All Things Are Relative

Fed up with the current state of events? Tired of hearing about the in-fighting of our politicians? Frustrated with the gibberish peddled by our media? Consider this.

It is said that travel broadens the mind. It’s true. There's nothing like wandering around the wonderful old town of Jerusalem whilst tripping over M16 bedecked soldiers at every street corner to bring home to you how tenuous day to day life can be for some; nothing like seeing a small child walking alone along a 5 miles stretch of empty road dwarfed by Andean mountains to make you appreciate the comfort our own cocooned children enjoy on their 4x4 enshrouded school runs; nothing like watching tens of thousands of honey buzzards drifting south over the Caucuses of Batumi, in waves stretching back as far as the eye can see, to make you realise in jaw dropping fashion how marvelous bird migration is.

Andean Highway

Honey Buzzards at Batumi, Georgia. We logged 88,000 that day.

Over the past couple of years we have found ourselves using British Airways quite a lot. Whilst sitting there with several tons of jet aircraft strapped to my backside I like to distract myself by reading the articles John Simpson writes for their magazine High Life. He is an excellent correspondent and never fails to inspire. On a recent flight I had the pleasure of reading his account of the experiences a fellow journalist had whilst working in Beijing during the 1970's when China was a rather different place than it is now (?). The article can be found here and essentially relates the story of how an initial frosty relationship between a western journalist and a state fearing maid eventually thawed revealing a heart rendering tale of persecution, repression, sad intimacy and indomitable human spirit.

Ruminating on this led me to recall an incident we, that is myself, Denise my wife, James my son and Erin his wife to be, experienced whilst travelling through Rwanda a couple of years back. We had just spent the most fantastic few days trekking mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in Volcanos National Park. During this time we had been accompanied by our smiling guide Ishmael who was now driving us back to Kigali. It was a long, slow trip at the end of which we were to visit the genocide museum. Ishmael was young, no older than my lad, and I asked him, in an innocent and speculative way, whether he had any memories of the atrocious events of that era. Although at first reluctant to give details, he hesitantly began to open up. What followed was one of those episodes you never forget; a tale so terrifyingly brutal that we could only listen in mute horror.

Ishmael was only a young boy when in April 1994 the genocide began; on the traumatic day in question he was with his mother and younger brother working at the top of a hill when they saw the soldiers come. His brother was with his grandmother further down the slope but fearing the worst his mother wouldn't let him go to warn them, electing instead to hope their elevated position would save them. It wasn't long before the machine guns rattled their death cries through the forest below; before long the soldiers arrived at the hill top to finish their slaughter. Ishmael’s mother had taught him that should he ever find himself so threatened he was to play dead and hope the killers would overlook him and move on. As the bullets rained into the women and children around them, both Ishmael, his brother and his mother fell to the ground with dead bodies, really dead bodies, falling on top and all around them. His younger brother had been shot in both hands, had passed out with his blood leaking across all three. Not satisfied with their work the uniformed thugs went about pumping a bullet into each body to ensure all would never again breathe air. As sure death approached, not daring to draw breath even shallowly, the soldiers suddenly stopped the slaughter to greet the commanding officer that had arrived to inspect the carnage. Ishmael had to listen as the soldiers presented the new arrival with a 'present': a row of babies that they had saved just for him. As this worthy individual went about the important task of emptying his revolver into the new borne, the rest of the troop began piling the bodies ready for burning. The pyre flamed close to and red hot embers sparked over Ishmael’s bare legs, but although the pain was excruciating he still did not move. A soldier, intent on stoking the flames, stood on his mother’s head with heavy boots, but still she did not flinch. They both awaited the inevitable, but by some miracle were not hoisted into the flames; they were instead left to lie, covered in blood and filth with legs and arms smoldering. The killing party moved on to reap harvest from another village. Long minutes passed before Ishmael dared open an eye one sliver.

Imagine if you can for a moment the torment, the numbness, horror and fear that would envelop you when you rise shaking and unbelieving from such an episode. Friends, family, neighbours strewn dead and mutilated all around. Blood, smoldering remains, shattered bodies that an hour ago were living, breathing human beings now scattered and charred with no regard. Hell on earth and nobody outside Rwanda knew or cared a damn. How do you rally the will to get to your feet, to support one another to move down the hill to try to find your son and brother? They never found him, at least not an identifiable carcass. They found shreds of recognisable clothing, but the essential being was no more. Survive. Survive and move on.

The next few days comprised nothing but a painful, dangerous slow moving journey towards salvation. They picked up other traumatised strays on the way, but had to leave behind one young girl whose injuries made her cry loudly. They couldn’t afford to be heard and sacrificed this one waif for the good of those that stood some chance of reaching the UN post undetected.

As quiet tears trickled down his face, Ishmael finished his story leaving us all gazing out of the windows at the passing lines of women and children walking to school and market, lost in our own thoughts. When we reached the museum, Denise and I couldn’t stomach completing the circuit and sought sanctuary in the fresh African air watching modern day Rwanda buzzing past and healing bitter wounds. We remembered seeing the images on TV; that was enough. To our surprise though, my son and his wife to be forced themselves to walk through every exhibit, graphic and grotesquely compelling, so that they fully appreciated the scale of an atrocity committed over a three month period whilst they too were in their infancy. They wanted to fully comprehend the depths of evil that lurk inside man when given a justified ‘cause’ to kill.

We had seen mountain gorillas the day before, serene, harmless and in harmony with themselves and their surroundings. Today we had seen what their close relatives supposedly more intelligent, civilized and wiser do to one another. Our minds were certainly broadened that day.

So, in these days of Brexit with turmoil on our pathetic financial markets when a read of the papers predicts nothing but gloom, doom and the end of civilization as we know it, pause for a minute and take a look around. There it’s not quite so bad really is it? I think we will survive and retain our houses, our cars, our smart phones and more importantly our lives and freedoms. Just over 20 years ago nearly a million Rwandans lost everything and some 2 million more became refugees. Having someone who lived through it tell his tale to you somehow makes you look at the world quite differently. And he was still smiling. What price that kind of education?

L to R - Me, Ishmael, James, Erin. Kigali, Rwanda 2014.