In search of the truth

City poet Lisette Ma Neza and dramaturge Gerardo Salinas on their quest for the truth

Memory, truth, justice. Three terms that are on the minds of poet Lisette Ma Neza and dramaturge Gerardo Salinas. Both survived a genocide: Lisette’s family fled the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Gerardo grew up in Argentina under the dictatorship and ended up leaving his country. From Belgium, he takes part in the trials in which those responsible for the civil-military dictatorship are prosecuted.

Gerardo Salinas was three years old when his uncle and father were abducted, tortured, and murdered by the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983). 30,000 people disappeared during that time. Today, they are referred to as desaparecidos. Gerardo spent 40 years searching: for his father and uncle, for the truth, and for justice. As KVS dramaturge, he expresses that search through art, at KVS and elsewhere: he is creating an installation with stories about the Argentine genocide for MAS in Antwerp. At KVS, Lisette Ma Neza, Gerardo Salinas and Omar Jabary Salamanca are jointly presenting a film programme and debate about the impact of artistic practices on the efforts to create a global policy around memory, truth, and justice.

Brussels city poet Lisette Ma Neza is also looking for answers. Her parents fled the 1994 Rwandan genocide. While she did not actively experience the genocide, it lives on within her. ‘What now?’ she wonders. She wants to investigate this question through poetry and theatre. With her performance The Weight of a Woman, she travelled to Kigali in February to put the collective memory into language with the spectators, and to look for answers together. Because only truth can help you process the cruelties of the past, the poet says.

Justice, truth, memory. What do those words mean to you?

Lisette: ‘They lead me to my homeland, Rwanda. Something happened there – a genocide – that I already knew about as a child, even though it didn’t happen to me. What do we do with the stories our parents have told us? Where can we find truth, and once we have found it, what do we do with it? These questions always lead me back home.’

‘They are difficult but beautiful questions. Recently someone told me: ‘In a sense you are the blossoming of your history: you are the failure of genocide, because you are here.’ That stuck with me, but it also feels heavy. Millions of corpses, versus my existence.’

Gerardo: ‘Truth, memory and justice also lead me to my homeland, Argentina. By speaking memories out loud, we get closer to the truth, and we build a collective memory that we can use to pursue justice.’

‘During Argentina’s genocide, we did not speak publicly. Most of the 30,000 desaparecidos were abducted at night. First, they took my uncle. A week later, they tore my father from our home. I was three years old at the time – they held me at gunpoint through a hole in the mosquito net. The next day, life went on as if nothing had happened. No one talked about it, out of fear of further repercussions, so it seemed like you were all alone. I was trapped in an eternal performance.’

‘That’s exactly why it feels so special to share these stories now. In Belgium, I suddenly started meeting people with similar memories of the Argentine dictatorship and of human rights infringements in other countries. By sharing these stories, we come closer to the truth, which – even though it is different for each country – in many ways supersedes the local reality. We have many things in common.’

‘Truth is a difficult term. The puzzle is too large to divide up into pieces.’

‘The quest for truth is almost compulsive for me. I want to know all the details of my father’s murder, and of what happened to other victims. By chasing the exact facts, I am saving them from oblivion.’

Lisette: ‘Truth is also freeing. You can finally start processing things. I’ve just returned from South Africa. I became friends there with a receptionist who lost her mother to violence last month. She doesn’t know who the killer was or how it happened, so she cannot process her loss. It’s as if she is waiting for the truth, so she can free herself and her mother from the violence.’

‘When I was at film school, a teacher once said: ‘It’s as if you are now actively seeking out the violence that your parents wanted to shield you from.’ That stuck with me. I don’t really have to concern myself with the genocide that took place in Rwanda, but I can’t help it, I need answers. It’s part of who I am. By asking my parents and grandmothers questions, I can get closer to that part of me – but it’s true, in some sense I am seeking out those cruelties.’

‘Still, truth is a difficult term: the puzzle is too large to divide up into pieces. When something as horrific as a genocide happens, everyone who experienced it has a big, heavy story to tell. They are all puzzles in their own right.’

You’ll soon be presenting ‘The Weight of a Woman’ on stage, a creation about the Rwandan genocide. You performed a first version in Rwanda as well, recently. 

