September 1994

Thursday afternoon

Touchdown … Rwanda!

We made it. This hollow hellhole actually delivered us safely. There is excitement and thrill. My eyes need some time to adjust to the barrage of light that floods them after being held hostage in a dark windowless aircraft fuselage. Once acclimated, the first thing I see is a soldier. In fact, the airport has more soldiers than civilians. UN peacekeepers decorated with powder blue berets scurry about, while chiefs of staffs, project coordinators and heads of missions walk to and fro, each with their orders and particular agendas. To my surprise and delight, someone holding a dossier and Doctors Without Borders T-shirt is waiting for me. The T-shirt is to be my ticket into, out of and around Rwanda. It is emblazoned with a little red stick figure streaking across the words, Médecins Sans Frontières, the logo of one of the most respected medical humanitarian organizations in the world. This mark on the front of my T-shirt is supposed to grant me diplomatic immunity. This fabric will become my skin, my protector and my life.

I am relieved and grateful to be received and warmly welcomed by someone from the organization who knows of me. Actually, given the debacle in Paris, I’m thrilled and delighted to fly across the world and find someone who cares and is assigned to protect me. If I were the Queen of England, I would knight this good-deed doer. King, queen, prince, duke or dunce, he is my knight in shining armor.

My personal knight introduces himself as Peter and assures me conditions in Rwanda are stable, and that I will be well looked after. I am immediately at ease and finally exhale. He then leads me to a vehicle that is proudly decorated with the same logo printed across my T-shirt. The vehicle, he explains, is specially equipped with all the most modern bells and whistles to protect us: a sophisticated communication device, a landmine-proof chassis, and a diesel fuel tank to ensure that if we are bombed we won’t be incinerated. Apparently, diesel doesn’t burn. I am reassured the organization has thoroughly done its homework to protect its staff. This feels good, and I quickly convince myself I am immune to any violence or danger in this country.

Kigali …

I hop into the front seat of this luxury limo and off I go with my chauffeur. Near and around the airport, things look calm and peaceful. I see no signs of civilian unrest or warfare. The ride from the airport to town, however, changes my first impression. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, yet its principal city, Kigali, is a veritable ghost town. There is no sign of life anywhere. A haunting sensation overcomes me, like the eerie sense of calm that precedes the touchdown of a tornado.

A spine-chilling hush pervades this place as if something unprecedented happened here, but no one remains to bear witness. I felt this hush once before. It was in the gas chambers and beside the ovens at Dachau, a nazi concentration camp just outside Munich, Germany. And similarly, no one remains from inside the chambers or ovens to bear witness to what happened there. Only the lingering scent of burned flesh impregnated into the concrete walls remains to bear witness. The story of that genocide will live forever in the oration of the hush. Will we never learn?

Kigali is now just undisturbed dust, filth and refuse. Its silence says more than words. Not a single soul in a city of hundreds of thousands walks the streets. The city feels like a makeshift movie set staged somewhere in the Wild West. The only thing missing is the tumbleweed. Where are the people? Something is strangely amiss.

On the evening news back home, I saw images of body mounds and appendages strewn about the city like slabs of animal carcasses in a slaughterhouse. Were the images that caused me to shed a tear, quit my job and risk my life imaginary? Were the images fabricated by the media desperate to boost public ratings? I ask Peter if the televised broadcasts of the Rwandan genocide were a hoax. He looks sternly at me, as if the choice of my words and tone of my question denied the annihilation took place here. With a sigh of resignation or perhaps defiance, he says, “I’ll take you there.” Where is “there”, I wonder, but I dare not speak another word.

Unable to read this man accurately, I am unsteady and uncertain about going anywhere with him. I feel he has a sadistic darkness in his generosity to show me his playground. It appears he is breaking protocol and about to trespass into areas that are deemed unsuitable for foreign nationals to see. My once-upon-a-time knight loses his regal standing and I strip him of his ‘k’. From now on, he is Night, a dark force.

I sit in complete silence as this man drives deeper into the abandoned city. Something in me needs to see what isn’t intended to be seen or shown to me. Something in me needs to see with my own eyes what my mind categorically wants to deny. As we go from street to street, at one point, I become very anxious and consider canceling this unpleasant excursion. Perhaps there is good reason the government makes certain areas off limits to foreigners. Maybe there are sensitive places the soul should be spared. After all, the crimes have already been committed, and I can do nothing to reverse even a single death. I start to prepare myself emotionally for what this man is about to show me. Fortunately, there is only silence between us. If I am about to see signs of torture and death then this silence seems most fitting to show respect to those who perished.

