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Surviving genocide: Stories of horror and hope in Rwanda

October 18, 2012
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Ufiteyezu Manzi David got emotional as he told his cousin how as a boy he escaped from the men who killed his family in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The men chased him and his grandmother into a cattle shed, causing the frightened animals to run. The assailants, who also hoped to steal the livestock, ordered Manzi to round up the cows.

“I ran in the same direction the cows had gone, but I never returned,” he said. “Before I left, I saw them hack my grandmother with a machete.”

The horrific anecdote is part of Stories for Hope, a project that is helping to revive Rwanda’s storytelling tradition – one of the casualties of the genocide that killed 800,000 men, women and children in the central African nation.

Genocide survivor Ufiteyezu Manzi David with his cousin Nyirahategekimana Marie Josie.

Genocide survivor Ufiteyezu Manzi David with his cousin Nyirahategekimana Marie Josie. (Photo courtesy of storiesforhope.org)

During the past four years, nearly 100 such conversations were recorded. They went on exhibit Oct. 12 when the Rwandan National Archives opened for the first time in nearly two decades after being decimated in the violence.

Stories for Hope was founded by a University of Michigan Ph.D. alumna and psychologist who joined forces with an archivist from U-M’s School of Information.

The project lets a Rwandan young person invite an elder to have an audio-recorded dialogue to learn more about the elder’s personal past, the country’s history or its culture.

Rwandan facilitators encourage elders to tell stories that underscore their strength and resilience as a way to help young people find positive pathways forward. The conversations are in native language and translated later into English.

The genocide began in April 1994 after the mysterious downing of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane, which ignited longstanding ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis.

Hutu extremists used the president’s death to rally soldiers, militias and ordinary Hutus to attack the minority Tutsis. Announcements over the radio exhorted Hutus to exterminate Tutsis like cockroaches. The slaughter lasted about 100 days.

In the Stories for Hope recording about Manzi’s survival, he tells his cousin how he watched his grandfather, uncles and siblings get burned alive in a fire built with wood and gasoline.

He doubts that bravery saved him because he says he was only a third-grader and not old enough to be courageous. “Perhaps I could say I was able to disguise myself when I went to different areas and pass as a Hutu,” he said.

Life is still a struggle for him because he is an uneducated laborer who makes little from the odd jobs he’s able to find.  But he tells his cousin that life has improved in Rwanda for young people.

“My final piece of advice is that 15 years after the genocide, we are blessed with opportunities to study and prosper which did not exist before the genocide,” he said. “Be disciplined and don’t be distracted by negative influences because this will not benefit you.”

After the genocide, there was a “pact of silence” between generations about most any story about the past, said David Wallace, a lecturer and research investigator at the School of Information.

“Elders became unwilling to open the vault of their personal pasts for fear of inflicting painful stories,” Wallace said. “Young people sensed those fears and withheld their questions. A pact of silence grew up around most any story about the past.”

Although the genocide was the impetus for the project, it’s not the only topic of the conversations, said Patricia Pasick, project founder and Ann Arbor resident. Questions about family and work history, marriage practices and Rwandan culture are as common as questions about the genocide.

Pasick remembered a young woman who seemed nervous before a session with an uncle.

“It turns out she had a simple question,” she said. “She wanted to get married to a young man, and she needed to ask her uncle how she could possibly get married if the young man didn’t have a cow to give to her family. She feared she could never marry him because he was so poor. The uncle said, ‘That was then … you can go along with your wedding.'”

In another story a widowed mother tells her son for the first time who his father was, how they became estranged and how he died. But she encourages him to ask more questions and reassures him that the genocide won’t happen again.

A father tells his son how his life went off track from alcohol and how he hid the family in a forest during the genocide to resist joining a killing group. The son was immensely relieved. He had assumed his father was a perpetrator.

A young man tells a friend how he was hurt both physically and emotionally when a neighbor he knew well threw a grenade at him. He encourages his friend to share her own story.

Participating in Stories for Hope eventually led the young man to visit the neighbor in prison 15 years later after the attack. The two reconciled.

A facilitator (left) sits in on a conversation between participants of Stories for Hope.

A facilitator (left) sits in on a recorded conversation between participants of Stories for Hope. (Photo courtesy of storiesforhope.org)

Pasick said the participants of Stories of Hope come together for a one-hour conversation.

“We say, ‘You have an hour. Young person, ask what questions you’ve always wanted to ask. Elder, make sure that you tell a story that you think this person really needs to hear to go off into the future with some hope.’ These one-hour discussions catalyze many more hours of talking at home or in the neighborhood.”

For the people who took part in Stories for Hope and for those who listen, whether in Rwanda or beyond, Pasick and Wallace hope the project can link the past and future in a constructive way.

“The past can be a place of great pain and a place of great learning. It can help to enhance our own humanity because these primary materials can connect you with people in a way that nothing else can,” Wallace said.

The dialogues and their place in the Rwandan National Archives send a strong message of resilience to Pasick.

“The stories say this: We survived to a point where we are intent on preserving what happened as a way of not repeating it,” she said.

Many of the stories are posted at the Stories for Hope website: http://storiesforhope.org

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