Black Earth Rising – Part I

This morning I woke very early as usual. In the evening, I escape these days by watching an Israeli romantic comedy series called Shtisel (I hope I spelled it correctly) about a rabbi’s family in Mea Shearim, the ultra-orthodox part of Jerusalem. But I don’t escape. I can’t escape.

As my brother Stan says, “We are all tied up.” There are clues that I too am somehow all bound up. Three obvious ones. I was washing my hands after brushing my teeth this morning. I just turned the hot water on without diluting it with cold. And then was startled that hot water was burning my middle finger. I had forgotten that I was holding my hand under the hot water to remove the shaving cream from my Bic shaver and hand. It is a good thing that our hot water is not heated to a higher temperature.

Then I nicked my chin with my razor as I shaved. I rarely do that, especially since I am on a blood thinner and the bleeding always takes a while to stop. The worst is, I took 42 minutes to take a shower. A shower usually takes 3-5 minutes at most. I was in the shower for 42 minutes. And I did not know it. I don’t know where I was or what I was doing. I don’t know what happened to the time when I was in the shower.

Perhaps I am just very tired. Can you sleep standing up in the shower? Perhaps I have the abilities of a horse. I think I am very tired from dreaming. Because of my sleep phase cycle – I have sleep phase disorder – I rarely remember dreaming. When I wake up, I am wide awake and at my computer in 15 seconds. But last night, I only slept for little more than two hours. When I saw the time, I went back to bed. But I don’t know whether I slept or not. I seemed to be half awake. But I was dreaming. I know because when I dream, I wake up highly disturbed and upset – unusual for me.

I also know because I remember fragments of the dream. It was a long epic. In one scene, I walked onto the wing of a float plane and helped two people disembark. I do not know who the two were and could not remember their faces. In another scene, I was rafting down rapids – sometimes the big tube seemed overflowing with people. At other times, I turned around and there was no one there in the boat with me. In another scene, I was in a sling hanging from the hospital ceiling zipping along hospital corridors as if I was on a zip line. I could not make sense of the narrative. I just know that it seemed to go on and on.

However, the ending was hyper-realistic. I was in the hospital with Stan. I think highly of the nurses and doctors, the dietician and the social worker, who have looked after my brother. But not in the dream. The cardiac doctor came by to boast at the great success they had in removing the blood clot from Stan’s anterior coronary artery and inserting a stent. I burst out: why didn’t you puncture the artery? What the fuck is it worth making his heart hum like a well-oiled pump if you cannot get rid of the blood now collecting in his stomach? As I raged away at this very considerate but now bewildered professional, he slunk out of the room looking back in fear and trembling at this wild raging elephant who would squash him if he could.

The neurological team were in the room next. Stan, what day is it. Fuck, I don’t know what day it is. Why should Stan? Why are you asking him? What is your name? Stan muttered his name. Where are you now? I don’t know. How old are you? Silence. And on and on they droned. Why are you asking him all these questions? You know he has lost his short-term memory. And I told them that he had been very disruptive and active that morning. He had asked me to call mom, or Ma as Stan always called my mother. He had fallen out of bed at 1:00 a.m. and the nurses found him on the floor. We will prescribe him with a regular dose of hydro-morphine instead of only administering it when he was in great distress and requested it, they promised.

Can’t you give him something to restore his dignity? Then the psychiatric team arrived. I had seen the intern three or four times, but that was the first time I met the psychiatrist. He tried to speak to Stan to determine whether he was delirious. Stan totally ignored him.

Then the palliative care team arrived. They too tried to question Stan to determine whether he could pass the test for MAID, medical assistance in dying. Two separate physicians would have to interview him for an hour each to determine whether he was in full possession of his mental facilities, sufficiently to be legally capable of deciding whether to ask for help in dying. But if he was, and he had been, then we believed that there was a slim possibility of recovery. Therefore, we did not search out the assistance of MAID. And when we learned survival was not possible, it was too late. That is the Catch-22 in which the law places patients. And we wonder why so few apply for MAID.

Choose death when you are not dying because you may not be able to do it when you are. For leaving a living will to that effect was useless. The two doctors were sweet. They were solicitous. They were unctuous. As the honey flowed from their mouths, it gradually filled the room and drowned us all in the sticky thick molasses. But at least death had then been sweet.

Finally, the social worker arrived. Lucky for her, she never actually did. She announced that she had finally been able to make arrangements to transfer Stan to the hospice. They lifted Stan out of bed with a sling, packed him into a wheel chair, put on a seat belt and propped him up with pillows on all sides. As they wheeled him into the elevator at the sixth floor, down to the first floor and out to the waiting ambulance, I asked if I could accompany Stan and hold his hand as we travelled the short seven blocks to the hospice. It was against regulations. I would have to travel by TTC or take a cab. I stood by as the ambulance pulled out of the semi-circular driveway onto Bathurst Street and plowed into the path of a tractor trailer. Stan must have died instantly.

And I woke up.

However, it really was not the vivid scenes that crowded into my head that I remembered most. I remember the smell. I remembered it acutely. I thought dreams were always visual. But this one had been pungent. It was the smell of decaying corpses. I not only smelled it in my dream. I smelled the odor in the shower. I knew what that was. I knew it very well. It was a smell from 1995 when we were double-checking the body count of over 17,000 men, women and children that had been dug up from a mass grave at a technical school in Rwanda. Because the corpses were packed so tightly, they had barely decayed. The bodies were laid out on the benches in the school rooms. Some women’s bodies still had the staves that had been stuck up their vaginas.

What was that smell? A mixture of noxious gases and decaying flesh, so putrid and rotting that it crashed through all the antiseptic smells of the real hospital. As the fluids leaked from Stan’s body, those liquids covered the tile floors. The poor cleaning ladies that would have to mop up that mess. Stan’s sumo wrestler’s diaper was overflowing at the edges. They’ll never be able to clean the floor.

