27th November, 2002 // Other
Week 10 - Rwanda: “Les Pays des Milles Collines”
For an intern in the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTR, the biggest perk of the job is the chance to travel to Rwanda for an on-site mission by means of the UN aircraft (“the Beachcraft”). Seeing that our trial had adjourned on Wednesday and would remain as such until spring, my supervisors decided that this was a good time for me to go. So, I packed my bags and met the UN transport at a painful 7 a.m. on Friday morning (painful mostly because I had to drag my heavy duffel down the hill on the rocky dirt road to the main road at the obscene hour of 6:30 am). There were only four of us flying that day (two of us interns and two big wigs). As a result, each of us was able to monopolize two plush seats for our flying pleasure in the tiny 8-person plane that was awaiting us at Mount Kilimanjaro airport.
The morning was crisp and clear, the sky was a sharp blue, and the clouds were sparse and sinewy. As we ascended, we all reverently observed with quiet wonder the majestic curves of Mount Kili’s bust. Within minutes, we beheld a truly breathtaking site—the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Mount Kili has a broad flat summit with a snow-capped crown that shimmers in a manner that captures every subtle color in the sunrays reflecting off its brow. And, its presence is all the more commanding because Mount Kili is a freestanding mountain. Unlike the Himalayas where Everest constitutes only one of a string of beautiful mountain peaks, Mount Kili stands in solitude, towering over the brown savannah of the Tanzanian horizon. With its white, almost pinkish hue, Kili looks as though it was displaced from the Artic Circle during a blizzard storm and dumped in the middle of the Saharan desert. This contrast only enhances one’s awe, and it makes you wonder how its snowcapped peak doesn’t just melt under the intense heat of the African sun.
As we traveled westward, we came next to the jagged lines of Mount Meru, the often forgotten peak overlooking Arusha from the north. In contrast to the wide, white brow of Kili, Mount Meru is a deep gray mountain with a thin, delicate summit that cuts severely downward toward the west but slopes more gently to the east with the bulk of the mountain on its eastern side. Its complex, spidery lines compensate for its more limited stature, and it appears most striking on days like this, when its hard gray lines shine like the contours of pure steel against the crisp blue sky. But, this is not to say Meru has a Napoleonic complex; in fact, just below the clouds, I was trying to convince my fellow passengers that it was just as tall as Mount Kili. Of course, moments later, I was shown to be the fool when we ascended a bit higher above the clouds and only the broad smile of Mount Kili appeared smugly as to say, oh yeah, you think Meru has anything on me? Ha. I think not.
About this time, I involuntarily passed out. There’s something about the drone of a small plane’s engine under the bright sun that always does it to me. An hour later, I awoke to my friend Stephen (a Rwandan intern) tugging on my sleeve to be the first to welcome me to the outer atmosphere of his homeland.
We were flying over a huge park area called Parc Nacional de l’Akagera, which is a beautiful misty swampland with a number of scattered lakes. As we moved westward, I saw for the first time the countryside Rwanda is best known for—its countless forest green hillsides. For this, Rwanda is called, “Le Pays des Milles Collines,” or “The Land of a Thousand Hills.” As quickly as one appreciates the beauty of those hills, however, one immediately thinks of the tragedy witnessed by the same and might even recall the description coined by Pope John Paul II during his 1990 visit to Kigali: Rwanda is the land of “a thousand hills, a thousand problems, and a thousand solutions.”
It was with this sense of heaviness that I disembarked from the plane. Fittingly, it was raining. I peered out from the overhang of the Beachcraft’s cockpit door and thought: How many tears have been shed within a mile of this place? How many children have become orphaned, how many mothers have become widowed, and how many children have themselves become killers so close to the place I stand? If Stephen had not gently held out his hand to help me get down out of the plane with a reassuring smile, I don’t know if I could have even gone a step farther, so far was I already unraveled down the spiral of sadness for this land onto which I had not even stepped foot. Taking a deep breath, I grasped Stephen’s hand, took a step down, and planted my feet squarely onto Rwandan soil. I had arrived in the land of a thousand hills and ten times as many the tale of sorrow.
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