Release date
May 17, 2006

A Personal Reflection From Rwanda and Burundi

May 17, 2006, —

Brian Backe, CRS director of domestic programs, was in Rwanda and Burundi during the twelfth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Following are reflections from his trip.

Kigali, Rwanda

God does work in strange ways sometimes

Just a month ago, I had not planned be sitting in a hotel room in Rwanda listening to African music in French, drifting up from the bar as I reflect on the experiences of the last few days. Just to set the stage, the lights are now flickering on and off because of a powerful incoming thunder storm.

I am staying at the Hotel Des Milles Collines, which was made famous by the Hollywood movie "Hotel Rwanda." In this true story the hotel manager (ethnically Hutu) saves the life of hundreds of ethnic Tutsi people by risking his own life to hide them in this place, a nice hotel then and now. Stories are coming out here that hundreds of other Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi people — including priests, teachers and others — did exactly the same thing. Just like some brave Germans who risked their lives to hide Jews in Nazi Germany, many regular people risked everything to save friends and complete strangers.

Tuesday: A taxi driver's story

My morning driver was one of many unsung heroes in Rwanda today. He took in three orphans, in addition to his own three kids, when a close friend and his wife both died of AIDS. He works long hours, and his wife runs a small guesthouse that earns about $5 per day. Their combined income feeds his expanded family and sends his adopted daughter to high school. It is a challenge to make ends meet but, with joy, he told me, "With God all things are possible and I give thanks for my job and health."

Wednesday: 'Never Again' — Rwanda's Genocide Memorial

I braced myself for the first stop in Rwanda — the Rwandan (Genocide) Memorial Museum. In 1994, an estimated 1 million people were killed in 100 days by their own neighbors, friends and even their own in-laws. But, for me, the most difficult things to take in at this museum were the hundreds of photographs of people killed, and the stories of hundreds of thousands of young children cut down by their fellow Rwandans. It is hard to comprehend this evil. Like us, the vast majority of people here — and elsewhere — are the good, kind, generous people that God made and loves. However, fear and propaganda can drive even good people to do really evil things.

Rwanda Memorial Museum.

Eternal flame at the Rwanda Memorial Museum.

Today, thousands of participatory outdoor trials based on a traditional Rwandan process are happening in village "Gacaca courts" across the country. It is hoped that the many cases of public confession and reconciliation will help heal the wounds of this horrible series of events. The Rwandan people, the new government, church leaders, CRS and many others in the international community are going through a long-term process of deep reflection, reconciliation and prayer to determine how things went so wrong and how we can stop it from happening — anywhere — again.

Bujumbura, Burundi, Sunday, 5:00 a.m.

The high-pitched songs of the Muslim call to prayer from a nearby mosque wake me up this morning as the sounds drift through the open windows of my hotel room overlooking this small city. Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, is situated on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, one of the deepest lakes in the world. I can see the edge of the lake and the nearby mountains from my room. It is not long after the Muslim call to prayer that the sound of church bells rings out from the cathedral down the street.

Sunday: Kamenge Youth Center

Imagine a large, clean YMCA. Next, add in a well-lit library full of students on a Sunday afternoon, two computer rooms with internet access, several classrooms with up to 40 students taking classes ranging from English and Italian to math and theater, and young teams playing on soccer fields or a basketball court. In the office, envision stacks of photo identifications for 26,000 registered local youth. Now place this right next to your image of a large African slum.

Kamenge Youth Center.

Hutu and Tutsi youth play together in the game room at the Kamenge Youth Center.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the center is the least visible, at least to outsiders. It was established by a Catholic priest to bring Tutsi and Hutu youth together to play sports, talk, share different religions, exchange ideas and find peaceful ways to resolve differences. Given the history of violent conflict in this community, the center was intended as a forum for growth and healing. Like Rwanda, Burundi has been plagued by ethnic violence and political power struggles for years. As it emerges from civil war, the importance of bringing people together is clear.

Sunday: Missionaries of Charity orphanage

What a blessing Mother Teresa was to the world! I am humbled by the humility of the sisters at this orphanage and their profound commitment to the poor and marginalized people they truly serve.

Sister Anne Claire and Sister Vinya, both from India, met us at the gate of their small, unmarked compound. Just six sisters and a handful of Burundian helpers run this orphanage, which serves 85 infants and young children and a handful of adults. As the sisters led us on a tour of the modest, clean buildings, half a dozen 3- to 5-year-old boys (and a few shy girls) climbed all over us. I had at least one adorable child in my arms throughout the visit. Partly because the government requires all family connections to be explored before a child is adopted by an outside family, these sisters only see one or two adoptions per year, typically to European or American families.

