Tuesday 23 July 2019

Music for the souls

Her television career has taken Kathryn Thomas all over the world, but nothing could prepare her for what she experienced on a recent trip to Rwanda, as it prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of its genocide. genocide. However, while the memorials of the bloody massacres are shocking, she writes, there is magic and music there, as well as a surprisingly keen interest in the details of her recent romantic history. Photography by Tony Kinlan Photography by Tony Kinlan

Kathryn Thomas with some of the preserved bodies from the massacre at the former technical school in Murambi, Rwanda
Kathryn Thomas with some of the preserved bodies from the massacre at the former technical school in Murambi, Rwanda
Kathryn Thomas beneath the photo of a victim of the Murambi school massacre
Kathryn Thomas studies a plaque with massacre survivor Chantal Nimugire
Kathryn Thomas studies a plaque with massacre survivor Chantal Nimugire
Rwandan musician, Ibeire Makanyaga
Rwandan musician, the Mighty Popo
Kathryn Thomas with the son of musician, the Mighty Popo
Rwandan musician, Sophie Nzayisenga
Kathryn Thomas reflects at the entrance to the Murambi Memorial in Rwanda
Child photographed from a passing car by Kathryn Thomas in Rwanda
Up-and-coming Rwandan artist, Bruce Melody

Kathryn Thomas

I have never felt like this before. Every footstep back to the car is an effort. We drive away, down the hill and out the gates of Murambi. Twenty minutes later, I am sitting at a dusty roadside cafe, with a backdrop of car horns, mopeds and human chatter. I hear myself ordering coffee, pretending to be normal. But I can't concentrate and be normal, having just seen what lies in Murambi.

A sea of contorted, mummified bodies. Some headless. Hands held up in front of petrified faces, their final position as they begged for mercy before being slaughtered.

The preserved body of a tiny baby lying abreast its skeletal mother, the cloth nappy still in place, tufts of coarse black hair still attached to both skulls.

I see everything again as I wander in my mind from classroom to classroom. Some contain the bodies of women with their children, others babies and toddlers. Behind another door, the remains of men and young boys. It is the most surreal, shocking and utterly sad place I have ever stood in.

The mummified bodies I have seen before in Egypt, dating back thousands of years, looked dignified in their repose, clad in ceremonial dress.

This is different. This is hell, and suffering, and pain – evil that was inflicted in my generation. The people lying before me will be 20 years dead on April 21.

They are the bodies of 6,000 Tutsis, preserved in lime, on the site of the former Murambi technical school in the Nyamagabe District, about three hours from the Rwandan capital, Kigali. They are only a fraction of the estimated 45,000 who were slaughtered on this hill in 1994. The rest of the bodies, exhumed from four mass graves, have been laid to rest on the site.

I look closely at the faces of the dead again. I see their confusion and panic. They were told to gather here from the villages below, assured by their bishop, their mayor, local leaders and the army that they would be safe from the genocide that was sweeping across their country, because of the French troops stationed here.

Once every Tutsi from the vicinity was lured in, it was a job made easy. Water and food supplies were cut off. The French evacuated the area, and the Interahamwe Hutu militia moved in.

At 3am, they opened fire. After four hours of shooting, the guns were laid down and machetes picked up. Nobody was spared. Anyone who ran was butchered at the roadblocks below. At 11am, the elected mayor, Laurent Bucyibaruta, praised the killers, congratulating them on the "work well done."

It was a week since I had arrived in Rwanda. I had come to the country with my producer, Elizabeth Laragy, to make a documentary for RTE Radio 1, marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide, and to explore the role and power of music before, and in the aftermath of the horror. Until we started researching the project, I had known very little about Rwanda's history. I knew the numbers. Some 800,000 people slaughtered in 100 days. Like everyone, I had seen the story depicted in the film, Hotel Rwanda. Not since the holocaust against the Jews had there been such a state-sponsored attempt at ethnic cleansing to exterminate a people.

I couldn't fathom what happens to the national psyche of a country half the size of Ireland, in such a short space of time, where neighbour can turn against neighbour, friend against friend, husband against wife, in orchestrated mass murder.

Rwanda was formerly a Belgian colony. Tutsis, because of their lighter skin tone and taller build, were deemed by their colonists to be the supreme tribe over the Hutu majority and tiny scattering of Twa hunter-gatherers.

Though 90 per cent of the population was Hutu, sole responsibility for the running of the country was given to Tutsis. Identity cards were introduced by the Belgians in 1933, further cementing the social divide. In the late 1950s, the Hutu political movement began gaining momentum.

Belgium, fearing the worst, switched allegiance and began favouring the Hutu majority, before they granted Rwanda independence in 1962. This led to a total confusion of power.

Systematic killings began in 1959, and continued throughout the Sixties, causing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis to flee to refugee camps in Uganda, Burundi and other neighbouring countries.

