Last night’s dream.
It is April, 1994 and Kigali is a tinderbox. All troubled, directionless movement. The checkpoints are set-up.
I am roughly at my hostel. I need to get to Milles Collines.
I have the added benefit of being an American – one of the only left in the country. Also, I know what happens. I know the St. Johns Catholic church off the main roundabout is safe. I know Saint Famille is a killing field. I know the refugees at Hotel Rwanda survive, even though I never saw that movie, and it hasn’t come out yet.
I need an ATM. I follow a cat I find on the side of the road who I know will lead me to one.
"I’m taking you to the main banking center."
It’s dangerous out. Everyone knows something is coming.
Why didn’t I think of the banking center? Even though it’s 1994, the banks are probably still there.
We don’t get to the banking center, but climb down a slope and land in a previously invisible shack of a water and snack stand by my hostel.
"Here is the ATM"
But the ATM seems to be missing, or not to work. I’m struck to see a few small piles of American bills rolled up on the ground. So out of place in Kigali, 1994 but such a normal sight in the rest of my life that it takes me a moment to remember why the situation is strange.
I gather the cat, who has become a kitten, into my arms.
A lanky white man comes to his shack. He sees me with his cat. We are friends instantaneously and there’s nothing to discuss but the obvious:
"What are you doing?" he asks.
"I have to leave." I have to live. I need to live.
"Yeah." he says. "It’s decision time. We’re at that point where we can ride this out. Or we can concede and say, ‘there’s nothing we can do,’ and get out of here."
"I need to leave." Now that he’s here, I don’t need the ATM or the Milles Collines.
The kitten hugs closer with its cold nose against my arm and we leave into the streets of Kigali. It’s the rainy season and the red dirt that makes up the roads is all slick and slippery. Everyone’s pant legs are rust-colored red. No one sees anyone while they walk to find the things that will make them safe.
We go to the U.S.-embassy’s compound parking lot. Despite its proximity to my house, I’d never seen it before, a large steel compound.
My friend (did he ever get a name? If he did, it was two syllables and started with a vowel) scanned a card, and we were in.
As we walk in, I’m concerned about the cat in my arms. We need a cat carrier. Of all the things to think about.
There were a surprising number of cars still left. I wanted to ask why, and forgot. Everything would be fine now, this man knew everything. The two Americans left in Rwanda. He knows whats about to happen, too. We don’t talk about it.
I took the kitten out of my arms.
"Is that your camera bag?" He smiles and says yes. We put the cat inside. He is fully prepared and shoots the cat with a sedative to keep him/her under for the drive and the flight to Brussels.
"Sorry, friend." he says, zipping up the case.
I load a tremendous suitcase into the trunk of a tremendously glossy black SUV.
We see only one woman in the parking lot. She is white, dressed all in layers of white with a golden, dangling necklace on and red lipstick. She looks thoroughly unconcerned.
I think: yes, that’s convincing dress for 1994.
"Were you going to go?" I ask my friend.
He’s impatient, mapping out scenarios in his head and putting some protective layer of sticky plastic on the car window.
"Was I going to go? Of course I wanted this little country to work." That’s not what I’m asking.
"I mean, before me?" He prepares a window for the drive, putting some layer of thick sticky plastic over it and doesn’t answer.
Before we leave, in the front seat, we’re looking out in front of us to the door of this deserted parking lot. I can’t get my seat belt to buckle.
He says something from Genesis. But I couldn’t tell if he was saying it because it was appropriate, or because it’s the only Bible verse we know. At first I think it’s a reference to a Terry Pratchet novel and want to say something witty. He ends with a half-sung line from a hymn. I think it must be appropriate, because he knows every verse of the Bible.
We leave the compound and I can’t get my seatbelt to buckle. I sit in the back, worried I’ve made my companion feel like a chauffeur. I wonder why I’m not with him and closer, as close as possible.
As we exit, we see two boys trudging through the red-rust earth alongside the railroad tracks (there aren’t any in Kigali), half unable to walk under the weight of the water jugs they’re carrying. The same desperation in their eyes as everyone.
We make our way out, not speaking. Letting his BIble verse hang in the air.
I woke up wanting to go back to the dream, wondering if we had a gun, wondering if the check-points would let us through, wondering if the Kigali airport would still be open for us or if we would have to drive to Uganda with the rest of the refugees, wondering if we would have enough gas and if not how we would get it, wondering if I was selfish for not even considering rescuing others, wondering why he didn’t tell me what would happen to us, and hoping we would make it out.