Sixteen years after their parents were murdered before their eyes, Rwanda genocide orphans get rare chance to start anew in unique youth village. Join an Israeli delegation from Children's Home in Netanya on a once-in-a-lifetime journey.
The tear driers
Sixteen years after their parents were murdered before their eyes, Rwanda genocide orphans get rare chance to start anew in unique youth village. Ynet reporter joins Israeli delegation from Children's Home in Netanya on a once-in-a-lifetime journey
Shlomit Sharvit • Ynet
RWANDA – Many Israeli schools send their students on educational visits to the Nazi death camps in Poland in hopes that they'll come back more mature and more humane. Last summer I had the privilege of accompanying an Israeli delegation with similar objectives, but a different destination. The plane carrying a group of at-risk children and teenagers from the Bet Elazraki Children's Home in Netanya landed in Rwanda.
In 1919 Rwanda underwent a major change when it became a mandate territory of the League of Nations under the administration of Belgium, which introduced the doctrine of racial superiority to the former German colony. By measuring the skulls and noses of the locals, the Belgians created a racial-based division between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes.
On April 6 1994, the plane carrying Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down. Despite the fact that it was not clear who was behind the hit, media incitement against the Tutsis intensified, and the Hutus were urged to rise up and massacre them. Thus, between April and July of that year, close to a million people were butchered, stoned, shot, raped and throw into the river.
The genocide ended when Paul Kagame, an exiled Tutsi who lived in Uganda, returned with a small army and took control of the country while putting an end to the killing.
Leaving trauma behind
Some 250 people who were orphaned in the genocide currently reside in the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), and many more are expected to join them in the coming years.
Each year four Rwandan orphans with the most difficult life stories join the other orphans at the village. During the first year, the orphans work on catching up with their school work, and a strong emphasis is placed on English language studies. The remaining three years are dedicated to science studies, after which the orphans are able to enroll in universities and return to their communities as knowledgeable professionals and potential leaders.
"Here in the village, where the conditions are comfortable, the teenagers can finally leave their 'responsible adult' role behind, deal with the trauma they experienced and cry it out of their system," said Anne Hyman, who founded the village.
The village, which is designed to care for, protect and nurture these children, is a place of hope, where tears are dried (signified by the Kinyarwanda word agahozo) and where the aim is to live in peace (from Hebrew, shalom). According to the village's website, the marrying of the two concepts in the name of the village is intended as a "reminder of the success of similar efforts in Israel, where genocide also changed the face of a nation."
During their second, third and fourth year at the village the orphans do tikkun olam (Hebrew phrase meaning "repairing the world") in nearby villages. Among other things, the orphans help the needy and elderly cultivate their lands and help widows rebuild their mud huts.
The Israeli volunteers staying in the village explained to the delegation members that due to their traumatic past, Rwandans did not explicitly say the names of their tribes or ask for a person's origin.
Social involvement is relatively developed in Rwanda – every last Saturday of the month, work is halted across the entire country for three hours, in which everyone volunteeres for the community.
But in Agahozo, there is another rational behind the idea of tikkun olam – the desire to help their neighbors, who witness the orphans' good living conditions, thanks to donation from around the world, so that no animosity is created.
People in Rwanda fully realize that education is an essential factor in finding livelihood and being able to step out of poverty. Therefore, the government is doing everything in its power to give citizens a high-quality education, and free compulsory education until the 9th grade.
All 16 boys and girls at the Agahozo youth village live with an alternative "family," which includes a matron and an adult guide. In the evenings, they all gather for a talk, a symbolic act that parallels "family time."
Compared to the Israeli group, which is load and disorderly, the Rwandans seem soft spoken, obedient and mundane. They repeat each other's words and report on a "good physics class, a good computer class and good afternoon workshops."
After the first evening at the youth village, I wondered whether the two groups will find a common ground, given the immense differences between them.
But it turned out youth is youth, and the strong bond that was created surprised everyone who took part in the process.
Without a computer or plasma TV readily available, and with the common denominator of "not growing in mom and dad's house," flowing hormones and broken English, the groups formed true friendships and held heart-to-heart talks.
They discovered they all enjoy watching Bollywood movies, playing basketball and soccer, and dancing and singing.
'Proud to be Israeli'
Three beautiful girls – Zehava, Shlomit and Neomi, Israelis of Ethiopian descent – confused the young men who wondered if they were "Muzangos" (white people) or not.
After all you've heard of Africa at home, do you feel like you are on an ancestry trip? I asked 16-year-old Naomi. "I suddenly realized that if my parents wouldn't of made aliyah, I could have been the one wearing the torn dress and running enthusiastically after the 'white man,' like the children we met today," she said.
