Sunday, August 17, 2008

Preface to this blog



When Prof. Donald Miller of USC asked me to join a small group to Rwanda, I never imagined it would have such a profound impact on my sense of identity as an American Armenian, and as a Christian.. It was an opportunity to see post-Genocide society, a decade after the atrocities. I called my trip "Rwanda 2006-Armenia 1925." In other words, I thought by going to Rwanda I’d have a peek at what Armenia might look like 10 years after the Genocide of 1915. The peek was, in fact, an eye-opener.

I am humbled to straddle the FIRST and LAST Genocides of the 20th Century. Growing up with the horror stories of Genocide in Armenia, shared by my grandparents, and now witnessing first hand the atrocities of Rwanda gave me a unique understanding of the bigger issue, namely, it means nothing to commemorate a genocide if we're not willing to stop one today. Through In His Shoes Ministries we're working to eradicate genocide everywhere. We've taken this story and its message to thousands of people throughout the world.

This blog is an account of my journey. It was written during a two week period in March 2006 in Rwanda. It appears below in reverse chronological order.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Two weeks later

Sitting in the comfort of the States. I have three entries which I want to post to complete this set of reflections on the trip. Emotionally the process has been difficult. Life continues and we're now discussing Darfur.

I hope to place those entries in the next few days.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Hug Through Time

3/17/6

Imagine no possessions… it’s easy if you try…

We made a quick stop at AVEGA headquarters. I was happy because I needed to see and hug Josephine one more time. I know it was selfish, but it’s been 20 years since I had been in the embrace of such a powerful lady.

Josephine is a director at the AVEGA headquarters. She was the one who gave us gift baskets to take back to our homes when we first visited AVEGA a couple of days ago.

First looks are deceptive. Usually a positive first impression will lead to some let down when you understand that a person is just a person, and their faults become more apparent. In Josephine’s case, the first impression of a gracious lady was only more fortified when I learned her story. Is it possible that someone rises beyond their humanness in this lifetime? She didn’t share her story with us at our meeting, I only learned of it later when someone pointed out that not only was she a widow but also she had lost all of her children in the Genocide.

Who was this incredible person that could not only stand up after such a tragedy, but take on the leadership of other widows? She was much more than we could have imagined. Josephine, we found out, has adopted seven orphans - the same number of children she lost in the Genocide.

We look for superhuman strength in many arenas. In movies they accentuate strength with flight and invulnerability. We cheer competition on the sports fields and celebrate the strongest, the toughest, the most enduring. We even allow for enhancement of our abilities by taking steroids to compensate for our frailties. And here, on this dusty road in the middle of Rwanda we met real strength – the superhuman type. The godly type. Delicate. Courageous. Inspiring. Josephine was all that, but even more beautiful about her personality was that her warm smile and embrace at our first meeting would never reveal any of her pain. It was there… the pain was certainly there. But she wasn’t going to give evil the satisfaction of her let down. Evil may have won the battle, but she wasn’t going to let it claim the war. That’s it… she’s a warrior….


I guess this is where it begins, in the midst of this trauma. My grandmother had this same type of tenacity in her. She was a bastion of strength, otherwise unnoticed because she was relegated to the stereotypes of grandmahood. She lost her father, husband and one baby during the Genocide. By the time the dust settled and the killings had stopped – in the mid-1920’s, she was a widow, head-of-household tending to her son, her three sisters, two brothers and an ill mother. This was after seeing her home and village go up in flames, her friends brutally killed, the countless bodies she had to help bury along the road to survival. It was after fighting all the diseases (dysentery, cholera, malaria and all the other oddball things for which we get vaccinated) and dealing with hunger, poverty and homelessness after the exile from her home in Sivri-hisar. She ended up in Greece, head of household and head up high. Evil may have won the battle, but she wasn’t going to let it claim the war!

So where did this strength come from? What prevented her nervous breakdown? Why didn’t she just back down and back out? How come she rose not only to the occasion but to the moment of being mother to her own, to her siblings, to her mother – and then, went on to remarry, mother my father AND bring in enough income with my grandfather to provide for her siblings' families. Was she born on Krypton? I know steroids hadn’t been discovered back then.

She had told me her secret once or maybe twice. I needed this trip to refresh my memory. I now remember it was one of my main motivations to enter the priesthood. It was an experience from her life that she shared with me and not many others – at least I don’t remember any public testimonial of this story. It took place on the road of exile. She had just buried her two year old son in an unmarked grave. Her other son was suffering of malaria. She was separated from her siblings – not sure who was living and who was dead. She had absolutely nothing – no possessions. Not sure where she was headed, not sure if she would live beyond the moment.