We drive to an open field and Peter stops the car. Through the windshield, I see a field of barren black earth. The soil looks like it has been freshly tilled and groomed to be more presentable. Peter inclines his head inviting me to proceed alone by foot through the field. All this is in silence. I open the car door and stand at attention in an open space of nothing. Not knowing what I’m doing or what I’m supposed to see, I start walking around the field. The silence is harrowing. Anticipation and fear make me uncomfortable, but I continue to wander around the empty landscape. Initially, I scan the field looking for something odd or unfitting. There is nothing noteworthy. I examine the terrain more carefully and see absolutely nothing, except of course, the open field of black manicured earth. Actually, there is something curious to one side of the field, a smoldering fire without flames. It has apparently already consumed its meal, leaving only ash and residual smoke behind. My eyes shift their attention to a lone piece of paper that rests alongside the ash. The paper is remarkable because it is spotlessly white, pristine and without a single wrinkle or fold. It is as if the flame itself decided to preserve it for future generations to see. I pick the non-intrusive piece of paper off the ground and find a handwritten list of names with their personal details. In another context, this would not be significant, but in this particular field it is inexplicably a very important part of Rwanda’s history. Prior to the killing sprees, heads of villages were asked to identify and record the names of all Tutsi inhabitants destined for destruction. The lists they compiled were essentially these people’s official death sentences. I hold in my hand possibly one of those lists. How do you kill a child? They don’t know hate yet. How do you kill an infant who has yet to taste something other than his or her mother’s breast milk? How do you bear the gurgling of a slashed throat or the gasping of someone begging for a last breath of air? How do you remove the life from a life that never made it to a single digit? How do you kill simply because the word “Tutsi” has been inscribed on an identification card?

My rational and skeptical mind can easily discount this piece of paper as something other than what I know it is. Part of me wants to set it ablaze. It could quickly become a part of the mounting mound of ash that had already claimed other valuable treasures of truth. Another part of me feels this piece of paper is a critical piece of history that must never be forgotten. I believe this piece of paper deserves an audience, so I fold it up, put it in my pocket and forget about it.

Until now, my companion sits patiently in the vehicle nearby; there has been no exchange between us. He breaks that silence unexpectedly with a single authoritative imperative: “Look!”

I obey him and once again scan the same expansive field of nothingness. “What? I see nothing other than earth,” I say with a startled indignation for him breaking the silence. Peter steps out of the vehicle and takes my hand as a father would take the hand of a child and walks me a few steps forward.

“Look!” he commands. I do. And I see inches before me a human arm, recently severed from the shoulder, sliced clean and precise, like only a chainsaw or blade of a sharpened steel machete could cut. It just lay there, motionless, frozen in time. Suddenly, my torso is abruptly taken by some paranormal force that twists me from behind without my permission. Seconds later, my head and entire body spontaneously twist in the opposite direction. I seem to have lost all control and perform like some sort of dummy under the direction of a ventriloquist. Not only does he move me, but expulses words from my mouth. “That’s a doll’s arm. That’s a doll’s arm,” I blurt out over and over like a broken record or obnoxious parrot. “That’s a doll’s arm!” I repeat. Without reflection, I start walking the field, stumbling aimlessly, going nowhere, repeating the same words, “That’s a doll’s arm! That’s a doll’s arm!” I say again unintentionally, as if something has taken hold of my tongue. I continue stumbling about repeating the same words without pause as if suddenly possessed. It seems like my heart and soul are trying to flush themselves clean.

What did I gain by violating my innocence? How can I apologize for soiling my soul with this image of a savage amputation? This violation will haunt me for the rest of my life. It wasn’t necessary to come here and see what I wasn’t supposed to see. It wasn’t right. I played with fire and got burned. Cary, what were you thinking? Why did you need proof?

Spiraling out of control, I know I must take control and stop the self-flagellation. Seizing the moment, I vow to bury the doll’s arm, to un-record its history and save others from the same violation. I manage to steady myself for about a moment before I once again lose control. Whose mother was it? Or was it father? What did he or she say, do and feel at the moment of slice? How long did this beloved son or daughter suffer? Was anyone nearby to hear her cry and did anyone come to his rescue? I can’t stop my mind from asking countless questions. I can’t stop racking my brain to understand how and why.

Why am I so disturbed by the sight of a severed arm? After all, I am a doctor and I had previously seen dozens of amputated limbs in anatomy class in medical school; I had even assisted with amputations in surgery during my residency. Why am I so distressed by this? Is it the rawness of the silence, the reality of human hatred, the evil of man? Seeing this arm makes me feel somehow responsible for this person’s death. After all, I did nothing to save him.

Peter and I return to the car. There is not a single sound outside, inside or between us. I am elsewhere in thought, trying to process what had just happened to me. By the time we reach what will be my home, everything is blocked out and tucked away in a hidden file somewhere only to be accessed and retrieved with an authorization code. I make sure to discard the code, at least for a little while.

The residence …

I am given a tour of the residence in Kigali. The house has all the amenities and comforts of a house back home including a home-cooked meal that is waiting on the table for us. I am eager to meet the other expatriates in the program. “Expatriates,” in this context, is a term used in the humanitarian world to refer to foreign aid workers who come from one country to reside and work temporarily in another country. Everyone seems preoccupied when I am introduced to them. Perhaps they too are processing terrible images they have seen or maybe they are missing people they love. It is hard to tell because oftentimes expatriates live in impenetrable protective bubbles that keep others at a comfortable distance.