Lisette: ‘That’s right. In Rwanda, I ask the locals questions, mostly along the lines of ‘What now? How do we move on?’ These questions are asked in the form of poetry. The intention is that we can let go of ‘the weight’ by the end, because the questions have been answered.’

‘I’ve always been aware that we in Rwanda have experienced collective violence and aggression. In our culture, we don’t talk about that until you start asking questions. Some of my cousins know a lot about the genocide because they were curious, others know next to nothing. I ask a lot of questions now, but that wasn’t always the case.’

The word ‘genocide’ is getting a lot more use again today. What does that mean to you?

Lisette: ‘I have been wondering for a while whose lives are worth saving. On stage, I tell the story of my predecessors and of the genocide in Rwanda like it’s something that only happened in the past. But it’s happening in front of our eyes in Gaza right now. If I think about it too long, I risk losing faith in human rights. And in Congo violence is also erupting again. The past has created huge wounds, but we keep making the same mistakes. And looking at the West’s response, I do wonder: do all lives really matter?’

‘It’s difficult to stay hopeful when you watch horrific images of dying people in Gaza on your phone in Brussels. Everything that I stand for in my poetry and that I used to firmly believe in is fading: the international justice system and human rights.’

Gerardo: ‘It’s true, sometimes it’s hard to stay hopeful. But it might depend on where you’re looking. Las madres y abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, mothers and grandmothers of genocide victims, have been gathering on the square in front of Argentina’s presidential palace in Buenos Aires every Thursday for 42 years. They want the truth about their lost children and grandchildren, and they will not stop. I once went to see one of those manifestations: a woman in a wheelchair was singing and dancing, a young woman was writing poems – suddenly, I realised: this is it! It’s not about one person with a story, it’s about presenting a united front. Gather a whole group of ants, and they’ll have a story to tell. Those abuelas and madres give me hope. They keep the genocide on the justice system’s agenda. One person has even been convicted for the murder of my father, although I am sure there are still people walking around in Buenos Aires who once tortured by father or uncle. The battle of those grandmothers is one of the possible strategies for dealing with these types of situations. It’s important to share their example and to consider how people can apply it to different contexts.’

What gives you hope, Lisette?

Lisette: ‘My grandmothers. When they tell me their heart-wrenching stories of the genocide, they do so in a sober, casual manner. Yes, this happened, they seem to say, but we are still alive, and my neighbour did this, but he came back to ask for forgiveness. And why wouldn’t you forgive them? That power, of still being here, and of forgiveness, that gives me hope.’

‘I think in a way that has become the culture in Rwanda. There are victims and perpetrators, but they are still there, so they carry on. I once wrote this sentence: ‘You’ve killed my brother. Now be my brother.’ That’s the complex reality of Rwanda. Carrying on because we’re still there. Sometimes I wonder what we should do with all the anger and pain that also remain.’

“Along with love, hatred is the most intimate feeling you can have towards someone.”

Gerardo: ‘I took a course to learn not to hate. I didn’t want the hatred to dominate me anymore, because it can completely absorb you: when you hate someone, you are paying a lot of attention to that person. Along with love, hatred is the most intimate feeling you can have towards someone.’

‘My past has two sides: the dreadful horror and hatred, and the love – people who help each other, hug and save each other, people who tell stories and listen to each other, … Sometimes you can choose which side to lean towards, hatred or love. And sometimes you don’t have a choice, you’re only human. I allow those feelings to come to the fore as well every now and then.’

‘I don’t tell my stories of the Argentine genocide as trauma porn, but because it helps us move on. Peace is fragile and can disappear in two minutes. Knowledge of the past helps us see more urgency in the events of the present, for example what’s happening in Gaza. When we use our memories and share our truths, the world can become a more just place.’

‘To me, that’s the essence of the matter. A whole group of people fled from aggression. Leaving your home is a sad event, but here in Brussels, 180 different nationalities live under the same skies, and we make the inhuman human again. I get to meet Lisette, who shares stories of Rwanda. Or I get to meet someone from Congo or Iraq, and they have all experienced something unique, but our children are in the same class. We share stories and create something beautiful out of ugly memories. We can also change our experiences and build up collective memories in order to create a more connected and honest global story – and to claim justice and recognition for the victims of all genocides.’

Yumi Demeyere & Koen Vidal