Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Genocide Memorial

Max Cohen

As I descended the steep wooden staircase from the Nyamata church's
ground level into the mass grave, reality gave me a slap in the face.
I stopped in my tracks, standing over the threshold of the dark, musty
passageway at the bottom of the stairs, because I saw that the passage
was flanked by shelves from floor to ceiling that held nothing other
than the skulls and bones of thousands of victims.

Upon reflection, I realize that I didn't totally lack preparation for
such an unnerving sight. I knew we were going to a mass grave. Under
the church, I had just been shown the coffin of a woman who had been
raped twenty times before being killed slowly over an agonizing
two-day period. And the doubted faith in humanity that several of my
companions so regretfully expressed later that day was something I
felt I had more than internalized over a semester in a Holocaust
literature class.

Nonetheless, I was utterly floored. It took me several moments to
overcome a sense of imminent claustrophobia and my initial impulse to
simply flee the bones. I instead continued into the depths of the mass
grave. No glass display case separated my friends and me from the
bones, nor was there any space between the passageway and the shelves.
We were so close and unobstructed from the skulls that we could have
simply reached out and touched them. This only intensified the
sensation that the hollow cavities that once housed the victims' eyes
seemed to be glaring at me, demanding justification for my existence.
I felt immersed in horror.

Uncertain what to do next as I emerged from the mass grave, I settled
on attempting to somehow be present with all the emotions and thoughts
that, like pistons, were pumping the connection between my heart and
my mind. I sat on the single stair next to the grave, in a form of
meditation. I either reached that meditative state of mindfulness (or
mindlessness), or else I fell asleep.

In the reflections of that meditation, the subsequent interfaith
memorial service our group held, and the few days since we visited
Nyamata, the most sense I can make of that experience was that it
peeled back a layer between me and reality. If encountering genocide
is, as Primo Levi expresses in his "The Periodic Table", a kind of
anti-Sinai experience, I'm not so sure whether I welcome the morbid
revelation of this side of human nature.

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