“On the road, I got down on my knees,” my grandmother told me, “I said, ‘God, I’ve lost everything. I don’t have anything left. All I ask is that you don’t take my faith and my mind.’ And that was it. He’s never left me alone. He’s given me everything.”

Our world is pretty messed up these days. We talk about power and strength in terms of weapons and mass destruction. Imagine if power was found in faith and mass creation. My grandmother went on to create a new life. She was the matriarch of our clan – both my immediate family and extended family. She was the provider for cousins and relatives we never even met. This was real power, it was real strength. The godly type. Delicate. Courageous. Inspiring.

My grandmother died 20 years ago. I haven’t been hugged by anyone that strong – woman or man – since then. On this trip I found her spirit reincarnated here in these widows.

I saw Josephine on the AVEGA doorsteps. I ran up to her and she greeted me with her warm smile. I gave her a small Etchmiadzin cross and knew that that same faith that saved my grandmother was saving these ladies and their families.


© 2006 Fr. Vazken Movsesian

Saturday, March 18, 2006

3/17/06 - Update

Hi Everyone,
Thanks for your comments and your emails. Just to let you know - I haven't had reliable Internet connection in Rwanda. I've been sending blocks of text - a few days at a time - to my sister Anush who has been posting here. That's why you're getting several posts at once.
Thanks for the prayers and thoughts. I look forward to returning next week.
Fr. Vazken

Friday, March 17, 2006

3/16/06 No Peace Without Justice










3/16/06-
AVEGA is a nationwide widows support group – and by support, we are to understand all types – physical, emotional, and psychological. Today we visited one of the their headquarters in the city. Don presented a report which he had prepared – it documents the stories of close to a hundred widows of the Genocide. The importance of documentation cannot be underplayed. This trip is an eyeopener because you forget that their construction effort is truly multi-dimensional. It's important not to minimize the work to be done here in terms of a house here, a building there, a storehouse here or even a bag of rice there. It's rebuilding lives, areas, people, the country.

Systematic documentation of the Armenian Genocide didn’t take place until five or six decades after the event – when many of the survivors were getting old and, unfortunately, many were no longer there to witness to the events. What would have happened if a Don Miller were documenting Armenian voices in 1927? Can you imagine if there were hundreds of thousands of voices attesting to the atrocities? So the work of documentation today in Rwanda has to be on equal par with all the other programs that are in place.

AVEGA has a series of villages where the widows manage and self-govern. AVEGA began in 1995 by survivors who decided to get together to support one another. There are 30,000 widows throughout the country. Their motto is “No peace without justice.” AVEGA is an acronym in French which translates to Association of Genocide Widows-Agahozo. In Kinyarwanda, Agahoza means conciliation. The director of the headquarters was a very gracious woman who presented us with gifts – they were hand-sewn baskets. She asked me, “Father, I give you this basket of peace to store love. I know that God loves the widows and orphans. Please remember us during your mass.” I made a promise that the basket would find its way to our altar where she, AVEGA, and all the widows of Genocide would be remembered in our prayers.

A gift shop outside the facility has the purses and baskets made by the widows. Their revenue funds their programs and gives aid to the widows. This was really a much better way of providing aid to them – rather than straight handouts.

3/16/06 - On the second night of our stay we went to a restaurant across the street from the hotel. There was a cool band playing – keyboard, guitar and drum. They were playing some Frank Sinatra, some jazz and then they went into some Blues. It was a fitting backdrop to the day-end. We had seen too much to process and the music and drinks were some type of escape. On our way out, one of our party had her purse snatched. It happened so quickly and certainly brought an ugly reality to play in the midst of the larger tragedy– the petty stuff is always there.

Fast forward to today – we got picked up in the morning by John. It's been a couple of days since the purse snatching, but he just learned of it today. He felt so bad and took this episode as a reflection on him and his country. So as we’re driving away from the hotel, John tells the driver to pull over near a policeman on thestreet. Then in the local language, Kinyarwanda, he chewed out this cop. From the expressions on the faces, it was something like, “How could you let this happen? What kind of police are you that you let this happen?”

Can you imagine – this was two days later! I mention this here, because he epitomizes the feeling of pride we get from so many of the people we’re meeting. They have a love for their country and their people. It would be easy to abandon this place, but they don’t, they want to make it work.
© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

3/15/06 - "Life's a Long Song...If you wait, then your plate I will fill."

3/15/06
“Life’s a long song… if you wait then your plate I will fill.”


