Paradise Revealed part 6 (at last – the end, for now)

We learned that originally, the men were kept imprisoned in order to make money from them. The prison was paid so much a prisoner for their food. Part of it was being kept. The person in charge did not want to lose his source of income or be imprisoned. It became an avalanche where no one knew how to get out of the mess that was created by this scam. So these young men were kept and kept and kept.

And then came a call, from an anonymous source, telling me if I had any pull at all, now was the time to use it. This small African country was in an unacknowledged skirmish in the Congo. After two and one-half years of imprisonment, these young men had become such an embarrassment. No one knew what to do, so a decision was in the making, to send the prisoners to the Congo, to fight with the promise of amnesty when they returned. If they refused the soldiers were to be sent to the Congo anyway but without a gun. Quite a choice!

The prisoners were pressured to rejoin the army. Forgiveness was promised. It never made sense that the government would welcome back men they felt were deserters, and place guns in their hands. Michl refused. He said he was given a choice, and his choice was not to return to the army. He never really explained why. He only said “a choice to return is not a choice I can make.” As always, it was Michl’s quiet strength continuing to amaze and inspire me.

The existence of these men on the island was actively denied. Any official who visited was shown the side where delinquent boys were held and rehabilitated. Denial and silence were the words of the day, if there was any mention of the other side of the island.

I went to the American Ambassador, and met with one of his assistants but very little came of it. No one at the Embassy seemed inclined to do much so I went where it appeared someone might care – the British High Commissioner. He listened, and he cared. I was able to provide him with details about the men on the island, and he succeeded where all others failed. He went to the island, and although he was denied access at first, he was finally able to visit.

Soon after his visit, there was an article in the paper through the BBC, and soon after, the men were released. Slowly they were released, but they were released. Michl was among the last to be released. But, as he said, he was free. Michl believes strongly in God, and believes this happened for a reason. He always trusted God would ensure his release. Finally, after two and one-half years they gained their freedom.

As for me, when I tried to stay in Rwanda, my residency permit was denied, and suddenly the atmosphere around me felt very unsafe. I quietly, and as quickly as possible, left with the awful feeling of being chased by a pack of ghosts and not friendly ones.

 

Thank you everyone for reading — I hope the journey was of interest

 

 

a wonderful break

A wonderful break from the Michl saga with a poem by my friend Michael Newell. He is a published poet and it is definitely worth looking for his poems.

DO I KNOW YOU?
Who are all those people staring out there?
Relax, folks, but don’t sleep, keep your eyes on the stage.

Everyday I worry whether I’ll do my job.
A mob watches me slip and blunder on my stage.

Wind fills the long nights on snow-laden Tallinn streets.
Even in the dark, creeping home, we are on stage.

A swarm of abbayas and chadors swirls past us.
Try to ignore the sweep and rustle on this stage.

In midnight’s silence I recite apologies.
I expect no applause from the seats ringing this stage.

Not one, not two, but a multitude of faces
file in to fill the seats slanting round memory’s stage.

Every street, Michael, reveals faces lost for years.
Ah, the sweet cruelty of memory’s traveling stage.

Michael L. Newell

Paradise revealed part 5

One day, when I went to visit him, it was just his father and I. Michl sat between us. It was raining and we had moved under cover to try and stay dry.

“I cannot tell you both what it means to have you here,” he said quietly.

“I have a fear you both will stop coming and I will be forgotten. I will die here with no one to care.”

“Not true, “ I quietly reassured him. “Your friends come often and they deeply care about you.”

“True, so true, but it is you and Dad who keep me going. Keep me wanting to live. You keep me from losing hope and feeling lost. So many of the prisoners have absolutely no one. Some are in this prison for years and no one comes. Rwanda is a poor country, and the money needed to get to the prison is best spent on food,” he explained.

In his dark moments, he feared this happening to him. He feared we would lose interest and forget him. And I quickly reassured him we would not lose interest.

We went week after week to visit, and in between times we spoke to lawyers, started phone campaigns to the local radio talk shows. I even wrote to the President on his Facebook account. I had heard the military had acted independently, and I thought the President might not know what was happening. None of it did any good, and my letter went unanswered.

I was threatened indirectly. A “trusted” friend from the gym, where I used to work out, told me I was making a mistake visiting. He told me I was under surveillance by security.

He told me, “You are endangering Michl by going to see him. They will make it harder on him. They will not let him out easily. Stop seeing him. You will be in danger.”

