by Erica Tavares, 4.23.2008
Today’s experiences during our journey to Rwanda was a surprising one to me. I’ve traveled here with Women for Women International before, and thought I had prepared myself to hear the stories of the genocide survivors, of women who continue to display amazing courage and strength of will in the aftermath of violence that I cannot even imagine. I did not realize how unprepared I still was to face the truth of what happened in Rwanda; I did not realize how traveling to the field for the first time since I became a mother would affect my experience.
Today, we visited the Nyamata Catholic Church, a memorial to the genocide. The church was the site of one of the country’s “church massacres.” In the face of genocide, Rwandans fled to their site of worship, sure that they would find refuge from the violence. Instead, the churches became a lure to help gather those that were to be killed. Once full, churches were systematically and repeatedly attacked, killing all of those who sought safety inside.
In the Nyamata church, 10,000 Rwandans were slaughtered.
When we arrived, we found the church much as it was following the genocide. Although the bodies have been buried, the hole in the church door created by a grenade remains. Hundreds of bullet holes riddle the church doors, walls and ceiling. Blood still stains the floor, walls and alter of this modest house of worship.
Perhaps most chilling, the clothes of all 10,000 victims killed at the church remain inside, piled on the wooden and metal pews. It was an overwhelming site to take in, especially when I saw the shorts from a young boy, shorts that looked like they could fit my own small son. It was at that moment that I broke down and cried. The wave of emotion that washed over me, the tears that came so suddenly took me by surprise. My mind starts to wander to “What if that had been me and my son, my family who sought refuge here?” But I can’t even finish the thought – it is too painful, too paralyzing to think of ever being in that situation. Words can’t express the pit in my stomach, the grip on my heart that even that thought alone brings to me.
Last night at dinner, one of guests commented on the courage of the mothers who have rebuilt Rwanda. “Our mothers are the heroes of this country,” she said. It is such an honor to have the opportunity to be among mothers and women who have sacrificed to rebuild their families, who work each and every day to build a stronger future for their families and for Rwanda. I ask myself, “Would I have the strength to do the same?”
I go to sleep tonight with a deeper emotional connection to what happened here. And I look forward to tomorrow, when we will join a graduation ceremony for women completing our program. I look forward to the dancing, to the singing, to the joy that comes with Women for Women International’s graduations. I look forward to celebrating all that Rwandan women have accomplished. I have not ever come close to overcoming the violence and obstacles that Rwandan mothers and women have faced. But today, I am so much more grateful that I have been blessed to spend even a short amount of time with these courageous survivors. I am honored to have the opportunity. To the women of Rwanda – murakoze – thank you, thank you for all that you have taught me.