Friday, August 24, 2007

Balm to My Soul

Music is my lodestone in an irrationally horrific world. Opera's beauty offsets war's ugliness, and without such balance, we slip into insanity or numbness, both of which rob us of our humanity. Perhaps this is why the more horrors I witness, the deeper I cling to music.

I was recently invited to Rwanda to speak at a gathering of eclectic geniuses on peacebuilding and also to meet with President Kagame. Rwanda is truly the land of contradiction. I’ve never been to a more placid ex-slaughter zone. Not even Cambodia is so cool. It’s hard to believe – on the surface – that only 13 years ago there was the horror, the horror of Genocide. 800,000+ people slaughtered in 90 days. That’s almost two souls per minute. And some of those paid for the bullet rather than being hacked to death with a rusty, dull machete.

Rwanda then

While at Harvard, I had an opportunity to meet Roméo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander during the genocide. He was infamously ordered by Kofi Annan not to save victims because the UN might get bad press if a peacekeeper was hurt. Annan was not yet the UN’s Secretary General - that came later, as a promotion for Rwanda and other good deeds done. Dallaire remains a scarred man, as does Kagame, as does Africa.

Rwanda now

Ten years later, I found myself in Burundi, trying to silently prevent a relapse of the same genocide. The earlier genocide remains unfinished business, not just for Rwanda but for the entire region: Burundi, Congo, and Uganda. Since 1994, the area has known only war and ashes. Finally, ten years later, Burundi had a fragile ceasefire and tenuous government, split between Tutsi and Hutus. However, a simple spark would set the region in flames again.

A rebel group called the FNL yearned to be this match. The FNL, also known as the PALIPEHUTU-FNL, was/is the most extreme Hutu group in the neighborhood, seeking sanctuary in the Wild Wild West of eastern Congo, and crossing the border at night into Bujumbura, the capital, to wreak havoc. They knew that if they could assassinate the President of Burundi, the government would explode, followed by Burundi, followed by the region - sort of like Valhalla at the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. It’s all burnt.

My job was to keep the President alive, in public view, and not guarded by a bunch of white guys carrying machine guns wearing sunglasses. And I had a limited budget, no one could know I was there, and it had to be done yesterday. In short, it was mission impossible, for real.

I kept him alive, but that’s another story…

In the first days of my surreptitious visit, I made a special point to visit one of the various unmarked killing fields outside Bujumbura. It was an area where an untold many had perished. I had visited such ghastly sites before, from Phnom Penh to the beach dunes of Liberia. However, Buj was different, as was the entire Great Lakes region, owing to the vast scale of the atrocities. As I walked the ground, the tread of my boots scraped up old bits of clothing and children’s teeth, emerging from the earth a decade later. Big balls of twine in Minnesota get more memorialization.

I felt angry. I was livid. I wanted retribution. Then an opera aria wafted through my head. It was like cool water on hot pavement. It was “Vesti La Giubba” from the opera Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. It’s an aria of egregious pathos, scorned humiliation, and despair. It summed up all that I was at that moment, staring at children’s teeth in the dirt.

Skip to the climax, half way in (at 2 minutes, starting with “Ridi Pagliacci"). This is the famous Carlo Bergonzi version with Herbert von Karajan conducting the La Scala Theater Orchestra of Milan, who own this music.

C'est moi.


Claire said...

What an awesome column...
Although my experience with death, horror and the human condition is different from your, there are commonalities, the biggest that I am also find music balm for the soul after a day of human carnage in the regional trauma center hospital where I work. The gang "knife and gun club", followed by drunken highway carnage is largely hidden from the view of the average citizen--until it happens to you.
I am not saying that what goes on is even slightly in the league of the carnage of war (I have a Marine Recon family member, several "Chair Force" spooks etc)or genocide. But ER/Trauma center docs and nurses face the deliberate and sometimes casual violence of everyday life in the US. Driving home some nights, opera is what allows me to process some of this...well, crap, for want of a more educated term. Gigli's "Nessun Dorma" is one of my soul savers. At the trauma center, no one sleeps.

Ingina y'Igihanga said...

Thought I was going to read about Rwanda, how has the story disappeaered?

Did you visit Rwanda? Did make a presentation? Did you meet President Kagame?

Finish your story, man!

Il Condottiero said...

It's a long story, but -yes- I'll give it a go. I see you're in Kigali. Been to the Cadillac Club recently? -IC

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Hello- I just came across this blog-very interesting article. However it's misleading to say "the same genocide" in Burundi compared to Rwanda. The 1972 killings in Burundi were carried out by the Tutsi army against Hutus. Not to mention 1988, and numerous smaller massacres during the civil war. Ethnic extremism is 2 sided in Burundi. Also you mentioned the FNL but what about Sans Echec and Sans Defaite? Who was behind the Mille Vort in Bujumbura?

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Hello-I just came across this blog. Very interesting article-however to say "the same genocide" in Burundi is misleading. Burundi should not be equated with Rwanda. Political killings in 1965, 1969, assasination of Rwagasore, the 1972 genocide, the 1988 killings etc etc all compose a different history. Ethnic extremism is 2- sided. Agathon Rwasa and Pierre Nkurunziza both had family members murdered in 1972. Army soldiers tried to kill Nkurunziza when he was at the University of Burundi. You mentioned the FNL but what about Sans Echec and Sans Defaite? Who was behind the Ville Mort in Bujumbura?

B. Sullivan
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