I just had dinner with the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray.We’ve had all our meals together as a group this week– tonight was down time, we were on our own. Went to the restaurant and found the pastor sitting alone, and I joined him. What an opportunity to have dinner with the Rev. Murray. We talked shop – about the ministry. He’s been retired for the last two years and working at USC. I know his record – he brought around the Black Church in Los Angeles with an echo that has been heard around America. As readers know, I think we as Armenians have so much to learn from the Black Church experience in America. The Martin Luther King Jr. retreats that we’ve organized through the In His Shoes mission have always used the Black Church as a paradigm for our survival as a religious entity and ultimately as a people. Need I mention that the Civil Rights movement in America, during the 50’s and 60’s ushered in an era of ethnic pride which lent itself to a ripe climate to have monuments and commemoration of the Genocide.

I remember those years, it was then that we began speaking about the unspeakable. And God had brought us together to minister on this trip. And tonight – it was less grandiose, it was a sandwich for him and spaghetti for me, in the middle of Africa. Rev. Murray is a preacher. He’s a poet. He has a way of stringing words. This morning he preached at theWednesday morning service at Solace Ministries. It was a gathering of genocide widows and orphans. He was powerful, talking about pain and suffering. He was on target, helping to ease the sadness and raise their spirits. He is the preacher’s preacher. It was a type of support group, and at the same time a type of religious service, where some 200 men and women gathered in a cement structure. The slab walls had some large open holes – glassless window spaces –open to the outdoors. The women sat in front because they were the target audience, it was a gathering of widows – the men there, were also in pain as their expressions betrayed them. Many were widowers. A young man on a keyboard and another on an electric bass began some background music for us. A group of five girls came up front to sing, one of them stout, a bit heavier than the others, was the lead singer, bringing a synchronization to the group. (An Aretha, or Gladys in the making… )

The group sang to the audience who by this time was packed into this area, sitting in tight proximity. They would be in this position for the next two hours. John introduced us to the congregation. I looked to my left, down the hallway that brought us here, it too was now packed with people. The hurt was tremendous and everyone needed to be healed. Sadly, it was their hearts that were broken. No need for John Hopkins, no need for trained surgeons, just some old-fashioned love and attention.

Once again, John made the proclamation as he spoke to us, “These are people who have been told they are cockroaches. What do you expect? They have heard they are cockroaches for so long and then they are treaded like cockroaches, killed, raped, crushed. Many people thought God had forgotten about them, but today you show us that God never abandons, he never forgets his people. You are here doing God’s work by giving these people value and dignity.” It was the bottom line to these experiences – it was being with the people, to hug, touch, cry and laugh with them – that was the bottom line on this expedition. We were sitting in front of these widows and orphans, many HIV/AIDS infected who were isolated and stigmatized.

In his concluding words, Rev. Murray took a 5,000 francnote and showed it to the people. He asked them to identify it. Then he went through a process of wrinkling, crumbling, and even stomping it. He asked them how much it was worth then? The answer, like their lives, was obvious – no matter how bad the struggle, the value of life would never change. A few members of the congregation gave their testimony. One young man – early 20’s – though his face and stature would make you think he was 15, began to tell his story. He’s an orphan head of house. He lost his parents. They killed his father in front of his eyes. He watched the rape of his mother. He lost everything. He talked about his father’s killers – they lived down the street from him. He even confessed that he was tempted on several occasions to pour gas on their home and kill them, but he knew he would end up in prison. He did spend some time in jail for an altercation with the killers. It is the ultimate injustice if you think about it. How much is a person to endure, to live next to his father’s killer?

He said at this time he’s learning to deal with the pain. He’s thankful to Solace Ministries for giving him the support, becoming his family, to make it through. He concluded his message with another confession – this one was very painful, coming from this little-boy-turned-man. He said to this day he hasn’t been able to cry. There were two other testimonies this day. Each one very graphic. Each one causing women to break out in strong and loud wailing – as a chord or nerve in their own life was strummed. Like the young lady, who was 11 years old when the Genocide took place. She watched her sisters be macheted. And watched as they ripped her mother’s head off her body and in some ancient practice, the perpetrators drank her blood! And here she stood, dazed and confused with only the family provided to her by Solace.

After each testimony, before and after each service, the crowd went into a echoing of “Halleluiah.” It was a word I heard my grandmother use when I was kid. I never knew what it meant, only that she would blurt it out whenever she was excited by the thought that she was alive by the Grace of God. I saw my grandmother many times here. She was in the singing. In the painful reflection. In the young girls-turned-mother. In the orphan head of household. She was sitting in front of me. She was saying“Halleluiah.” She was a child when her childhood was robbed from her. She was sitting there not knowing that her next 60 years would be filled with bruises, pain and shame. She would laugh and smile one day, but it was only a temporary cover to the deep pain of losing mother, father, sister, brother.

