Corpses, Memories and Spying Out the Land

I write essays that are, I hope, reflective of and meditations on reality. They are not fiction. Even when I write about my dreams, the essays are generally recordings and/or reflections on those dreams and not a mystical claim that those dreams reflect or inform reality. In a very recent blog on Montaigne, entitled “Sense and Sensibility,” I included the following assertion: “I remember counting the 17,000+ corpses removed from a mass grave in Rwanda and lined up on the benches of a technical school.”

My Norwegian colleague, with whom I authored our study of the role of the nations of the West and the international community in the Rwanda genocide, wrote me to question when I had been to that technical school site and whether I possibly dreamt it or incorporated the event into real history from a story that I was told.

The irony is that last week’s parashah was not only about the majority of the Israelite spies viewing themselves and being viewed as inyenzi, as grasshoppers, but about spying out the land. That is what I claimed to have done in the above quote. It is possible that I had misrepresented what I claimed to have seen and even possibly misconstrued that I had actually seen anything at all.

Spying and imaginative creations are, as it turns out, related. For to be a spy, you have to create an artificial world. But it has to be a fictional world that feels and sounds real and must certainly be convincing to those being spied upon. I think of the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, who spied on Syria before the 1967 war. He had to invent and construct a past and continuously fabricate in the present. The spies Moses sent had no such onerous task. They did not interact with the enemy and did not have to fool them. They simply had to report back accurately on what they had seen.

The story of Caleb, Joshua and the ten dissident spies is a spy story bar none, about loyalty and betrayal, about intelligence and rejection of intelligence, and mostly about the complicated and fascinating world where observation and speculation interact. The Torah repeatedly portrays the Israelites as engaged in a double life, longing for freedom while nostalgic for the security of the past, risk-takers and cautious, trustful but mistrustful. All perfect ingredients for a great spy story.

On the other hand, in any deeper sense, the Israelites made lousy spies, at least most of them – too histrionic, insufficiently hypocritical, lacking in the necessary charm, too many with bleeding rather than frozen hearts usually because of parents and sisters who doted on them too much. For a spy, it is insufficient that there be a promised land in the future; there must be a wasteland inherited on the inside. The Israelites seemed to lack the deeper cultivation of deceit required of real spies.  

However, what they can do, and do to an extraordinary degree, is empathize with the other, crawl into and under the skin of the other to imagine their likely behaviour. They are able to imagine themselves as other. This is in fact what the Dissenting Ten do. And it is for that trait that they are punished. Why? They abandoned blind obedience. Their sin – the sin of uncertainty. Nay, the evil of uncertainty. Their God demanded total obedience and trust and not evidence. To be a true spy for God and for Moses, you had to absolutely report only what you were sent to observe and not your actual experience.

You had to suppress your humanity. You had to bracket any sentiments for those who would be bound to die and for the daughters who could be raped. Caleb and Joshua were not interested in defending their interpretation of what they saw, only in blackening the names of the dissenters. Truth and validity of interpretation were bracketed in the name of loyalty.

The reality – betrayal did not constitute the essence of the Ten. They never gave a sign of disloyalty. But the demand for total loyalty is the demand of an authoritarian system of any kind which breeds into each and every member of society a sense of betrayal. However, as Montaigne wrote, the real objective should be to reveal one’s contradictions and become mature enough to face the truth about yourselves even when looking is akin to peering through a glass darkly. As Montaigne advised, personal truth is about finding all the possibilities that reside within your character, a very difficult task when the certainties of liberalism and tolerance and truth and individual freedom lay around you like shattered glass. And climate change undermines faith in purpose and direction. Perhaps it was that fear and bewilderment that God was trying to counter.

In the response to my Montaigne blog and my reference to the 17,000+ corpses that I counted in Rwanda, my colleague asked: “Did you go back to Rwanda after we were there? You probably told me, but I have forgotten. When was that, and for how long?”

I wrote back:

As far as counting bodies, it was at the Technical School in either Butare or Murambi. My memory says the former but the history indicates that it must have been the latter. If you were not there with me, I do not recall the circumstances under which I was there. I do remember driving along the ridge of dusty red-earthed hills at a fast clip, and, on urging the driver to slow down, he told me that he had to drive that fast because that was the speed at which the trucks carrying soldiers positioned before and after providing our security were driving. Up until that point, I had no idea we were being escorted by soldiers.

The huge hole, which I looked down into when we arrived and from which the bodies had been dug up, I was told, had been excavated by a French contractor three weeks before the commencement of the genocide there. There was no imaginable purpose for such an enormous hole. 

I remember the very crazed old Tutsi woman who lived on the property; she had evidently survived the massacre. In every school room in the multiple one-story class rooms, bodies were laid out neatly on slat benches. They had very recently been excavated; they were bodies with rotting flesh, not skeletons. What I remember most vividly is the horrific smell as well as the sight of small children’s bodies and some women with staves still remaining up their vaginas. 

