NOVEMBER 2, 2017 – In 2015, to contribute to the efforts of rebuilding Rwanda after the horrors of the 1994 genocide, Professors Robert McAndrews and Christopher Mauriello of the Salem State University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies secured a grant from the Cummings Foundation to support an annual service trip to the African nation’s Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village and sites of the genocide. Having written extensively on mass violence and human rights, I embraced the opportunity lead this trip last spring and learn about the Rwandan genocide directly.
To our group, the significant part of the trip was our stay at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, where the work of healing took on a very concrete form. We, like other US groups, spent a week of service, supporting everybody from the cooks to the students to the village staff while forging deep connections with the students.
The late Jewish philanthropist Anne Heyman founded the village in 2007, after learning about the staggering number of orphans — 1.2 million — left to fend for themselves in the wake of the genocide. She and her husband, Seth Merrin, decided to create a home for at least some of them. They were inspired by a youth village in Israel called Yemin Orde, which initially took in Holocaust refugees who came to the village to study and acquire essential Jewish values of social justice and healing.
In recent years, Yemin Orde began to take in Ethiopian youths and vulnerable sons and daughters of recent immigrants. Both villages focus on tikkun olam and tikun halev (repairing the world and healing the heart). The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village also is supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and while the village is run by Rwandans, they are helped by young counselors (known as “cousins”), most of them young Jewish activists. But what’s unique about the Rwandan village is its ability to integrate — with scarce resources — African culture, a student-centered educational program, and universal Jewish values.
Words can hardly capture the depth of our experience at the village. We witnessed expressions of happiness, hope, and unbounded love alongside dark marks of depression and pent-up pain. So, coming back home was a bit of a reverse culture shock. As one of our students, Sierra Powel, aptly described it: “You get back home . . . and look at all your things and you just feel empty.”
“Swallow Your Tears”
The students and staff at the village hardly speak about the genocide. Perhaps the wounds are still too close to the surface, or maybe they are just too busy looking forward. But the echoes of the genocide are palpable, especially around the memorials built to commemorate the most egregious killings.
We, a diverse group from Salem State University, went to a number of them. At one such site, we saw groups of people milling over large plastic containers and tarps next to the red-brick church. Here, in the Nyamata Church Memorial and its surroundings, some 10,000 people were murdered during the early days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
As we got closer to the hunched people, the picture becomes clearer: They were dusting human bones: hip bones, scapulas, femurs, vertebrae, jaws, skulls. Many of the bones have been fractured by a blunt object or violently cut by a sharp instrument.
The scene was surreal, hard to comprehend. Time, dust, and preservation distanced us — the spectators — from the brutality of the killings. Death in Rwanda has an elusive quality, which left students such as Catlin Dowd “feeling removed.” But laboring people’s sorrow revealed the chilling truth: here and elsewhere, tens of thousands of frightened Tutsis sought sanctuary only to be betrayed by clergymen and butchered by Hutu extremists and ordinary men, even by their friends and family members.
We know the facts: Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were murdered between the spring and early summer of 1994. But we came to realize that the work of bearing witness is a grueling one. It is as if both the dead and the living wished to be left alone. There has been enough suffering; most would prefer not to relive it, especially not for us, American visitors (“intruders,” as a student, Lucia DeRosa, put it).
Ian Palmer, a doctor who volunteered in Rwanda after the genocide, shared this thought: “There is a saying in Rwanda that Rwandans must swallow their tears [“ihangane”]. They do. If they did not, they would surely drown.”
But we are the generation that stood by, so we carry the burden of bystanders and a sense of duty: To hear through the silence, to acknowledge our inaction, to account for the dead. Or, as Catlin put it, “to ensure that the stories and lives of those lost…remain with us.”
Dan Eshet is the program director for the Salem State University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.