Today, was the first day we felt the heat of the equator. The morning was hot and during this service it started to shower, in fact, it rained so hard that the splashes were reaching us on the inside of the structure, through the window-space. It was a reminder of our position on the globe and a reminder of the need for a cleansing – a shower type. The noise of the raindrops and the thunder drowned out some of the wailing. Though we all know the sun will be up tomorrow, for today, it was an end to this service and these bizarre stories of inhumanity.

© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

3/15/05 - The AOCM and Visits with Orphans

3/15/06 -
Arpi is an ancient Armenian name. It is the sun, it is the light…Naftal is the President of the AOCM = Association des Orphelins Chefs de Menages (Association of Orphan Heads of Households). This man has business savvy with enough personality to either make it big or get himself into trouble. After a few minutes of talking to him you realize he’s in the first category. He’s going places and more importantly, he’s taking his organization to the top. We arrived at the AOCM headquarters in the morning and got a briefing on the operations. They were formed by16 orphans of the Genocide, ages 15 to 25. These are COMPLETELY orphaned kids – not even extended families! No aunts or uncles! They formed together because they all understood their problems as no one else did. They brainstormed objectives and goals. AOCM became the family the kids lost – the organization became the parents and had the challenge of finding shelter and education for its children.

Don and Lorna Miller have been instrumental in helping this organization get off the ground. They are referred to by the group as the ‘parents’ and, of course, Arpi is a natural sister. Later that day we met Naptal’s family – his daughter is a year old and named Arpi! The shelter solution began by building 82 houses. Their management skills and commitment to the cause was noticed and in Apri,l a few of the executives are going to Sweden to claim a prize - they are being honored for their work. The smallest prize they can win is $20,000 – but they’re hoping for the bigger prize because with little amounts, they can do great things.

Education in Rwanda is mandatory to sixth grade. Kids who are looking after cows or tending farms do not go to school. Up until now, AOCM has provided education for over 300 students. Kids usually have second jobs to raise money for education. Taxis are popular second jobs. Very popular are the motorcycles, which you see throughout the city and countryside, always with two people riding. The bike belongs to the fellow up fron t– the one with the helmet and the passenger is a paying taxi client. They also have projects which create jobs, for instance, raising livestock in the Congo (neighboring country) and raising tomatoes.

The AOCM functions as the extended family for these kids by providing food, supplies, advocacy and social workers. They build houses for the orphans to live with their siblings. Once an orphan gets married, s/he must leave the house and form a new family. A house costs $5,000 to build – that includes land and construction. The cost of education is relatively cheap for us, but extremely expensive for them. Colleges – public costs about 30,000 francs a year($70) and private costs about 100,000 francs.

We went to look at some of the AOCM projects – we began by going to one of the villages where they had constructed a set of houses. Each village has its own group of leaders – again, it's important to remember, these are all orphans – young kids. Each house is built according to a pattern – they all have four concrete walls, two bedrooms about 8x10 each. Detached from the main house is a structure which has two outhouses (male/female) and a kitchen. No running water – the closest source is one hour away. The outhouses are pits. We entered the first home. The residents greeted us – one was 11 years old and the other was 13 – that means they were babies at the time of the Genocide. We came unannounced but the leaders of AOCM gave them assurance that it was okay to accept us. They were two beautiful girls, shy and coy. We asked questions and then they asked us about our lives. A couple of Catholic pictures hung on the wall. This home had some furniture – two chairs and a table. The second homehad no furniture. It had a scriptural passage hanging on the wall, written in the local language and a picture the English soccer team.

Their day begins with a stroll for water, prep for school and then school. Then in the evening coming home, tending to chores, homework and finishing before dark because there is no electricity. In the dark, they get together to play, sing and - on holidays - they dance. The girl who greeted us in the second home was 21 years old, though you’d think she was 15 at the very most. She was the oldest of 7 siblings. They all lived in this house – same set up: two small rooms. She was the head of this household. She was orphaned at age 12– leaving her with her family. We talked to her, but she was genuinely shy. Her hair was braided. MostRwandan children's hair is either shaved or cut very close to the scalp - I imagine to curb the spread of lice? Her hair and her neighbor friend’s hair were braided. She said that she makes a small living by styling hair and uses her head as advertising.

