I once wrote a now lost essay in which I tried my best to lay out certain aspects of the Rwandan Genocide and the Sierra Leonean Rebel War side by side in the compare and contrast style enjoyed by academia. A ridiculous challenge of an assignment for sure but my reward would be an incredibly moving research experience. Maybe, given where I have started to spend so much of my time, the impact of that lingers still. And amongst the horror that seemed to intensify with the turn of each page, I learned the names of people who I would now list amongst my “heroes”.
Have you ever heard of Philippe Gaillard? Born in Switzerland in the 50s this literature graduate was head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Rwanda during the genocide. He wouldn’t expect you to recognise his name. Not exactly a huge fan of the spotlight which would inevitably shine his way for a time in 1994, he once commented, “I wish I were never visible again.” His time in Rwanda however would be the first time the ICRC would be active in the midst of a genocide and an estimated 65,000 lives were saved.
How was such a thing done? The ICRC stayed when so many others left and ran a makeshift hospital for the wounded or the "not finished off" as Gaillaird prefers to call them. Only a few of their expatriate staff remained but that was enough to protect the 120 national staff members who were then able to help so many of their fellow Rwandans. As Gaillaird says, “We went, entered and stood our ground, instead of clearing out. We spread out, instead of locking ourselves in. We conversed and, in the hell that was Rwanda, we spoke to all the devils.” The power of dialogue is something Gaillard believes in implicitly, explaining matter-of-factly that, “the best way to save people is to talk with the people who want to kill them.” I cannot imagine the intensity of these conversations, so often at road blocks manned by Interahamwe militiamen like those who had at one point emptied a Red Cross Ambulance and “finished off” all those inside. Gaillard describes a heated exchange he had with one of the genocide’s architects, Colonel Bagosora like this:
I told him, "Colonel, do something to stop the killing. This is absurd. This is suicide." And his answer was -- there are words you never forget -- his answer was, "Listen, sir, if I want tomorrow I can recruit 50,000 more Interahamwe." I took him by the shirt-- I'm 58 kilograms and he must be 115-- I took him by the throat, looked in his eyes and told him, "You will lose the war.”
What Gaillaird shares when he considers the nature of the ICRC’s impact is powerful. Pondering the numbers, he once commented, “Ten thousand people is nothing in a conflict that saw almost a million die in under three months, it is just a millimetre of humanity in kilometres of horror.” But what precious space. Somewhere else he said that, “There is not one millimetre of humanity in a genocide.” And so it was the job of the ICRC to create a millimetre of beauty. As Gaillard himself puts it, “Yes, this is our job, to find beauty, create beauty in the very core of horror”. He invokes Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever." He is quick to re-emphasize the vastness of the horror, the utter barbarism that surrounded everything but there was something crucial about being able to find that tiny space of the still human.
Gaillard tried to create a human space for his staff during the days of killing by reading them poetry – Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” - at dinner every evening. He said, “You have to find a way to pray.” Talking about the negation of humanity by genocidal horror he comments that, “Whenever you can reduce this negation it is a miracle. And the memory never forgets miracles.” It is these memories now that Gaillard struggles to cope with. The millimetre of beauty which the ICRC and others were able to create. He says now that he will never return to Rwanda. “Not at all because this would remind me of awful things”, he explains. “I don't want to meet again with people we have saved, because it's too strong. It's unbearable. It's too beautiful.”