In 1992, the Interahamwe, a Hutu paramilitary organisation, was set up with the backing of the government, and poor Hutus from all over the country were provided with machetes and ordered to fight "when the time came."

And that time came on April 6, 1994. Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali. Coming under increasing pressure from the international community, he was on the verge of signing a power-sharing agreement that would allow Tutsis into government.

Hutus blamed Tutsi rebels for the assassination of the president, though it is now widely believed that his own people killed him in order to carry out 'the plan.' It was the catalyst. Genocide had begun in Rwanda.

Hutus turned on their fellow countrymen, and every Tutsi was ordered killed. Moderate Hutus who refused to kill or tried to protect or hide Tutsi 'cockroaches' were also targeted.

As mass murder began, the UN pulled out their troops and the international community turned its back on Rwanda. The civil war and genocide only ended when the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) army, mainly made up of Tutsi refugees, regained control of Kigali, three months later.

So here I am, walking around Kigali on my first day, and I would go as far as to say that it is probably the safest I've felt in any African city. But I'm apprehensive for a different reason. I find myself stealing sideways glances and second-guessing every person that walks past me. What did they witness? Were they involved? Did they lose family? Are they angry, scared, scarred?

"We cannot forget, but we are trying to move on. Forgiveness is so important." With a name like the Mighty Popo, I expected this musician, who has travelled the world from Berlin to Vancouver and New Orleans, to be full of swagger and attitude. Instead, the man of the moment in his native Rwanda is charming, witty and funny.

He is extremely passionate about educating the next generation through music. He has been instrumental in setting up the government-funded School of Art and Music, the first of its kind in Rwanda. Sitting on the terrace of the home he shares with his wife and two children, overlooking the hills of Kigali, it seems like a world away from where it all began for Popo.

Born to refugees who were forced into exile in Burundi, he grew up as part of a large Tutsi community, who put a huge emphasis on keeping their traditional music alive.

"It was a refugee camp, but it wasn't as bad as it sounds," he says. "The strength of a community in exile is that you do everything to look after each other. I was a happy kid. I didn't know anything else."

Living on the street, Popo also soaked up music from East and Central Africa, as well as blues and jazz from the USA, which only served to fuel his musical passion. At 23, he fled to Canada with his sister. "Can you believe it? I was 23 before I was recognised as a legitimate citizen anywhere on the planet."

Popo's knowledge and eclectic musical style got him noticed in his new surroundings. His sound provided something new and fresh. He toured all over the world. His highlight? Playing Bob Geldof's 2005 Live 8 concert in his adopted Canada.

The first time Popo ever set foot in his Rwanda was in 1995, when he was 25 years old. "I always knew I would come home," he says. "It was just a matter of time."

Was he nervous? After all, I said, his country had become a kind of shorthand for violence and chaos.

"What was it like? Man, I cannot explain," Popo answers. "I felt like I belonged. I felt at peace. It was a feeling of joy. My people, so many like me, were finally able to come back. We were reunited."

He was one of 700,000 Tutsis to come back after 1994 to help rebuild the nation.

The sun is going down and we are listening to the sound of the crickets or "the music of Africa" as Popo calls it.

How is it possible, I ask him, to forgive and live alongside those you know committed such crimes?

"You don't ask if anyone is Hutu or Tutsi. Never. We are Rwandans. That is it. No more divide. We are the same and we are learning to live together."

I would come to learn, myself, over the next few days that that is the national response very few waver from.

Our first stop the following morning is Oakdale Music School. Founded in 2000 by an American missionary, Marlene Lee, it was set up for children who had lost parents to the genocide, or to HIV. She wanted to provide a safe place for them to express their emotions, to grieve, to heal, to find some sort of happiness through music.

Standing outside in the grass between two basic buildings, I try to separate the cacophony of sounds: a cello, two pianos, three guitars, two sets of drums. Lots of laughter. The place is alive with creativity.

The director of the school, Aimable Nsabayeyu, shows me around. "We all need music because it is a meal and medicine to the soul," he says. "In Rwanda, we need to reclaim music and embrace it; embrace its positivity."

I sit down with some of the students, chat to them about their lives, their ambitions, I listen to them sing. And it sinks in for me. They have a chance, a chance of hope and of fulfilling dreams that their parents never did.

Musician Sophie Nzayisenga comes to Oakdale to teach the children the inanga; a traditional, oval-shaped wooden harp, typically played by men. Her father began to teach her at the age of six, and she is now one of the most recognised and revered players in the country.

Sophie, herself, is a 1994 survivor. "I lost my joy because some of my brothers and sisters passed away during the genocide. I think about how we used to sing together at home and my heart hurts. My love for playing went away," she says. "But, little by little, I started playing again."

Sophie, like many of the teachers and youth leaders at Oakdale, has become part of a second family to the students here, united by the two things they have in common – loss and a love of music.

In the lead up to the genocide, many Hutu musicians who had never expressed any political leanings before began to write songs inciting hatred against the Tutsis.