I was told to be careful of SUVs’ with dark windows and to never, ever get in one. “People tend to disappear, when they do,” my informant said ominously.

Michl’s friends, from the gym, were told to stop visiting or lose their jobs. We were told we were only making it worse for him by visiting. We were told we were making it bad for ourselves by visiting. But visit we did. His friends and I arranged our schedules so we could visit, and keep him out of the prison proper for as long as possible.

The money, I gave him each week, was used to provide necessities for him, and to have someone cook for him, and clean his clothes. Everyone knew Michl had a white woman visit him, and this gave him status.

As I understood it, there was an internal economy inside the prison. Each week when we went, goat skewers were for sale, as was soda. Some prisoners made wooden stools; some cleaned for other prisoners. And, as was said to me, you did what you needed to do to earn money. Otherwise, life would be more hellish than it was currently.

I made friends with the people from the International Commission of the Red Cross, who were tracking the prisoners. They went to visit weekly. They too, were attempting to keep these young men visible. I had to be careful when I met with the ICRC. Fortunately, two of the people had children at the school, and I was able to meet with them casually under the guise of parent conference.

The first prison Michl was in was more visible, and it was reserved for the military. It was on the outskirts of a small village. Most of the visitors arrived by walking. Surprisingly, many were women carrying children on their backs. The children would play while the men talked, and the women usually just sat there. One man, who I met, was serving an extended period of internment for embezzlement. Since, there was no law making them repay the stolen money, it was worth a long prison term to secure the future of his family. He was an officer and once his sentence was complete, he would return to active duty. He actually only served about a year before being released.

Meanwhile, we could not obtain a trial for Michl. Nor could we find out what charges were being brought against him. The country had prisons no one knew about. There was always the fear he would disappear into one of these prisons, never to be seen again. They also had prisons, like we saw in the middle of city, used to house “common” criminals. It was amazing, for what seemed like a quiet country, to have so many, so many prisons. We would see prisoners sometimes on the streets. The prisoners, who were from the Genocide, wore pink uniforms like faded, very faded blood; the common criminals wore orange, and the military wore green. These last were rarely seen, and were rarely allowed out of the prison. All were used in manual labor throughout the country.

When I visited the ICRC, or the Embassies to plead for these soldiers. I had to make sure I was not seen. But, as I found out later I was tracked, and my whereabouts were known. They quietly waited. Rwandans are extremely patient, and none more so than the government. Foreign journalists in the country, made several attempts, to write the story, but all were blocked. People who tried realized they would lose visas, and other privileges.

We visited, every week for one and a half years and then suddenly Michl disappeared. No messages, nothing, just silence. Fortunately, these prisoners were resourceful and Michl had smuggled a cell phone with him. He called and told me he was on an island in Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu is the fifth largest methane lake in the world. If it blew, it would completely destroy all life in approximately a three-mile radius around the lake.

One half of this island housed street children. There were numerous children on the streets begging for money in Kigali. Periodically the government would do a sweep and the children would be placed in re-education camps. These children were placed on this island. When the government was asked about the soldiers on the island, they would only admit to the children being there. They refused to admit there was anyone else. Officials visited the island for graduation ceremonies for the children and never saw the prisoners.

Our weekly visits were replaced by engaging in weekly shopping trips, and then taking everything to the bus station to be sent to him. Amazingly, he received these packages and nothing was ever stolen. The bus station in Kigali held wall-to-wall vehicles with barely any room to turn. Sam would take the package, and arrange for a bus to take it. I would stay in the car to keep shuffling, looking for a parking place. It became a weekly nightmare. We did this for weeks meanwhile receiving many, many promises that Michl, and the others, would be released.

Promises, promises

Again and again

Never to be kept

Treated as if never made

Human life insignificant in its meaning

Paradise Revealed part 4

Michl had on a kelly-green shirt and pants. The green was bright and against his dark skin he stood out. His muscular build made him stand out even among the prisoners. His gait was athletic as he moved easily out the gate and down the path towards us. I cried and hugged him. We sat uneasily on some chairs as nothing was very sturdy, and as we talked, he sat next to me so I could rub his back in the way any mother does with a favored child. We talked. He talked with other visitors, his father, and friends who were there. We bought meat on skewers for everyone. In a weird way, it almost felt like a party. There was even quiet laughter. We joked about how his muscles stretched the shirt, almost tearing it.

