Poetry of Remembrance – Rwanda, April 6th, 1994

Photo: Sue Horton Faces of the Dead "On the Line" in the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Rwanda

Photo: Sue Horton
Faces of the Dead “On the Line” in the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Rwanda


You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Warsaw, 1945

Czeslaw Milosz, from The Collected Poems: 1931-1987, The Ecco Press, 1988

Twenty years ago today a presidential plane was shot down over Kigali, Rwanda. Thc death of the Hutu president of Rwanda in that crash set off a catastrophic chain of events that we now know as the 100 Days – the genoicide that engulfed Rwanda and left more than 800,000 dead in blood bath that defies description. 

Is there a poetry that can begin to approach or describe such a horror? The Nobel Prize Laureate Czeslaw Milosz in his celebrated poem Dedication included above, says a bold yes in this widely quoted verse from his poem:

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

The idea that a poem can make a constructive difference in the world or as Milosz says: save nations or people is a source of continued debate. But for me it is the only way to try and make sense of the madness of war and atrocity. To name it and in naming it to honour the victims and engage our own humanity in a revolt against the inhumanity that continues in many parts of the world including, so tragically, in Africa. If a poem can awake in a person an intimate revulsion against injustice and inhumanity I say that is enough.

To honour this heart-breaking anniversary I feature four poems written in response to the Rwandan genocide: a poem by me after a visit to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali in 2006 and another after a visit to the Rugerero Survivors Village in Rwanda in 2008; one by the accomplished American Poet Jane Hirschfield in 1994 in response to a news report at that time; and a poem by Derek Burleson who taught  in Rwanda from 1991 to 1993.

I offer these poems as Milosz does his. Will this offering dispel the ghosts and spectres of those atrocities? Will they appease the Rwandan dead as Milosz hopes his poem will appease the Polish dead of the Second World War? I cannot answer this. I just can hope these poems will help us remember and never forget what happened during that madness in Rwanda that began twenty years ago today; that perhaps they will encourage us not just to notice on-going horrors such as in Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic, but to act, to make a difference. In a note included with Hirschfiel’s poem in an on-line site she says we noticed what was happening in Rwanda but we didn’t act! Perhaps poems like these might help.

On The Line – Rwanda

Outside, the museum burns blind white. Inside, rooms wait,
barely lit. Darkness leads to V-shaped alcoves, thin wire,
like clothes lines stretches between walls, in rows a foot apart,
floor to ceiling, clips attached to the wire and to clips, pictures.

Machete dead, windshield dead, crucifix dead, masu dead.

Walls of them. Snaps of loved ones I almost touch.
A guard turns one over: Innocent – died April 7th, 1994.
A door opens, portraits move, more life than one man
can bear – surrounded by these faces. Was one he knew?

Machete dead, crowbar dead, hammer dead, fist dead.

The man weeps, leaves. Another one comes from shadows.
No space for strangers. In this place of Abel we have known
each other since Cain. Here the living, too, must hang,
caught, clipped together by necessary grief.

Machete dead, latrine dead, chain dead, grenade dead.

We speak in whispers. Why? No waking these, long dead.
“You saw the man who left?” he says. “He is my driver.
His family’s pictures are over there.” Speech dies. He takes me
to see what so many other hands had touched.

Machete dead, bullet dead, bulldozer dead, spear dead.

He shows me. Someone younger than me becomes a father,
others, a brother, a sister. Nothing moves. Voices fall still.
This silence, its cacophony surrounds them. Others leave.
The pictures move again, as if uneasy on their lines.

Richard Osler, unpublished


They took the woman
and tied to one arm a child
to the other arm a child
to one leg a child
to the other leg a child—
you also read this in the paper—
and threw them all in.
No marks of damage, not one
on the five bodies,
which means of course
that they drowned,
which means of course
that she knew.
The river made its way
from higher ground toward lower
and carried them with decorum,
the way a river does,
it carries what it is given,
and because in the night
a border was crossed,
what was given then was
taken out with a pole.
It may have been untied
before being added
to the tally sheet with others
and given next
to the quicklime and earth,
but probably not.
There it will likely stay,
where it was carried,
the last contact
with anything living
a hand’s continuing rising,
almost a waving,
almost a plea,
letting go after rolling it in.
The two beats of the fall
almost gentle,
a door being carefully opened,
quietly closed.
And though you too
are sickened, as even the river
is sickened, undrinkable now
with the human heart,
you also carry
what you were given with decorum.
Perhaps reminded later
by something mentioned
only in passing—
a large family,
a cat’s toy of string—
you stop smiling a moment soon.
Across the table
someone notices,
but does not speak.
You watch his question rise
and seem to waver like a hand
about to act,
a hand about to change its mind,
then drop politely away.

Jane Hirshfield from Lives of the Heart, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997

*This poem was written as expiation for not speaking at that dinner table. Yet it always surprises me when I read editorials saying that, during the genocide, “No one noticed.” This poem was written from newspaper accounts during the genocide. Everyone noticed. No one acted.