I began imagining the enzymes eating through Stan’s flesh like a swarm of locusts as I stood on that hillside to escape the stench from inside those school rooms. I was back there. I was here. I was nowhere. The odours were distinctive. I had never smelled them before or since, except when the memory recurs. Rot, feces, must, the sulphuric smell of rotting eggs, the foul smell of meat kept too long in the fridge, mothballs and the garlic odour that seemed to be the only really welcome smell, even a sweet scent, as these odours mixed and crowded into my brain, as they infused my memory with that recurrent experience, lately very rare, but now back with the power of a cyclone.

It was the smell much more than what we saw that was embossed on my memory from Rwanda. The gravesite had been dug out with a bulldozer by a French contractor three weeks before the genocide began. I estimate that the mass grave was about twenty feet deep. It was quite a contrast with the shallow graves you see in films that prisoners or concentration camp victims are forced to dig before they are shot and fall into the graves they had just dug. In Rwanda, death had been industrialized in a very different way than in the Holocaust.

The stench! The horrid stench! 

April 6th marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide that killed from 800,000 to one million Rwandan Tutsi and moderate Hutu over ten weeks, a rate far faster than the murder of the Jews in the Shoah. In 1995, counting over 17,000 corpses in a technical school in Rwanda was incomparably the most searing experience of my whole life. How can you marry such a profound episode in human history with the genre of a murder mystery and a trial movie packaged as a thriller and use the combination to unpack both the problem of applying universal human rights law to a most sordid historical event and an African tragedy that was followed by what Gerard Prunier called, Africa’s first world war?

Black Earth Rising is an 8-part 2018 BBC-Netflix co-production that appeared on Netflix in North America at the end of January 2019 and which I watched last week. It was an accident. I had not read what the series was about.

Kate Ashby, played magnificently by Michaela Coel, is a genocide survivor. She is the not only the heart and soul of the film, but the brain as well. And she is courageous beyond belief. This is the story of an athletic wonder woman with the body of an Olympic athlete and the fiery intensity of a volcano. She was rescued and adopted by a British human rights attorney, Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), who appears only in the first two episodes. As cool and collected as Eve is, Kate is incendiary.

Eve’s partner is Michael Ennis, an internationally-renowned attorney, played by John Goodman with snide humour and cynical asides. Kate works for Michael as an investigator. Hugo Blick directed the award-winning 2014 series, The Honourable Woman, that probed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wrote and directed this tale about the prosecution of international war crimes. Blick in the series plays the role of a villain, an unscrupulous and cynical defence barrister, Blake Gaines, who defends Patrice Ganimana (Tyrone Huggins), an alleged war criminal and genocidaire living in safety and luxury in London. Blick not only plays but delights in revealing the dark side of humanity. His doppelganger is Lucian Msamanti (David Runihura), the Rwanda president’s consigliere who delivers a brilliant performance well matching Blick’s. Within both, evil is at war with goodness, only Blick thrills in the victory of evil at the same time as he deeds goodness to a posthumous life. Msamanti, in contrast, tries so hard, and often fails to have goodness checkmate the evil of instrumentalism.

The story begins when Eve Ashby agrees to prosecute Simon Nyamoya (Danny Sapani). Simon was a Tutsi general in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that defeated the Hutu-led genocidaires in Rwanda in 1994 but subsequently evolved into a warlord and mercenary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ostensibly responsible for many slaughters there. Eve is torn between the calling and mission of her adopted mother to prosecute war criminals whomever and wherever they are and Kate’s demand that her mother expend her talents and energy on making sure that all the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide are brought to trial. The main target, according to Kate, should be Patrice Ganimana.

The plot is propelled by the pursuit of justice for Ganimana as secrets are gradually revealed about the shape shifting among the esteemed human rights lawyers and Kate’s parallel pursuit of her own identity – British or Rwandan – but revealed over the course of the series as a much deeper tension. There is a parallel external divide between two “sisters, one the current President of Rwanda, Bibi Mundanzi (Abena Ayivor) and the other, a Rwandan general in the RPF, a hero in the rescue of her people, Alice Munezero played by Noma Dumezweni. The unveiling of the narrative is really propelled when Kate pursues the truth about a Roman Catholic French priest, Father Patenaude (Pascal Laurent) whom Alice Munezero allegedly murdered in cold blood. 

The use of dual tracks is also employed as the legal case against the Hutu Genocidaire, Ganimana, and parallels the effort to bring Alice Munezero to justice. Unfortunately, in spite of the intensity and the suspense, the criss-crossing of dual paths sometimes obscures and even buries the character of the genocide in Rwanda and the war in the Congo. Even on the surface level, I sometimes had difficulty following the plot.

The parallelisms between Hutu and Tutsi criminality, authoritarianism and the defence of human rights, traditional and contemporary colonialism, British dedication to human rights versus French and Belgian perfidy in supporting a genocidal regime, an orderly and prosperous but dictatorial Rwandan state versus the vision of Rwanda as, not the Singapore of Africa, but of much more fully democratic and prosperous alternative.

I got lost in the plot sometimes. At other times, I became angry at the plot as it uses stereotypical thriller devices to excite the viewer, but devices which have nothing to do with the themes of the series. And I was devastated to see Kate disappear so early in the second episode. She was such a wonderful personality and I barely got to know her.

But I did get to renew my acquaintance with the genocide. Once again, I was in touch with my rage at those who stood by and did next to nothing. In spite of the excellent acting and production values, in spite of the intrigue and the mystery, I felt my insides turning out as one again I watched a deformation of both history and the judicial system in the name of humanitarianism and justice.

To be continued.


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