I asked about the guards, as I did not see any. He pointed out into the fields and, as he did, I began to be able to see automatic weapons, and guards behind them. The walls of the prison did not look too high to breach, but the prison suddenly became more sinister. I asked him if any tried to escape and he said “no” very quietly. He told me about an island in a major lake, where they put prisoners they wanted to hide. Only one person had ever escaped from there. It was in the middle of a Lake famous for its high concentration of methane gas.

He also spoke about how both victims and perpetrators of the genocide were housed side by side within the prison walls, and no trouble existed between them. He explained to me, they were disciplined soldiers, who did not create problems. I tried to imagine housing the “Bloods” and the “Crips” together, without serious precautions. I thought of how someone could bring a change of clothes, and the prisoner could quietly change into street clothes, leaving his clothing in the bathroom, quietly leaving, but this to my knowledge, never happened.

The prison interior was barren I was told, with absolutely no shade, no trees, no grass. There were nearly 500 prisoners in a prison built for around 250 people. 85 outhouses provided sanitation for the prisoners. These were not nearly enough. At dusk, these were closed. Any further needs were taken care of by large vats provided by entrepreneurial inmates. It cost to utilize these vats. I always marveled there were not major outbreaks of disease.

The prisoners slept on the dirt floors. Michl was considered fortunate. I brought him a mat and foam pad to sleep on. The roughness of the mat helped keep the cockroaches from his bed. As his area was kept clean, he did not have as many roaches. He once described a session the prisoners catching and killing the hundreds of roaches investing the camp.

Sam went with me for each of these visits, as I did not speak the native language, and the procedures could easily overwhelm me. Sam often had to translate for me when we were there. When favors were done, we needed to provide money, and so forth. We soon learned we needed to bring Michl food, as prison food was basically beans and a paste made from the root of a vegetable. This was a staple for many diets. The starchy flour was made into a very doughy and stretchy, glutinous substance eaten throughout Africa, in one form or another. It filled the stomach as it swelled when exposed to liquid, and provided minimal nutrients. It was used to soak up sauces. I always found it very filling and, for me, a little went a very long way. Prison diets had very little protein.

Michl was a body builder, and a physical trainer, and this would provide a poor diet at best. So every week I brought food, powdered milk, spaghetti, sauce, meat or fish. We brought water also, as the water he had was contaminated. His father brought him fresh milk. We brought sweaters, sneakers, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and whatever else we could to make his life more comfortable.

After a few weeks of visiting, we were limited to visiting once a week, and we could only stay for two hours at a time. Lifting a metal lid, and letting it bang against a cylinder, making an exceptionally loud noise, announcing the end of visiting hours. My visiting was making an impression as it was talked about, and looked at as a point against Michl. Several people tried to tell me I was causing trouble by visiting, and I was making it worse on him. However, I was also told, my visits protected him and the other prisoners, forcing accountability by the military. It was hoped, by government officials, people would forget about these young men. It became apparent, that the only hope was to keep them alive in the memory of the people. Michl was considered a danger, as he was too visible. He had myself, and several other “white” people visiting him. He was too popular.

Paradise revealed Part 3

We traveled a short way out of the central city into a small village with dirt roads and paths. The houses were built of concrete blocks and mud. Residences in the community shared toilets. Under the toilets were troughs running under the houses. and down a common pathway into waterway, or other drainage point. Buckets of water were hauled and used to wash the waste away. Like all villages in Rwanda, the street and surroundings were clean. I did not see trash of any sort. The streets looked like they were swept recently.

The first time I saw the prison was beyond culture shock. We parked in a dirt area right before a bridge and the car had to be parked just so. The guard on traffic duty guided me, and my car, into the exact position he wanted. Directions were brusque and provided in the voice tone of annoyance. Very few people drove cars. Most visitors were women carrying babies. In order to enter the prison grounds, we first went through a makeshift building, where I stood waiting to be searched. My handbag was searched thoroughly, as it, as well as I, were novelties. My cellphone was removed from me, and I was allowed to leave. Any food and water we brought, was clearly labeled with Michl’s name, and left to be given to him later.

Being the only white person there, I was easily recognizable. I came to discover they remembered everything about me. There I was, in a room was filled with women and crying children, each waiting their turn. Babies were crying, and usually mothers were balancing two or three children.

