Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Something That Works

One of the interesting organizations that I was introduced to and was able to see their work up close and personal was called REACH. The name is an acronym for Reconciliation Evangelism and Christian Healing. The goal of the group is to enhance local capacity for healing, reconciliation and peace-building in communities deeply affected by violent conflict.

One aspect of the program is providing training for healing reconciliation and peace building and to make a positive contribution during the process of genocide prisoners’ reintegration to the community. It is really amazing to see people standing together telling their stories when some were the victims and others were the victimizers. Women spoke of seeing their families killed and fleeing the violence. Another woman had been in prison and her husband was still in prison because of the roles they played during the genocide. Now they had been brought together. Released prisoners built shelters for survivors who lost their homes.

Counseling service for suffers of trauma HIV/AIDS is another part of Reach’s mission. One of the atrocities during the genocide was the rape of Tutsi women by men who were known AIDS carriers. That act was considered crueler than the more direct killing. Another component is peace education for children to ensure that increasing numbers of children in our target areas have access to educational opportunities that promote peace, tolerance, reconciliation and human rights.

These goals are achieved by The School for Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation. The school develops a human resource base of peace-builders with the knowledge, skills and qualifications required for facilitating effective action and movement towards peace and reconciliation at different levels of society in Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region of Africa. I attended a graduation ceremony for 40 women that finished the program.

The organization was founded in 1996 by Philbert Kalisa, a priest with the Anglican Church. Philbert was born in 1966 to Rwandan parents who were exiled in a refugee camp in Burundi due to the killings and other serious human rights violations against Tutsis which started in 1959. While he was pursuing his BA degree in theology at Trinity College Bristol in 1995, Philbert finally got a chance to visit his home country of Rwanda, which was then still in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. He was shocked at the devastation of his country and learned about the great suffering of the Rwandan people who were confronting enormous difficulties as they were trying to rebuild their lives. He also observed signs of deep trauma, hopelessness, fears and hatred among the people whom he met during his visit. This home visit inspired him to seek ways through which the process of healing and reconciliation could be advanced among the citizens of his native land. He then conducted research for his dissertation on 'The Ministry of Reconciliation in Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide' through which he explored the role of the Church in bringing about healing, reconciliation and unity among Rwandans.

After the completion of his studies in UK in August 1996, he came straight to Rwanda with his family in order to establish an independent NGO working for healing and reconciliation among Rwandan people. Responding to his request for support his friends and other Rwandans from different Christian denominations assisted him to set up REACH/Rwanda and establish its constitutions and other governance policies. The organization then began to develop contacts with various denominations in the country so that the ministry could become an interdenominational ministry. Since 1998, the organization has trained 3,680 people including local religious and government leaders as well as women and youth who belong to different Christian denominations or a Muslim community. There are 15 associations or 'Unity Groups' being set up with about 200 members. These groups are engaged in various social, economic and cultural activities such as sports, music and dancing, bible study, group savings and different types of income generating activities (e.g. craft making, animal rearing, crops trading). The Unity Groups have inspired other members of the local communities through their activities based on the spirit of unity and reconciliation.

One of the dancers with REACH. Some are part of the Rwandan National Dance Troupe

Drummers providing music for the dancers

The group I was travelling with.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Standing in the School of the Dead

From the front, the building looks new and modern. A new school built in 1994, waiting for its first students. Standing outside is an old man. You can see the indentation on his skull from a bullet wound. His eyes are hollow and he doesn’t smile. He has come here every day for 14 years. This is where his family rests. This is home. This is Murambi.

Murambi is a hill that is about a 30 minute drive from Butare, in Rwanda near the Burundi border. On April 6, 1994 began 100 days of hell. The plane crash of President Juvenal Habyarimana sparked a violent action aimed at eliminating the existence of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority. The violence came fast and furious. The order came over the State run radio – Kill the cockroaches. (Cockroaches was the slang term for the Tutsis.) Make it look like they never existed.

On April 16th 50,000 people gathered at the then new school. They were told they would be safe here. They were told to stay inside and wait. They were set up. The electricity was cut off, they could not leave, and there was no food or water. On April 21st the Hutu militia came in and began the slaughter. They had been trained by the French Army to hack the ankles with machetes so the people could not run. This way the soldiers could move through the masses quickly and return later to kill those who were maimed.

The old, the young, men and women, children and infants – they all had to die. You see them at the school. Skeletons laid out on display for all to know and remember. You see the hacked ankles. Women died holding their babies in their arms as they were hacked to death. Nearly all were killed in a day’s time. The old man’s name is Emmanuel and he lost his wife, children and all other family that night at Murambi. A bullet hit him in the head and he fell down, covered in blood and the bodies of people shot after him. When he came to the next day, he crawled out from under the dead and crawled into the nearby banana fields to hide. Eventually he made it the Burundi border and the bullet was removed from his forehead. He is 50 years old but he looks 70.

The French army supposedly secured this area to stop the killing. Yet the French troops mysteriously disappeared in the days preceding the massacre. The soldiers returned with earth moving machines to dig the mass graves. The bodies were dumped in pits and covered over. The soldiers erected a volleyball court on top of the grave sites. Nothing happened here. There are 7 known survivors.

The site is now a museum. The corpses have been treated with lime to preserve them in a mummified state. Each classroom is filled with the bodies. There are 1800 exhumed bodies on display. The smell of death permeates everything. Room after room, bodies are everywhere. It is a surreal scene. How do you react to this? What mental gymnastics are happening in your mind? How can this happen? The curators of the museum, who are survivors of the massacre, encourage you to take pictures—to wade into those rooms and smell the astringent odor of lime and decay, so that you won’t ever forget what happened here. They ask you to bring the story inside your camera to others.

What does this Emmanuel think as a group of mzungu (white) foreigners sit under a tree and sing and pray. Does he wonder why we are here? Does his soul receive some solace because of the reaction of strangers? He sits in our circle. He stands and observes our meditations. He accepts our hugs and words of amahoro (peace). A dark cloud forms over the memorial site. As we leave on our bus the rain begins. God cried.

Monday, June 2, 2008

I promised you pictures

This is Hotel La Palisse where we stayed for most of the trip.

We had a full moon the first night in Kigali.

This is the view from the balcony of the hotel.
Here are some links to blogs of others who went on the trip.