Missionaries of Charity.

CRS provides infant formula to this Missionaries of Charity orphanage.

The sisters' lives can be difficult. Last September, while the conflict was ongoing, rebel troops broke into the compound, spraying the walls in one room with machine-gun fire as the children and sisters lay on the floor. The rebels only stayed for an hour and did not harm the sisters, but they took several girls. Fortunately, the rebels were carrying too much loot from the orphanage, and let the girls go, unhurt, just outside the compound. They returned to the sisters unharmed. The rebels also wiped out the sisters' food supplies, but were disappointed by what they found. The sisters typically eat simple meals of grains and water, but not much meat. The rebels, apparently, had been hoping for better fare from foreigners.

Offering comfort and support, CRS asked the sisters to draw up a list of stolen items. The agency then went through the list, resupplying sacks of rice, grains, sugar and powdered milk, and replacing the stolen plates, knives, clocks and stationery items. CRS also replenished stolen cash, provided the sisters with a new cash box, and hired a welder to repair the lock on the gate.

Kirundo, Burundi, Monday: Missionaries of Charity orphanage

This visit to another orphanage run by the good sisters had some tough moments, like holding the hand of a tiny, sickly baby with HIV or seeing a room full of cribs holding 92 infants, all needing to be loved. Most of these kids have been abandoned by their parents, either through neglect, HIV or for other reasons. Some of these infants, who range in age from 1 day to 2 years, will be taken back by their fathers (if they are still alive), grandparents or other family members. The rest will "graduate" to the center in Bujumbura that handles slightly older children. The sisters and their helpers love these kids with all of their hearts, minds, and souls.

Sister Veronique shows us the "very expensive" Nestlé infant formula "that CRS provides to us" and showed us other improvements like seeds for their gardens from CRS Burundi staff member Kevin Doyle, or bedding for the older women who also stay here. Kevin clearly has a deep affection for the sisters and for the children at this center. One young girl cried when he finally put her back in the crib.

Tuesday: Elvis — A Child Soldier's Story

Elvis is a young Burundian orphan who was drafted into the rebel army when he was 10 or 12 years old. He spent the next four years fighting across the region. To make matters worse, his younger sister was drafted as a porter to carry troop equipment. Like most child soldiers, neither of them had much choice. One day his sister became quite ill and was left on the roadside to die. Elvis escaped and eventually found her. The children somehow found their way to the FVS compound, where they were given a place to stay.

Family to Defeat AIDS.

The CRS-supported Family to Defeat AIDS, known as FVS, works with orphans and vulnerable children.

Family to Defeat AIDS, or FVS by its French acronym, is a CRS partner that works to keep orphans and at-risk children in the community. Right now, the organization has about 15,000 children attending local schools or receiving vocational training. FVS provides school lunches so kids will have a decent meal during the day and parents will be more likely to let them attend school. For some children facing the challenges of HIV and AIDS, FVS also finds foster parents and provides voluntary testing, treatment and medicine.

Elvis' transition was not easy. He was afraid to leave the FVS compound, rarely slept and preferred sleeping outside to staying in the dorms with the other children. But he worked daily with staff psychologists and social workers to deal with his fear and trauma. Elvis, who had received a second-grade education before he was taken by the rebels, wanted to study. Through sheer determination and hard work, he is now in ninth grade, studying at a boarding school.

Back in Kigali, Rwanda, Wednesday: 2:30 a.m.

Today is my last day in Rwanda before starting the 20-hour series of flights home. I am ready to head home and am particularly interested in seeing how we can help Americans get more engaged in the peacebuilding and development work here in Rwanda and in Burundi. The people here are working every single day to overcome the legacy of genocide.

The purple wristband I picked up at the Memorial Museum in Rwanda says, "Genocide — Never Again." That leads me to Sudan. If you do not know what is going on in the Darfur region of Sudan, I implore you to learn more and take action. I hope we can find some creative and practical ways to support the efforts of the people in Rwanda struggling to overcome their recent history; I also hope that people of good will in the United States and abroad can help stop the violence in Sudan and make "Never Again" a reality.

As the CRS director of domestic programs, Brian Backe works to engage the U.S. Catholic community in efforts that benefit the poor overseas. Before joining CRS in 2004, Brian worked with SERRV International to expand the U.S. fair-trade market for small-scale producers in the developing world.