Each waiting her turn

Babies crying

Faces unable to understand what has happened

A routine to be repeated

For days and weeks on end

And by the end they even had my passport number memorized

And after being searched (and resisting the urge to smack the female guard placing her hands on my body), having my handbag searched, turning in my cell phone and any food I had brought, we were free to go on up the road. At this point, as I left the shack I could see the prison. It was a renovated tomato paste factory, and it stood at the end of this short road. It was like no other prison I had ever seen. In Syria where I was introduced to the word “zygen”, the Arabic word for prison, they stood on hills, were painted black, and were generally terrifying. They appeared foreboding and quite frankly, gave an aura of fear. But here, in a small African country with blue skies and a sunny day, it did not feel real in the least. It looked like a red brick fort. The walls also looked easy to climb.

Rwanda is a bit of a make believe land, as it is. It is easy to forget the phenomenal terror that took place during the genocide. The mountains are beautiful. The people, once you know them quite amazing. But there are ghosts everywhere. And as quiet as it is, and it is peaceful, it is not peace filled. There are frequent memorials to the dead located where there are mass graves. If you go to visit during the rainy season, the smell of decomposing bodies is strong in the air.

And there was a bit of this smell in my nostrils as I stood looking at this huge red brick factory building. It was high and there were no guards visible anywhere. It was a military prison. I do not know what I expected. Perhaps I was influenced by all of the prison shows I had seen, and thought the prisoners had cells with television and blankets and beds and shoes and socks and decent meals. I expected a large room where we would visit under armed guard. But, here I was standing in a large expanse of field; high with grass, and the road I was on was made of dirt, just large enough to transport trucks in and out of the prison.

We had crossed a small bridge over a stream, which I was told contained sewage refuse from the surrounding area. It was actually a very bucolic scene, and I learned, once again, appearances could be deceiving. Later, as we sat in the yard staring at the hills on the far side of the valley, I would learn hills housed a prison very few knew about, and one all prisoners feared. There were several of similar repute throughout the country.

In the beginning, when we visited Michl in prison we came on the weekends, and stayed the entire day. The rule was as long as a visitor was present Michl could be outside with us. The first time I saw him come out of the prison was devastating in many ways. We had formed a bond, he and I, and he called me “mum”. He often spoke fondly of his mom, and the life he had with his parents before the genocide. It appeared they were a happy family. His father had never fully recovered. I saw his father often during our prison visits. In the days when his son was first in prison, he looked broken. He had the look of resignation, I had seen so often. Shoulders bent over with hands twisting and huddled in his lap. The look that said, “there is nothing, nothing to be done. I cannot fight as I have no strength and no will.”

 

Ashamed To Be Me

 

I went with some friends recently, to a concert. We are all about the same age; about the age of trying to figure out how we had become this old. It made no sense to us. Many lively young people performed the concert. They come to participate in this concert series as a wonderful way to work with famous performers, as well as to build their resumes.

As we watched them perform their remarkable talent struck us as, but also we saw how scantily the girls dressed. One young woman, in particular, had a dress on with a deep see through netting on the front and sides, making it obvious that was all she was wearing. On the way home, we remarked about how immodestly they were dressed. I teasingly commented we were all jealous, as we could no longer dress like this and get away with it.

As I thought about it later, I realized something else. We did dress this way, when we were young. At that time, some fifty years ago, society did not accept it. I remember rolling my skirts up above my knees. I remember wearing miniskirts and I remember wearing a slit skirt that required careful sitting in order not to become an expose. However, I remember something else. The reaction of the adults to my dress was body shaming. I was told I was too big, too fat. I could not wear these clothes, as it was not appropriate for me. I was called immoral and looked at strangely. I was told I had to dress modestly, so I would not “give the wrong message.”

I am grateful we have come away from the body shaming. Sometimes, I wonder about the years I have wasted hating my body, because I could not love it; was not allowed to love it. I think about the waste of time and energy this has been. I remember hearing “you are so fat, no man will ever want you.” I proved my mother right. It took me so many years to realize that if I was to be loved based on my size, then, this was not the person for me. I also remember “friends” echoing my mother’s words “Good thing you are big, otherwise I would never let my boyfriend near you,” or “I do not understand what he sees in you.” Articles in teenage magazines, about how a girl had to lose weight if she expected to catch a man, supported my mother’s attitude, and the attitude of these “friends’”. Conditional love based not on the quality of a person’s soul but the quantity of one’s body.

