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Visiting Prague with my daughter is a dream. The narrow cobblestoned streets, ancient castles, gardens, cappuccinos and …let’s not forget the hot wine! Colorful photos in front of John Lennon’s peace wall and decorative beautiful doors abound.
In the Jewish Quarter The spanish synagogue in Moorish style is magnificently ornate. Arabesque designs fashioned after Spain’s, Alhambra fill the interior and
colorful light pours in through the stained the 19th century stained glass.
But one cannot come here and only enjoy the beauty this city has to offer. We are too close to the places where so much horror occurred. Enter deep into the Jewish quarter and history is steeped in the darkness and memory of the hundreds of thousands Jews murdered by the nazis. It was difficult to focus on the tiny letters of the 80,000 names of the Bohemian and Moravian Jewish holocaust victims hand written on the walls of the Pinka Syngogue .
Even more haunting was the exhibit of children’s drawings from the ghetto of Terezin concentration camp recovered from the suitcase of a deportee. The vast majority of these tiny artists were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz shortly after the pictures were drawn.
The drawings are filled with hopes and dreams of freedom. Teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis helped the children to forget their fears by giving them the creative outlet of drawing.
“Drawing opened the way for the children of Terezin to memories to the world from which they were torn. It enabled them to see and describe a sadness and the appalling reality but above all it carried them away to a world of fantasy and pure imagination where good triumphs over evil, where free will and abundance reign, where there is paradise on earth…. The children constantly expressed in their drawings the hope of the happy return home, often drawing roads and crossroads with sign posts pointing to Prague. Only a small fraction of the small children who passed through Terezin saw this hope fulfilled.”
Quoted from the wall of The Pinkas Synagogue memorial, Prague
April is genocide awareness month and an opportunity to remember those who perished. We cannot forget the victims of countless genocides in history. We cannot forget that the Rwandan Genocide happened 20 years ago this month and we cannot forget those that suffer human rights abuses of death, slavery and torture, today in many places in the world.
I write this week in memory and in honor of the victims of genocide and the brave survivors, some of whom I have had the honor to know in my life and for the artists who offer space for healing expression for themselves and others.
It’s been only 19 years since the genocide in Rwanda and the country continues to work on healing and rebuilding in many ways. Men who grew up during the genocide, when rape and violence towards women was the norm, now need help in understanding the consequences of those events on their lives.
This morning we met with a representative from Rwanda’s Men’s Resource Center, an organization focused on mobilizing men as participants in the process of supporting women and the challenges men face in the changing gender roles in Rwanda today. RWAMREC offers progressive training for men to help understand the importance of partnering and supporting women. The primary focus in Rwanda after the genocide has been on women and the environment often leaving men who have been greatly affected to misunderstand the consequences of what they experienced. The goal of RWAMREC is work with men to help promote positive masculine behavior and socialization towards women. There is a long way to go in this effort but we were inspired by theses steps toward progress.
We then met with MEMOS, an organization founded by Issa Higiro, that brings genocide survivors together with those who rescued them. We heard moving stories from both the survivors and the heroes that risked their lives to hide them until liberation, knowing that if caught, they would be killed. The fearless people who put their lives on the line to save many greatly humbled all of us. We asked many questions of our guests and then showed our respect and admiration through Rwandan Dance and Song.
The day ended with a documentary film by our classmate, award winning filmmaker and actor Edouard Bamporiki at his home in Kigali (He’s pictured here with his beautiful wife, Claudine). The subjects from the film who were Tutsi survivors and Hutu who witnessed the genocide then spoke to us from the heart about their experiences of pain, shame and forgiveness. They were incredible teachers of dignity and perseverance and restored my faith in humanity.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart…” Anne Frank
Last night friends from around the world reunited in Kigali, Rwanda to begin our week long program of learning and reflection. From our summer in Brattleboro, Vermont to the hills of Rwanda, students from Nigeria, Palestine, Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Afghanistan, India and US came together once again to study peace and reconcilliation. It seemed like a miracle, envisioning the planes flying from many continents to this small country in East Africa to bring us back together.
We began the program with a presentation by Suzanne Ruboneka, Director of the Peace Action Campaign for ProFemmes, an umbrella organization that coordinates a wide range of over 58 NGO’s run by and for women in Rwanda.
It was clear from listening to Suzanne that every Rwandan could write a book about his or her story during the genocide. After the tragic events of 1994 the country was 70% women. Many were displaced, had been raped and contracted aids, and most were widows. They had many different political affiliations and did not trust one another. Women had the need to develop their own programs to show their strength and build unity amongst themselves. Profemme began work to help organizations for women develop and through their efforts advocated to change all laws of discrimination to women in Rwanda as well as reach the rural communities and lift women into positions of empowerment through microfinancing.
ProFemme mobilized women to vote and was instrumental in the development of Rwanda’s quota of 30% representation of women in decision-making positions in government. Although the quote is 30% women actually hold 56% of the seats in parliament! Today Rwanda’s President of Parliament, Vice President of Senate, Minister of Justice, Health and Foreign Affiars are all women.
Above, our SIT Director, Adin Thayer, presents Suzanne with a canvas shopping bag as a gift. There are no plastic bags allowed into the country for Rwanda.
The afternoon was more sombering as we entered Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial Museum. Pictured above is one of the “Windows of Hope” in the museum by artist Adryn Halter, whose father was a holocaust survivor of Auschwitz. We each walked the museum at our own pace for 2 hours. The only sound I heard was the tears of my good friends. There are no words to describe the heaviness felt after this visit. Many thoughts and emotions were expressed during our peace circle practice that followed. An excercise where we all learned the importance of speaking and listening from the heart and the practice of bearing witness to things as they are “including all forms of joy and suffering in the world”.
Our Coordinator Issa did a wonderful job facilitating our group through this process and left us wuith a wonderful quote….
“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”- Albert Einstein
On a more uplifitng note… we ended the night with a fantastic dinner at the home of our SIT coordinator from last summer, Jessee Rouette and his wife, Emily who are living in Rwanda for 2 years with their adorable 2 year old son. I had my fill of cuteness playing with him and kept him occupied sorting bottle caps. Did you know that a can of bottle caps can be used to teach colors, help with counting, transform into instruments and get a child dancing? Thats what I love about Africa. We seem to find ways to entertain and interact that we may never have engaged in at home.