Yad Vashem Hosts Eight-day Seminar for Tutsi Survivors of Rwandan Atrocity

Amiram Barkat
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Amiram Barkat

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heros Remembrance Authority hosted this week for the first time a delegation from the Tutsi tribe, survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, for an eight-day seminar.

The Yad Vashem staff leading the seminar said they were amazed at the identification of the survivors of the Tutsi genocide with the Holocaust despite the differences in time, place and content. The seminar was devoted to the formation of memory and the return to life, and included meetings with Israeli Holocaust survivors.

Some of the Rwandan guests experienced emotions they had not released before. For Jacqueline Mukandaga, it happened when she saw a photo of a pile of bodies from the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia. Mukandaga said it brought her back to April 1994 when she saw again "how the Tutsi were brought to the city stadium. They were told they were being brought together to protect them, and then they started to throw hand grenades at them. I remember the screams, not of the victims, but of the people who stood on the surrounding hills and watched the massacre. Every time a grenade was thrown, they roared as if a goal had been scored."

Mukandaga said she did not cry that day, or when her brothers were taken from her home and executed, and their dismembered limbs were laid at her door. She added that she believed she had become a person without feelings but since the visit to the museum she has not stopped crying.

Shlomo Balsam, who took the group through the museum, said he was overcome by the emotions of the guests and broke down in tears during the visit. "I realized right away this was not going to be like other groups," said Balsam, who has been a guide at Yad Vashem for 28 years. He added that the group was mesmerized by Michal Rovner's multi-screen video exhibit of Jewish life before the Holocaust.

The seminar at Yad Vashem was conceived by the writer Yolande Mukagasana, a survivor of the genocide who fled Rwanda, and whose autobiographical book, published in French in 1997, has recently been translated into Hebrew. After the genocide she began to take an interest in the Holocaust, visited Auschwitz and met with Holocaust survivors.

Mukagasana said the encounter with Jewish survivors helped her more than anything else to deal with her trauma.

"Other people, even psychologists, only know how to take pity, not to help.The meetings with survivors led me to understand what I feel: guilt that I remained alive and my children did not. The sense that perhaps we too were to blame. That perhaps the murderers were right and we were really sub-human."

The Holocaust survivors who took part in the seminar initially expressed doubts that "something would come out of" the experience. "They look too young to be survivors," one of the Israelis said. "They are probably second or third generation."

Jean Bosco Awiman, 24, who lost his entire family, asked Elizer Stern, 50 years his senior, if he would ever be free of the trauma. "You will have to struggle against it all the time," Stern said.

"They are new in this," said Holocaust survivor Genia Vitman, "but they have the same problems."

As in Israel of the 1950s, the Rwandan survivors feel no one wants to listen to their story, and they find themselves constantly having to explain that there was nothing they could do to prevent the horror. However, the Rwandan survivors face a more difficult challenge: Many of the Hutu perpetrators refuse to acknowledge their guilt or ask forgiveness.

"We live among the hangmen," one Tutsi visitor put it.



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