It is a 62 odd kilometer loop between the town of Kibuye and Bisesero, a ride that on the back of a motorbike feels as close as one can get to riding through the roof of the world. Everywhere the eye can see are hills and valleys, and a startling depth of green — vast tracts of coffee and tea, glowing in the sun.
Fingers of land jut out into Lake Kivu during the first part of the journey, creating a sense of intimacy with the water, reminiscent of the hauntingly beautiful landscapes of China and Vietnam. Here the green is darker, the colors more restrained than further afield towards Bisesero, but the dramatic sharp edges of the land reaching into Lake Kivu, their austerity and silence, make this part of the trip among the most spectacular. One is subdued into wonder, quietly appreciating the sense of mystery that this place conveys.
The land is sparsely populated — highly unusual for Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country. Small houses — cottages really — dot the landscape on a hill top by the side of a valley, just enough so that you will not feel lonely in this landscape, but never feel hemmed in either.
For parts of the journey we are able to turn the engine of the motorbike off, as much of the journey is downhill. A silent descent begins that lasts almost 20 minutes, the freedom is palpable — I feel that same light and loose sensation I have felt only once before — paragliding over sand dunes in Namibia: A floating feeling of absolute peace — what birds might feel when they stop flapping their wings and glide effortlessly, surrendering to currents of air.
But at the midway point of this circuit you reach the town of Bisesero, barely a town — more of a hill and a small, country settlement. And this hill projects the human onto this landscape — the human not as cultivator of fruits and vegetables and coffee beans, as tiller of the earth. But the human as the source of blood that once flowed through these hills that today are silent and peaceful — mute witnesses, but witnesses nonetheless.
Initially, these hills refuse to betray the horror of what happened here, until you reach the hill in Bisesero where Tutsi fighters took their last stand, fighting off their Hutu attackers during the genocide of the Tutsi in 1994.
In the silence of the pine trees at the top of this hill and the top of this memorial you will find a land in mourning; pine trees huddling together as though shielding themselves from having to face the memories of what they witnessed alone, taking consolation in one another.
And still, you will feel their shame. Their shame at what they saw, their shame at hosting a massacre. The very fecundity of this hill is suspect and it knows it.
And yet this land, however mournful and ashamed is also proud and dignified. For it is here that Tutsis were able to defend themselves, fighting for days on end against genocidaires, defiant and unbowed in the face of their brutality.
Bisesero was not a secret massacre. The French troops who came to Bisesero in the midst of the massacre listened to pleading Tutsis who begged them to stay and protect them, to ensure that the killings would stop. But the French left the area for three days even while the killers were in sight; coming back only after almost all of the remaining fighters save a miniscule number of survivors succumbed to the ferocity and relentlessness of their attackers and were killed.
More than 40,000 Tutsis were murdered in the Bisesero area.
Bisesero is a microcosm of the Rwandan genocide — a world that knew, that was indifferent, complicit — an enabler of genocide, a world that refused to act and intervene.
There are few places in the world I know of that contrast so sharply and painfully between man and nature. Few journeys in which one teeters between ecstasy and an intense sense of wonder and communion with nature and with the vitality of life — and the most suffocating feeling of depression and alienation, a feeling of being asphyxiated by your own kind.
There are hills the world over that are sacred for hosting Gods and spirits, powers and myths remembered from a primordial time, passed on from generation to generation.
Bisesero is sacred for a different reason. It is sacred because it is a hill where the principles of the sanctity of life, of freedom and equality, refused to surrender without a fight. It is a monument to the conscience and to the resilience of the human spirit.
As is stands today the memorial at Bisesero is empty, for lack of funds. As with so many memorials in Rwanda, it is incomplete. Nevertheless, it is an immensely powerful memorial in its absences.
Consisting of narrow separated buildings that snake up the hill and are connected by a paved pathway enclosed by walls, the memorial recreates the sense of entrapment and abandonment that the fighters of Bisesero felt.
One feels lost in a maze walking there, a place of unreason and a place where the only direction one can go is up. But at the top of the hill one finds, alongside the silent pine trees and the murmuring bushes, a mass grave.
And in a shed beside the bottom of the hill, at the base of the memorial, one finds skulls and bones — stacked and confronting you.
To the visitor they are skulls and bones; to the survivors and caretakers that open the door for you they are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. They are friends and neighbors, people who dreamed and felt and hoped and loved and toiled and built and created and celebrated and cried.
Bisesero is a place of sadness and tragedy, of moral and human failure, of cruelty and radical evil. It is steeped in pain.
The horror of genocide is often subsumed by its enormity such that it becomes remembered more as an unfathomable abstraction than the repeated act of murder of individual human beings and entire communities.
But we need to remember and honor individuals and communities, in their particularity and humanity.
On July 4 Rwandans commemorated Liberation Day — the end of the genocide.
But liberation is also a process, and an ongoing one which urgently needs support.
For the survivors striving to rebuild their lives the challenges they face are enormous. They require far greater assistance from the United Nations, international community, humanitarian aid, and development sector to achieve a sustainable liberation.
We must work tirelessly with them to realize their rights, to help them recover stolen and lost property and acquire the means to lift themselves out of poverty, and to advance their own knowledge and skills through education so that they can continue to liberate themselves with the knowledge that they will not be betrayed again, that they are not alone.
Whether it is a matter of assisting them to access health care and trauma support services, housing or to facilitate burial of their loved ones to honor their memory and dignity and through construction and maintenance of memorials we must remember and honor Bisesero’s fighters through tangible acts of solidarity and positive social action.
Their effort to secure the right to life, freedom, and equality and not to surrender to hatred and evil is not a fact simply to be recounted but a mandate and an imperative.
A covenant they established amongst themselves as they resisted together. A covenant with which we too — who value these same principles — are bound and must not breach.
A partnership still in its infancy, being seeded, which invites all of our participation and dedication to achieve a true transformation and liberation for survivors of the genocide in Rwanda now and in the years ahead.
For further information on Bisesero, please see here.