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At Yad Vashem, Rwandan Survivors of Genocide Find Support and Insight

November 8, 2005
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Beaten and shot at by a machete-wielding gang, Hilarie Mukamazimraka was left for dead in a pile of bodies during the bloody days of genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Touring Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial recently, the photos of Jews marching toward their deaths called to mind her own slaughtered people.

“It reminded me of all we went through,” she said. “I cried a lot and could barely stand.”

Along with a group of 20 Tutsis, many of them also survivors of the Rwandan killing fields, Mukamazimraka spent eight days at Yad Vashem learning about Israel’s experiences in memorializing victims of the Holocaust.

In workshops, lectures, tours and discussions with Holocaust survivors, the group learned how they might begin the process of transferring the horrors they experienced into concrete memorials, testimonials and commemoration rituals.

Yad Vashem can help share “what worked and what did not work” in the Israeli experience of memorializing the Holocaust, said the museum’s chairman, Avner Shalem.

Yad Vashem’s experience in research, education, marking milestones and “how to rebuild a sense of trust in mankind” could become valuable tools for the visiting Tutsis to take home with them, he said.

Mukamazimraka’s husband, parents and five of her eight siblings died as an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were murdered by their fellow countrymen in just 100 days from April-June 1994.

Most of those killed were minority Tutsis and most of the perpetrators were Hutu, the ethnic majority in the central African country. The massacres have become one of the most obvious examples of state-sponsored genocide since the Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust.

Some of the Tutsis at Yad Vashem said they were especially moved by the testimony of Holocaust survivors and how they communicated their tales through writing and art. Mukamazimraka, 37, a lawyer, said she has been inspired to write a book about her experience.

After being left for dead, she eventually opened her eyes and realized she was still alive. She crawled out of the pile of bodies and made her way to the bush, where she hid and survived on fruit she picked.

Tutsis say there is a high level of denial among Hutus about the scope of the killings, and many survivors are ashamed to tell their stories. Among them are women who were raped and now shy away from testifying against their attackers in the community courts set up to try suspected rapists and murderers.

The Tutsi group learned that during Israel’s early years, Holocaust survivors also were not encouraged to come forward with their stories in a country that wanted to project an image of Jews as heroes, not victims.

But they were emboldened to hear how survivors went on to forge productive, vital lives and now tell their stories without reservation.

“We feel close to them,” said Auschwitz survivor Zvi Michaeli, 88, who met with the Tutsis. “We experienced the same things, the same killing and discrimination.”

At a workshop Sunday, the Tutsi group discussed how to begin the commemoration and education process in their country with educators from Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.

One of the educators, Doron Avraham, spoke to the group about answering the nation’s need to come to grips with the massacre by spreading awareness of what happened, and how, during those murderous days.

“You are the people who experienced the disaster and now you are the ones responsible for spreading awareness about it,” he said to the group, which listened to a French translation of his words.

The wounds of the Rwanda massacre are still fresh, and the fears and hatreds that predated the genocide still exist.

Furthermore, thousands of the murderers — who took machetes to their own neighbors and even, in some cases, their own relatives — still live alongside the survivors.

“We live among the murderers of our own families,” one young man in the workshop said. “So it’s difficult for us to change mind-sets. Your people also took time to rebuild.”

Avraham told the group that in some ways it was easier for Jewish Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives because most had relocated far from the killing fields.

As the minority in Rwanda, the Tutsis said they feel alone in their struggle to recover from the trauma of the genocide. Yad Vashem educators encouraged them to collect testimonies and tell their stories as a way to include the entire society in the reconciliation process.

The seminar was sponsored by Nyamirambo, a Tutsi NGO based in Belgium and Rwanda, and the French Memorial of the Shoah.

It was Yolande Mukagasana, Nyamirambo’s director, who initiated the idea of coming to Yad Vashem. Struggling to come to terms with what happened to her family in Rwanda, she became interested in the Holocaust and began meeting with survivors and visiting Auschwitz.

Mukagasana has published two autobiographical accounts of the Rwandan genocide, in which her husband and three children were killed. One of the books recently was translated into Hebrew.

Michaeli, who survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, told the Tutsi survivors he hoped they could find a way out of their violent past toward a safe and productive future.

“I told them that now that they have a new government, they need to find a way to unify together and to forget the past,” he said. “We have not been able to do that, but I hope they will have better luck.”

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