After lunch, I meander around the compound and find three Rwandan natives preparing our next meal. I speak with them, shooting question after question at them.

“Why are you alive? What was it like seeing your family dismembered on your return home? How do you survive without your loved ones?”

In retrospect, my questions were insensitively timed and very inappropriate, but while the little boy in me felt sorry, he needed to know. I needed to understand. Our Rwandese staff is the only interface between what happened here and me. The workers graciously attend to me and answer my questions either directly or indirectly through their stories. One of the women says she was away at work. When she returned home, she found her mother, father and seven siblings chopped to pieces in a pile on the floor in the front room. Another worker shares he was one of 40 survivors out of 6,000 people he watched get slashed to death in front of him.

I listen to their stories, stunned, clearly in a state of denial. “You’re having a bad nightmare,” I say without much reflection. “Your mom and dad will be home around dinnertime,” I add, unable to accept the truth just yet.

It is as if I’m in a time warp, a sort of pseudo-comatose state. How can people kill and torture other people? One day, I couldn’t find my favorite bicycle. It was gone. I figured I somehow misplaced it, so I bought another one. In time, that bicycle became my favorite bicycle and again, in time, that bicycle was gone. I had no choice but to buy another one. I did this 15 times because my bicycles kept going gone. As ludicrous as this may sound, it never occurred to me people would steal my bicycles, so it never occurred to me to lock them up. I never even had a lock. Why would I buy one to prevent people from stealing my things when people wouldn’t do things like that? Similarly, I can’t believe people actually slaughter other people. So again, I say to these three very traumatized people that none of it is real; like all nightmares that aren’t real, everything will be better in the morning. This is what doctors are supposed to say, no?

I realize if I am going to be of any value to the people in this country, I must accept the harsh reality of what happened here. Otherwise, I have no role to play in anyone’s healing. Actually, what is our role in Rwanda? A cynic might say we are here to assuage our guilt and apologize for abandoning these people when they needed us most. After all, the United Nations received advance intelligence of the premeditated plan to murder all Tutsis in Rwanda. And what did they do? They did nothing? And what do they do now? They send their condolences and some humanitarian aid … after the fact.

The dinner bell rings. I welcome the home-cooked meal, but I feel awkward feasting on food while our guard is alone outside and hungry. He patrols the garden through the night to secure our safety, putting his life on the line for us. Shouldn’t we look after him? Doesn’t he deserve to be looked after? He says nothing and will not complain, but I know he is hungry.

As we eat dinner, the team members eat quietly. No one talks. Is it a European cultural norm to live together with strangers and maintain distance and anonymity? I feel out of place being the only American in the team. It would be nice to converse a bit, but I don’t feel comfortable being the first one to break the silence. After all, I’ve only just arrived, and I think it is important to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

After the meal, I offer to clean up. My offer, however, is not without a hidden agenda. I plan to save the scraps and leftovers to pass on a feast to the guard outside. The expat in charge of our team tells me to throw the leftovers away. Right, that’s just not going to happen on my watch. Imagine throwing food away when our neighbors are literally starving. People are holding onto life by a thread here. With these leftovers, their grip can hold on a little longer.

In the kitchen, I quietly prepare a lovely plate of food for the guard. Making it is easy; bringing it to him is not. Transferring the goods will require great skill and discretion. First, there must be complete darkness. Second, everyone must be asleep. This takes time, but I have lots of time if, in the end, the guard gets his feast. Like a preying mantis, I wait in the shadows. Finally, when the coast is clear, I dart out the back door and fling the plate of food like a Frisbee at the guard. I intentionally have no eye contact with him as if I have nothing to do with anything. My charade is loud and clear: “Keep this between you and me.” He understands the clandestine code and smiles a smile of gratitude.

After the guard completes his meal, he washes the plate and leaves no sign of our illicit transaction. Without proof of our crime, we both feel safe again. Only he and I and his belly will know our secret, our covert operation. Once safe and sound, I take a moment to ponder an important debate raging inside of me. Why do I have to sneak food to the man protecting us? Why isn’t food part of his employment benefit package? Somehow, I feel being overtly kind to the local staff would in some way break protocol and jeopardize my position in the team. I fear I will be chastised for caring. Something isn’t kosher in this kitchen of expatriates.

Instead of befriending the local staff who care for us, the expats in this team seem to avoid them as if they had some incurable disease. Is this because they do not know to what extent the staff members participated in the genocide? I need more time to understand the people in this team and their mind-sets. We are all touched differently by what we see and our coping mechanisms vary. I’m sure the uncertain, unstable and precarious political situation in this country weighs heavily on everyone and keeps people wary and ill at ease. I think, perhaps, a bit of calm and patience is in order for now. I certainly can manage this, at least until tomorrow when I leave for my final destination, a health center in a rural town called Mabanza just a few hours down the road somewhere.

I am exhausted. It’s late and I want to sleep, but I struggle to fall asleep as I wrestle to clear the slate of the day’s details: the field, the list of names, the doll’s arm.

4:38 AM. I’ve just been bitten by a mosquito. Did I just get malaria?