At the Border

a pile of machetes and hoes
higher than your head most bloodstained

and every thirty seconds or so
another body pounds
down Rusumo Falls in the pool
at the bottom they bob
back and forth so
bloated and gray
you might think
massacre had created
a new race

beyond the border those farmers
who piled these tools of food and war
sit for days waiting for a kilo of beans
the rains begin again its that time of year

nobody drinks from the river

on land the bodies
seem wigs of laundry
bright cloth spread
on the Akagera bank
to dry flat as if
the flesh inside
were already sinking
eager for the river

in the water these pale balloons
float easily
north to Lake Victoria
so putrid even crocodiles
stay away

behind the border every day
while the gods hover like starving birds
Achilles still pursues Hector
round the city walls
and makes very sure
when he catches up he waits
long enough
to hear the voices pleading
before he swings the blade.

Derek Burleson from ejo – Poems Rwanda 1991-1994from The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000


The storm forms slowly low on the horizon.
The air listens. No wind. It will come. Later.
After he has gone.

Now the palm fronds droop,
could be men after a day in the fields. Waiting,
listening, for what will start as a whisper,
seem harmless, nothing to worry about
here, with friends, sharing stories
and banana beer.

Violence will come. Wind’s million machetes will rip
and tear at new tin roofs and send
everyone fleeing back inside, their fear
as fierce as the wind’s taut blows.

This is not April 1994. This is
2008 and just natural, a storm. This time
no one will die. Not one.

How can he hope
to understand 800,000 dead?

They taunt him. The once-hunted.
They speak to him without words, just the sound
like wind makes in its rush across
the mouths of pop bottles set in a wall.

Wind has a hunger no more or less than hate.
In the end what is left is not wind or hate.
Just what memory carries on its back.
All the things that bend, die or break.

Children, their smiles and laughter, assault him,
a swarm, as he gets out of the car. Their hands
grab at his, rough against soft palms.
Something – red dirt, exuberant dust,
swirl of legs and arms, cries of Muzungo –
turn him into echoes that sing and dance
back and forth until he seems like them –
free from history and catastrophe.

Overhead a Chanting Goshawk circles
a blue-roofed pavilion, its turquoise pillars,
its altar, bright mosaics, and the word
twibuke – let us remember. The dead
throw no shadows. Walls so day bright
each breath catches fire, light the way
downstairs, to the bone room, coffins
racked on each side, packed with bones –
skull, femur, rib, vertebrae, tibia, fibula –
rhizomes outside their season. Bone
quiet. No echo of village voices. Nothing.

He walks back outside, different, as if
walking with a stranger’s bones, his face,
another’s he hasn’t seen. Feels it heavy
like a mask he can’t rip off, his breath
all he hears, the quiet of the bone room
following him as he walks alone to the lake
and looks up to see clouds piled up
like dark bodies and under them blazing
white in the last of the sun, Cattle Egrets, more
than he can count, flying low, ghostly
as day darkens, all their wings
like hands waving.

Richard Osler, Unpublished


  1. Rosemary
    Posted April 6, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this powerful piece, Richard, and the reminder of poetry’s presence in the midst of the unspeakable.

  2. Richard
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear Rosemary: ALways a lift to my spirits when I get your comments through the ether! I had so much more to say about these poems but thought it was good to let them stand on their own. I think often of the piece Patrick wrote to you about dealing with these “huge” events – how to keep a distance so the poems do not become propaganda or shallow posturing. So hard to do. I love how Hirshfield and Burleson pull back out of the horrors they describe to give distance and perspective. Hirschfield takes herself back to the dinner party where she has been thinking silently of the events and Burleson invokes a huge myth and moves the perspective up to 35,000 feet. My On the Line poem doesn’t do that but used the refrain or chorus to add heft to the poem. In my Twibuke poem I try to mirror the events of 1994 in the storm I witnessed in 2008. To provide that distance.

    I wanted to share a poem written by Octavio Paz the Nobel Prize Laureate as a coda I didn’t include in the post. Each of us does matter. Those gone and those still here! ANd when we name the fallen directly or in general I think we do something valuable. Something a poem can do so well. Here is Paz’s poem:


    I am a man: little do I last
    and the night is enormous.
    But I look up:
    The stars write.
    Unknowing I understand:
    I too am written,
    and at this very moment
    someone spells me out.

    Blessings, Richard

  3. Liz
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post and for reminding us to honour the dead by continuing to bear witness.
    “you might think
    massacre had created
    a new race …”
    These words so chilling describe so much more than the victims.


  4. Richard
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Dear Liz: I just picked up a book of poems by Patrick Rosal – he has the music of poetry down pat! From a poem called Kundiman in Medias Res he says “Love – decipher me,/Speak me with your first tongue.” I am reminded that only love can cope with something as overpowering as genocide and the Rwandan Genocide in particular. I think it is only with love’s stricken tongue we can begin to write about these kinds of horrors. And you are right I think. We must bear witness. But not for show. But so we too become changed. We remember down into our DNA. Thank you again for your loyal readership. Blessings, Richard

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