HEARTS IN DARKNESS

THE HESITANT POET

I can vividly recall certain moments of April 8, 1994… After all, it was on this day that the dead body of Kurt Cobain – lead singer and songwriter of Nirvana, icon of the grunge movement– was found.

Cobain, despite its youth, relatively reduced creative output, and serious personal failings, was arguably the most important cultural reference for Generation X. Like for many other kids growing in the 1990s, the rise of Nirvana prompted a shift in my musical and cultural taste, simultaneously liberating, and perversely smothering. Like it or not, Kurt Cobain mattered.

Shortly after the gruesome discovery of the cadaver in the musician’s residence in Seattle, the first news reports about Cobain’s suicide filtered through to the US mainstream media, and from that platform to the rest of the world.

That evening, I had gone out with friends and a pleasant Spring-time Friday night was underway when the news caught up with us. My friends and I were drifting across the moderately busy streets of the small town where I lived at the time, doing nothing in particular. Around 10.30 pm, as we were crossing the oblong square near our town’s small marina, we came across an acquaintance of mine, a young man someone had nicknamed “flea”, on account of his diminutive stature. We started chatting and he told us, in a somewhat off-hand manner, that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide.

A few minutes later, in disbelief, my friends (wannabee musicians themselves) and I found a coffee shop that had the television on (no smart phones back then) and sure enough, we could understand from the images – the place was too noisy for us to hear the news anchor – that Cobain was indeed dead.

Later it was revealed that Cobain had actually shot himself earlier in the week (around April 5, according to the coroner’s estimate), but incredibly the corpse of one of the most well-known celebrities at the time, a musician revered by millions, had laid in that garage for days until some electrician found it, purely by chance.

But the point is: I can still remember parts of April 8, 1994.

And yet, try as I may, I cannot remember a single detail of the previous day…

WHY SHOULD I REMEMBER APRIL 7, 1994, ANYWAY?

Well, on that day, one of the most bitter ironies in modern history quietly unfolded.

That evening, an historical concert took place in the Vatican: the first official Catholic commemoration of the Shoa, the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis and their henchmen in Europe, an event that had taken place fifty years earlier, during WWII.

The concert was held in the modernist Paul VI Audience Hall, an hideous reinforced concrete structure finished in 1971 that seats more than six thousand people. Hundreds of Holocaust survivors attended. The program included Schubert, Bernstein and Beethoven. And when the music stopped, Pope John Paul II addressed the crowd as follows:

The candles lit by some of the survivors symbolically show that this hall is without limits; it contains all the victims, fathers, mothers, children and friends. In this commemoration, all are present. They are with you. They are with us. (…) The candles keep before us the long history of anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Shoah. But it is not enough that we remember, for in our day, regrettably, there are many new manifestations of the anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racial hatred which were the seeds of those unspeakable crimes. Humanity cannot permit all that to happen again.

OUT OF SIGHT, IN AFRICA

On that same day the memorial concert was being held, on the eve of the discovery of Kurt Cobain’s body, sombre events were taking place thousands of miles away from either Rome or Seattle, in a far-away landlocked African country … As the New York Times would later report: «Terror Convulses Rwandan Capital as Tribes Battle».

Thursday night, news programs all over the world announced the “terror” in Kigali. And yet, for most people, the news barely registered. Just another tragedy in a faraway place.

But in reality, an horrendous genocide had just been put in motion.

TERROR IN RWANDA

The timeline of the troubling Rwanda massacres is relatively straightforward.

On Wednesday, April 6, 1994, the aeroplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down, killing everybody onboard.

This event was the pretext for the events that followed.

A few hours afterwards, the house of caretaker Prime-Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana (a moderate Hutu), was besieged and she and her husband ended up surrendering to the militia, in an heroic bid to save their children (who eventually survived, hidden behind some pieces of furniture).

Agathe Uwilingiyimana, August 1, 1993 – Image by Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma/Corbis

The couple, together with the UN Blue Helmets that had been assigned to protect them, were killed, and allegedly tortured, on the night of 6 to 7.

By the time the Pope and his guests sat down for the Shoa remembrance concert, and the invectives against the Nazi horror were solemnly pronounced by the venerable religious leader’s trembling voice, the majority of the moderate political leadership of Rwanda was either dead or in hiding.

And on April 8, 1994, as the body of the “Hesitant Poet of Grunge Rock” (this was how the NYT referred to Cobain in his obituary) was discovered, the first horrifying massacres of Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians in Rwanda were already underway.

Having taken control of the country, hard-line Hutu leaders directed the army and militias to erect checkpoints and barricades on the roads and ordered all men and women to present their national ID cards, a document which contained the ethnic classification of its holder. This screening process enabled the executers to identify and kill Tutsi. Hutus that refused to participate in the bloodbath were often massacred themselves.

The killings were mostly committed with machetes, clubs and primitive weapons, frequently with a harrowing degree of cruelty, and commonly by neighbours and acquaintances of the victims. Rape and vicious mutilation of Tutsi (and moderate Hutu) women became the norm. Men infected with HIV were mobilized into rape squadrons, with the goal of ensuring the death of every single Tutsi woman.

An exact death toll is impossible to determine, but reliable estimates by the UN indicate that during the period between April 7 and July 15, 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda, and thousands upon thousands of women were victims of brutal sexual crimes, and purposely infected with HIV.

The pygmy people called the Batwa (or ‘Twa’), which made up about 1% of Rwanda’s population, was also victimized by the onslaught of horror and brutality. It is thought that about 10,000 Batwa, roughly one third of the population, were also killed.

Kigali Memorial Centre memorial room of victim photographs. Photo by Adam Jones, PhD

THE DREADFUL COINCIDENCE

On the same day the Vatican remembered the Shoa for the very first time, April 7, 1994, genocide commenced in Rwanda… Worth keeping in mind, isn’t it?

And on the following day, April 8, 1994, the death of a celebrity was suddenly etched into the collective memory of a generation that, obsessing over the romantic allure of adolescent angst, virtually ignored the fastest mass killings in history.

The collective hysteria around these demi-god-like celebrities, for whom we often grieve as if personal acquaintances were taken from us, is morally wrong and it contributes to dull our consciences to reality.

However, the impact of propaganda, glamorizing culture and our fatal impulse for escapism from the daily grind, forges strong shackles, binding (and blinding) our spirits.

HERE’S WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT

Considering how prone to bias and habit we all are, it is perhaps advisable to design and implement a strategy that forces us to at least intermittently look outward, beyond our habitual circles of vicarious affection (would any of those that grieved at the time even like Kurt Cobain if they had met him in person?) and past the rigid framework that constraints our attention and mobilizes our sense of empathy.

A simple exercise:

  1. Note what happened this week that caught your attention and affected you personally – and ask yourself why it impacted you so much (e.g. death of a rock star)
  2. Afterwards, take half an hour (how much you can spare really) and just look away, into a different geographical or historical direction, into domains, things or people you normally wouldn’t care for or simply be indifferent to (e.g. reports of killings in a remote African nation)
  3. Compare and put into perspective the elements in 1 with your findings in 2
  4. Find a connection between your life and 2 (there always is)
  5. Reassess
  6. Next week: repeat the cycle.

SYNCHRONICITY

Noticing and raising awareness to the synchronicity between events can become a powerful tool to calibrate our perception of reality.

Once you realize and internalize that in Rwanda hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are being hacked to death, grief for a deceased celebrity becomes, let’s face it, sort of selfish and petty.

The point here is not so much to find some sort of Jungian “meaningful coincidence”, but rather to become alert to the fact that reality is vast and we must force ourselves to look beyond our navel.

And so… what happened today?

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