Kari Costanza’s last blog from Rwanda.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have dinner at the Hotel des Mille Collines. It’s where the events of the movie “Hotel Rwanda” take place. The movie is based on the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who sheltered more than 1,000 refugees during the genocide in April 1994.
I’d had trouble making it through the movie. As a good stoic Scandinavian, my objective is never to cry in public. I also got an extra do-not-cry-in-public gene from my father, a former Marine. But “Hotel Rwanda” nearly did me in. It had me on the edge of my seat, and at the climax, a torrent of tears threatened to overflow, rushing down my face, dripping onto the slanted floor of the theater, and scooping up scattered popcorn and dropped Junior Mints along the way. I had to summon every ounce of Viking force to stem the tide.
I also didn’t want to feel like a voyeur—as if I’m peeking in on a shrine to something terrible. I felt the same way visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia where a monument of stacked skulls reaches toward the sky, or when we visited Dachau on a vacation to Germany. Should there be such shrines to awfulness? Yes, because we should never forget the past. But how would the visit make me feel? Would I try to place myself there—in 1994? Would I even want to eat dinner? Would there be a gift shop? Would it sell T-shirts? Would the hotel staff know why I had come?
My imagination is already in overdrive here. Yesterday we were in a church in Nyaruguru, a big Catholic church. We sat on long benches under a tin roof. It was exactly like the churches I’d seen in the genocide news clips. I could imagine the bodies amid the benches. I wondered if something had happened in that church.
As we were driving from Gikongoro to Kigali, we’d pass small plots with white crosses by the roadside. I couldn’t read any of the words on the signposts except the big one: genocide. I imagined slaughtered people alongside that road like I’d seen on television back in 1994.
We’d talked with a lovely lady named Jacquelline the day before. She is a recipient of a loan through the Vision Finance program that gives small loans to entrepreneurs. Jacquelline lost her husband in the 1994 genocide. Her second marriage ended in tragedy five years later when her husband was killed while fighting in Congo. She said that after the genocide you would look at everyone you saw passing along the road and wonder: Did you have a hand in this?
I understood what she was describing—because I kind of feel that way now. I met a family whose dad died in prison in 1999 and automatically thought: So, he was one of the killers. I didn’t judge the family. They had no part in it—but my mind assigned guilt to their father.
I don’t like to feel this way. I have been raised to think the best of people, especially people who come from difficult circumstances. My Marine Corps dad was raised in an extremely dysfunctional family—a war-zone kind of family—but he taught us, through his actions, not to blame them, just to love them for who they were. I actually prefer dysfunctional people to normal ones. They can be so resilient, funny, and amazing. But what happened in Rwanda went beyond dysfunctional. It’s impossible to comprehend.
So we decided to have dinner at the hotel. We took a cab past the big white entrance that reads Hotel des Mille Collines. We entered tentatively, asking at the reception desk where the restaurant was. The hotel staff pointed the way. We couldn’t eat inside the restaurant because there was a big meeting being held there. A Rotary meeting, of all things. Could anything be more normal than that? So, we wandered out to the grassy lawn to find a table. This was the grass that stretched to the swimming pool—famous in the movie when it became the only source of water for the thousand-plus refugees. Only now, the pool is hidden. The hotel is renovating the pool area, adding a sort of tiki bar. So the lawn rolls down to a wall of iron sheets that block the view.
We got our menus and I looked for something to eat. Everything was in French, but one dish popped out: Chicken Cordon Bleu. My Marine Corps father was also a great cook. For my wedding he prepared 250 Cordon Bleu for a sit-down reception dinner. He worked all summer, stuffing chicken breasts with ham and cheese, coating them in bread crumbs and then freezing them for the big day. I’m not sure how he got them all into the freezer. Or how he thawed them, cooked them, and walked me down the aisle all on a Saturday in August. He could have run the Hotel Rwanda.
Our dinner came, and I waited for any sign of weirdness or unease. But I felt nothing. I didn’t sense any ghosts of the people who had sought shelter at the hotel or even start to imagine what it had been like to survive there. I wondered if this is how Rwandans feel—that horrible, terrible things happened, but somehow life has gone on. They’ve been strongly advised to forgive and forge ahead.
So, in the cool of the evening, the grass of the Hotel des Mille Collines tickling my toes, mosquitoes biting at my ankles, I ate my Chicken Cordon Bleu, chatted with Jon about the trip, thought about my dad, and wished the hotel had a gift shop. I would have liked to buy a T-shirt.