"I am proud to be Israeli, and happy that my dad gave me an opportunity to live a better life than the one he had," Naomi added.
The difficult trauma is also evident in the educational process the students go through. "In Rwanda, the youngsters have a lot of respect for elderly people," Mr. Wilton, the school manager, explained.
"We preserve this wonderful tradition, but also teach them to think independently, hold a dialogue and take responsibility for their actions and choices. This way," he added, "If one day a person tells them to hurt another person, they will understand and know that they have the right and duty to say no."
During the first evening we joined "family time," I immediately noticed a scar adorning the forehead of Prosper – one of the camp's guides and a Tutsi tribe member.
On one of our joint excursions to the nearby lake I couldn't resist, and asked Prosper if he would tell me about his past. Prosper said he would like to share his story with the entire group, and so it was decided he would speak before our visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, a museum that commemorates the Rwandan genocide.
The top floor of the museum is dedicated to all nations that experienced a Holocaust. Two rooms on the floor were devoted to the eastern European Jews' Holocaust.
Slaughtered with machetes
In 1994 Prosfer was 12 years-old. His father and older brother worked in Uganda in order to support the family. One day, a few Hutu tribe members came to his house and searched it while looting many of the family's possessions.
For many long hours, Prosfer, his mother and six siblings stood in a line facing the wall with their hands over their heads. The intruders said they would keep them this way until the father and son return, so they can finish them all at once.
However, after three days with no food or sleep, the assailants took the family members outside, lined them up next to a toilet pit and slaughtered them with machetes.
Prosfer loved his mother dearly. While his family was being murdered, he stood by and held her hand. He was the first to receive the machete blow in the back of his neck. His mom was next in line. When he turned around to see if she was still alive, he was shocked to see that her head was separated from her body and was rolling next to him.
While Prosfer retold his story, the camcorder I was holding shook uncontrollably. Prosfer leaned over his mother's body when one of the assailants came back to "finish the job." Prosfer quickly turned his head and held his hand to his face, and so the machete hit him in the palm of his hand and his forehead.
After many conversations with the Tutsi tribe members, I decided to also hear the other side. Theo, a bartender at the hotel we were staying in and a Hutu tribe member was 7-years-old in 1994.
"I didn't really understand what was going on," he said and explained that for a long time his tribe members envied the wealthy Tutsis, who collaborated with the Belgium regime and were given the exclusive privilege of taking care of the cattle, which made them look down on their fellow Hutu brothers.
According to the local custom, Theo didn't mention the names of the tribes, but described how "the short people" chopped up the "tall people," while slowly waving his hands to simulate a machete.
"And what now," I asked. "Now everything is OK," he quickly replied, as if to follow the mantra common among all Rwandans these days. "Rwanda is united, we are all Rwandan. There is growth and forgiveness," he said.
I met Peace in one of the family nights I joined. Peace is a 16-year-old, shaved-head girl with the voice of an angel. "I forgive the murderers of my parents," she declared solemnly.
"I am not forgetting, just forgiving. I have to focus on me and my country's future, and believe in peace and quiet. I will study and sing as much as I can in order to get ahead. I will not reach a good place if I deal with revenge," she said.
But when I asked Prosfer the same question, he said he does not forgive. In a forgiveness ceremony held at his village, the murderers claimed they only beat him with a stick. The scar on his face was enough to prove their lies, and when Prosfer asked them to admit to the murders and apologize, they refused – so he is not forgiving.
As part of their preparation for the trip, the Bet Elazraki Children learned how to assemble and fix bicycles. They also each saved up NIS 2,000 (about $560), to help finance the purchase of 25 bicycles, which they brought as a gift for the young Rwandans.
With the bicycles, the young Rwandans can easily reach further distances, in order to help more people as part of their tikkun olam activities.
Behind this extraordinary delegation is Sima Simon, a 38-year-old high-tech woman from the central community of Yanuv. She is also the mother of three children – the two eldest are her biological kids and the youngest was born in Guatemala.
Simon, who took part in the Israeli delegation that flew to Haiti after the fatal earthquake, was surprised to receive criticism such as "help your own poor first." When she returned to Israel she searched for a volunteering framework that would combine social action in Israel and global volunteerism.
Simon fundraised and coordinated the entire trip to its finest detail. Some of the budget was taken out of her own pocket, while the rest was raised from big companies and private donors.
After completing their mission at the youth village and to conclude their trip to Africa, the Israeli delegation went on a site-seeing tour across the country, which included climbing on a volcano and visiting a Rwandan safari.