As for the circumstances that brought me there, I cannot recall. I presumed in my memory that it was when we were doing our study, but it seems not. On the other hand, it could not have been much later. If I knew when the mass grave had been dug up, I would have a better idea. However, the research was likely related to my studies of objective counts during conflicts and humanitarian crises.

As for the numbers, the official records show many more killed at the technical school at Murambi than the counts when I was there, if that is where I did the count. It would take a more involved retrospective research to determine why the Murambi Technical School memorial indicates 45,000 were slaughtered. Perhaps other mass graves were discovered after my visit. Or perhaps it was indeed a school in Butare.

In any case, the reason I was there was to check whether the actual bodies laid out corresponded to the official figure at the time. That official figure was just over 17,000. By counting 5% of the bodies and then multiplying by the average number of bodies per bench times the total number of benches, the figure seemed to be about dead on. I was totally satisfied that the authorities who dug up the bodies and laid them out had been scrupulous in their counting.

My colleague wrote back:

Your Rwandan experience is strange. I am quite sure I was not with you and witnessed what you describe. I am also sure you have not told me about this before, not when we were doing the research for the report and not when we were writing the report.  It is such a significant event that I certainly would have remembered, particularly as we were talking a lot about figures and how they were estimated.

I am also quite sure that we did not go to Butare or Murambi. Both those cities are in southern Rwanda and quite a distance from Kigali. It would have taken a couple of days to travel there and get back to Kigali. I am quite sure that you were not away for a whole day, let alone two, when we were in Rwanda. And if you had gone, you would probably have told me. We did not travel outside Kigali.

Murambi is the site of the genocide memorial, which includes a large museum, that was created by the RPF government after it came to power. The Murambi memorial has exhibits like those that you describe. The memorial and its horrific exhibits are described in some detail by Timothy Longman in his book Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda.

I then think there are three possible explanations for what you experienced:

a) You went back to Rwanda after we had been there, either on your own or on fieldwork for another project. But it is strange you did not tell me, as we were working hard on the report and the book as soon as we got back from our visit and kept in close contact. Hence this scenario is very unlikely. 

b) Your recollections are from a vivid dream. It is quite common to have so vivid recollections from a dream that they become “memories” of events actually experienced when awake. (Oliver Sacks has written quite nicely about that). And, as you wrote recently, you have vivid dreams.

(c) Your memory is of descriptions you have read or have been told to you by other people. Such transformation of information into “memories” of events experienced is also common. I remember we talked at length with a woman who described counting bodies floating down Lake Victoria. (It was such a powerful experience I can even remember we were sitting outside, it was late afternoon, she was a Tutsi from Uganda, and I can still “see” the bodies floating in towards the lake shore). We also talked to some NGO persons who had been at Kibeho, where bodies were laid out and counted in the way you described. 

I responded:

“…though I have had vivid dreams that feel real, I have never had an experience where I dreamt something and thought it was real. I simply know this actually happened. The puzzle is the circumstances and the timing. In my memory, I do not recall you being there; I simply assumed you were. Do you recall our having to check the figure of 800,000 and the new government’s counting, or did this occur later? Do you know when the mass grave at Murambi was uncovered? What really puzzles me most is that of the two possible locations in my memory, I privileged Butare in my memory and left the location vague because I was not sure in my recollection.

As for being told the story or had read it, I never read Longman’s book, but I did read about the memorial at Mugambe much later, well after I had told Nancy and my kids about the experience. Precisely because in that memorial they said there were 45,000 or 50,000 killed, I thought it must have been Butare or an experience at Mugambe well before it became a museum. As I understand it, the museum has skeletons, but the technical school I visited had rotting corpses that had very recently been dug up.

But memories and stories do play tricks. This one, though, is too sequential and too precise, I believe, to have been a dream in my mind.

I only vaguely recall the story told by the Tutsi woman from Uganda, and I mean vaguely.

Thanks for the feedback. Maybe I will figure it out. If I do, I will let you know.

She wrote:

I hope you figure it out. But I am absolutely sure that I was not with you in this experience, and also pretty sure that you were not away from Kigali when we were in Rwanda. If you had gone to Butare, I certainly would have known and remembered (it is several hours drive south of Kigali). In fact, I remember we worked so closely together that there was only one occasion when I was on my own, and that was for a few hours one day when you had a separate meeting, and that’s when you asked me to buy masks for you. (I bought two, as you had asked, but liked them so much I kept one for myself. It is hanging by our entrance door now) We kept talking about numbers and how to arrive at the best estimate, but we worked from various estimates made by others, as I recall.

As it turns out, when I informed my wife about the exchange, she confirmed that I had indeed gone back to Rwanda at least one other time. It was unlikely a dream or a construction based on someone else’s stories. Nevertheless, we must all be wary of spy stories, of descriptions of information possibly when there was no direct experience. The interpretations are most susceptible to partiality and distortion. We must recall that ideologies and faith systems inherently lack any heart of their own. To quote John Le Carré once again, blind faith, closed belief systems and ideologies are “the whores and angels of our striving selves.” 

With the help of Alex Zisman


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