The most famous of these was the man they called Rwanda's Michael Jackson, Simon Bikindi. Radio was, and still is, king in this country.

In 1994, the Hutu power leadership established RTLM, Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines, which was dedicated entirely to genocidal propaganda.

Bikindi's music, along with others, dominated the airwaves. In 2008, he was tried and convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It was a landmark case, as he was the first artist brought before the courts and charged with using his creativity to promote acts of genocide.

I'm waiting in a busy cafe in the neighbourhood of Kigogo to meet a former colleague of Simon Bikindi's. Ibeire Makanyaga appears at the door, leaning on his walking stick.

Looking smart in a brown silk shirt and trilby hat, I realise I had hardly seen anyone of his generation since I arrived in Rwanda.

This is a country where old age has not come to many. The 65-year-old musician was, and is, considered one of Rwanda's true greats.

"We lost so many pioneers of music during the genocide," he says. Makanyaga himself, quit two bands after they were hired to perform for the military in Camp Kigali.

"I believe our job as musicians is to sing songs that spread peace and harmony, not hate," Makanyaga says.

When I mention Bikindi's name, he looks straight ahead. "I knew him," he says. "We were not friends." I wonder how, by taking such a stance against the government and being such a prominent figure, did he avoid the fate of so many of his fellow musicians?

But he doesn't want to talk about the past any more. Instead, he takes out his iPhone and proudly shows me a video on YouTube. Today, Makanyaga is back in the charts.

Dream Boys, Rwanda's answer to One Direction, have covered one of his early songs, and the legendary musician makes a guest appearance.

He understands the next generation and their need to succeed. But he acknowledges and appreciates the likes of the Mighty Popo, and the many young musicians who are united and working together, making contemporary music, while also not forgetting the traditions of their past.

That night, we drive downtown to Isango Star 91.5fm, where I'm to make my Rwandan radio debut. The Sunday Night Show heard we were in town and asked us to come in for a chat. My interview is translated from English to the native Kinyarwanda and goes out across the airwaves to more than 1m people.

It covers everything from music in Ireland to the Rwandan musicians we are interviewing, before concluding with a 10-minute chat about my love life. It has been furiously googled, and the three DJs seem to know more about it than me!

Afterwards, with Popo and a couple of other musicians, we head for City Beach, one of Kigali's live music venues, to watch another up-and-coming artist, Bruce Melody, work the crowd.

Soon the place is rocking. Hanging out, having a few beers, I think this is normal life. This is people getting on with living.

Someone else getting on with living is Chantal Nimugire. She is a happily married wife and mum of three. She greets me at the Nyanza Memorial Site with a beautiful smile and a big hug.

Chantal is one of the very few who survived the massacre of 3,000 Tutsis that took place here on April 11, 1994. She talks openly about her ordeal because she has found in her heart "full and complete forgiveness."

"We had no idea what was happening," Chantal recalls. "My aunt warned myself and my cousin we were going to be killed. But we were 16 years old. I remember laughing at her, saying, 'Don't be ridiculous, Aunt!'

"Then it happened. They opened fire. It was a sea of blood. My aunt was dead, my cousin was shot in the head, but was still alive. We lay for hours as they trampled over everybody, finishing them off with knives.

"When it got dark, we ran for the forest," she says. "I saw somebody coming toward us. Then the pain. My head had been cut open with a machete. But I kept running. People were begging to die, giving the killers money so they would finish them off."

I could not stop my tears. Here was this woman, now a mother and a wife, living not even a mile away from where this atrocity had taken place, recounting and reliving every moment.

Chantal's own tears flowed as she wept for her family and friends. She survived with her cousin by hiding out in the attic of a deserted house for three months, living on scraps of food left out for them by a neighbour.

We stood in front of what seemed like an endless plaque of names, in a field of tortured souls.

"I have learnt to forgive. Forgiveness is a powerful weapon. It is a healer. But my people will never be forgotten," Chantal says.

I will never forget what I saw in Murambi. But, then again, the world tends to forget regularly. The hope for the future is that memorials like Nyanza and in Murambi won't let us forget.

The Rwandan people want you to believe they've moved on because they want to believe it themselves. But there is still an undeniable undercurrent of pain present, that only time will continue to heal.

As a nation, it's pretty staggering, to me, to see how far they have come in 20 years. I don't think I truly understood the word forgiveness until now. I won't forget the people I met, either.

The children of the genocide, such as the Mighty Popo, the students at Oakdale, Sophie and Chantal.

Their quest? To live life, enjoy, it, embrace it and make their mark on the world, so they won't always be defined by one moment in history.

'Music Passport: A Journey Through Genocide' will be broadcast at 2.05pm, Easter Monday, April 21, on RTE Radio 1

Kathryn travelled to Rwanda with Ethiopian Airlines. For more information, see www.ethiopianairlines.com

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