Yes, perhaps these young performers were flaunting their bodies, but their bodies were strong and young, as was their passion and talent. They were not ashamed of their talent, their passion and not their bodies. It is about time. It strikes me; we were not allowed to be proud of our curves, our full bodies. And in return, we were held back from being fully ourselves, ashamed of our talents and our passions. We compromised. But no more, we come forth at 60 and 70, proud of who we have become and what we have fought for. We pass on to the women who come after us, this hard won knowledge of PROUD TO BE ME.

Attuned

Jay Kendall was kind enough to allow the publication of one of his poems here. He has authored two novels, The Secret Keepers and Flypaper Dreams. I highly recommend both of them.

Jay Kendall
When he plucked a string and it started to sing,
He was pleased and amazed he could play;
Then his thought touched a chord,
And it brought such reward,
That it seemed to turn night into day.
Then he heard a melody calling his name,
And telling him seek and you’ll find,
But he danced for so long,
So entranced by the song,
It was measured in time out of mind.
At the back of his head he could hear all the horns,
As they tooted the tunes that he knew,
Blowing sounds without end,
Till he rounded the bend,
And became all the notes that they blew.

Paradise Revealed continued

“What is it, I can do to help you?” I asked Michl. “Why did they arrest you?” He only replied what he had said before, “It is a misunderstanding, and I will be home soon.”

Still dazed, I hung up and headed over to the gym to talk with Sam. Sam worked at the gym with Michl. While Michl was my trainer, I would sometimes work with Sam. When I arrived at the gym, I was too agitated to train. “Sam, Sam. I don’t understand. What happened?”

Sam did not look surprised as he explained. “President is concerned about making sure people are safe. Army is a one-way street. Once you are in, you can’t leave.”

“What does that mean?” I asked. I was used to the American system. You might be drafted but you could leave after a period of time. Apparently, it was not the same here.

Sam explained he too, had once been in the army. Desertion was common. In a country as poor as Rwanda, the army offered meals and a small stipend. This was better than nothing. Most of the young men had wives or girlfriends, and children to support. Michl was single. “My Dad taught me to care for women,” he once said. ‘”They are to be valued and honored and treated well. But, I do not want to marry now.”

I might add that when it came to training in the gym, he was anything but kind and considerate. He was brutal. I had started working with him the previous year, soon after I arrived in Rwanda. I wanted a personal trainer and overseas, this luxury comes at a reasonable price. After one of our first training sessions together, I received a call from him.

I heard his voice chuckling over the phone: “Did you forget something, he said?”

“Ah, no.” I replied.

Chuckling turned to low rumbling laughter. “You forgot your gym bag.” I was so completely and totally exhausted, I had left without taking my bag with me. It never occurred to me. I was nearly home and still did not miss it.

I trained with Michl six days a week for at least two hours a day. Training included cardio, weight lifting, boxing, and whatever other torture he could devise. Rwanda pushed me to my limits. I developed a really mean right hook, as a boxer. As I was responsive and did as asked, the contest became to see how much I could handle.

I knew Michl for about a year and a half, before his imprisonment. We had become close in that time. He revealed much of his family history to me. But he had never revealed to me his military history. I knew he had been part of the Presidential Guard. These were soldiers specifically chosen to protect the President. They were the elite and received special training. He believed strongly in his country and his President. He never spoke of any feelings about government policy or expectations. In the U.S., we are used to freely voicing our opinion. For the most part we feel safe doing so. This was not so in many of the countries I lived. And especially in Rwanda, no one spoke freely and no one ever criticized the President.

Arriving at the gym, I found Sam. He was a close friend of Michl and, as such, had become my friend. As I looked at Sam I realized he already knew. His eyes were red and he looked helpless. I was to see this expression often in the days and weeks to come. Michl’s father and friends all had the same expression. It looked like they were trapped, and helpless to do anything about it. I saw the door wide open while they saw the door as closed tight.

Sam was upset. He kept repeating, “I do not know what to do. We had to wait and see”, he said. “Wait and see”, was a phrase I was to hear over and over and over, ad nauseum. The staff at the hotel, where Michl worked, did not know of Michl’s arrest. Not knowing what else to do, “we waited.”

I wish this were the end of the story. I wish I could say, “we waited and at the end of the week, he was released.” But this did not happen. So many lessons to come; so many experiences to happen.