We asked her if she had any questions for us, to which she honestly answered, “What can you do for me?” There you have it! What did we expect she would ask, “What’s the weather like?” “How many TV’s do you have in your home?” “Is it true that Coby signed a $50 million contract?” What a way to bring us back to the pain. Here we are looking and reviewing these houses and these lives as if they were some experiment in building or neighborhood planning, when the real question is simply put: I’m 21. I’m taking care of six brothers and sisters. We’re in a house that’s smaller than your garage. We have no running water, no drinking water and food is a luxury. What can you dofor us? That was a nice awakening for us, but the real surprise came afterwards when we said, “What would you like?” Okay, get ready… here it comes… and we were probably already thinking of the solution – a trip to Costco, pay the shipping and let’s get it to her – go ahead, tell us… What would you like? Her answer was as simple as she was: “I would like your advice. Tell me how I can move ahead? Tell me what I should do?” We are challenged by materialism. Can we possibly think that people have dignity? That maybe not everyone is looking for a hand-out? That maybe, there are people who are genuinely concerned with their plight as a human-being rather than a consumer? This little girl just wanted some advice… a few bits of encouragement… to know that life would get better for her… to believe in a brighter tomorrow… to know that she may have been treated like a cockroach, but today she was being received as a person.

There was some exchange of addresses, some talking and some hugging. We made our way out knowing that we would be back here somehow – by getting these people the help they needed. We knew it then, and I pray we’ll remember it later. On the way out I met two equally beautiful and responsible young men – one was Robert and the other Gilbert. They told me that their role (at age 20) was to help one another in the village. As I heard this the words of my superior rang in my head – "Give kids fun. They don’t want responsibility!" Isn’t remarkable how little faith we have in the future of our species?

We took a drive to the next stop, one of the AOCM projects: a pig farm! This was a self-sustaining venture. A large family greeted us at the entrance.I ’m not sure who was who, but there was easily 20 people in this extended family and they probably needed all the hands to tend to these massive hogs! There they were, the pigs, going crazy, yelling, screaming, squealing at us in the loudest, most obnoxious sound you could imagine. This was one of the few stops where I noticed all of us taking out our cameras and snapping away. I’m not sure how obnoxious that must have seemed to our hosts…. A group of people come out from America to see our operation, and they’re overjoyed by a bunch of pigs!

The operation is pure business, involving the raising of livestock, perpetuating the business through breeding, selling some and offering pigs to other communities to start their own business. Each pig can have a litter of 12 – some are sold, some are given to other orphans. After each pig has birthed twice it is sold for money to be used by the children of the AOCM.They make about 10,000 francs per pig. This huge farm had no electricity.

The AOCM is a model business and shows what can be done with willingness and determination, but also witha lot of street smarts. The Board is all volunteer. They are the executive organ of the organization. The AOCM cares for 7,000 people throughout Rwanda. They have 3 employees, an Executive Director, a Social Worker and a Project Manager. They are funded by different sources, especially SURF – the Survivor’s Fund, based out of England. This group also funds AVEGA (the widows) and Solace. Along with Naftal, we had Bonaventure, who spoke English very well. He told us there are more than 400 families on the waiting list for housing. AOCM has a website on the internet -- http://www.aocmweb.org/english/

© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

3/15/06 - Solace Ministries and John's Story

3/15/06-
Profound Learning: Machete is a verb. I've also recorded these observations about Rwanda: they have bananas and sugar cane growing all over. There are no old people – no grey-hairs. Either the mortality age is low, or they were all killed during the Genocide. I don’t know the statistics, but during a drive through town you see literally 1000’s of people and they are all young people – yes “all” is used intentionally. I haven’t seen old people. The females outnumber the males 3:1 – 75% of the population is female but you wouldn’t know it in the city where it's mostly young men “hanging out” while the females you see are more in the villages.

Finally, I haven’t seen the DMV manual – and this may be an unwritten rule, but I’m certain the right-of-way is given to the biggest van, then cars, then motorcycles then pedestrians. It’s like playing dodge-ball with autos as the ball. (We have a great driver.)

From John about Solace Ministries --as the name implies -- their mission is to give comfort – solace. The words "trauma and counseling" were unknown words before 1994 in this country. Tutsi/Hutu: No one really knows what the differences are. They are artificial dividers. (Like all dividers in life.) The Catholic Church put a separation between the people to suit their needs (yes, the parallel to the Armenian Church and politics is noteworthy!)

Genocide didn’t just happen all at once. There were killings along the way. In 1964, there was a mini-genocide sanctioned by the government – and at that time there were no human rights organizations in the area. John was kid then and remembers the days. He remembers hardship and poverty after that period. His father burnt their belongings rather than giving it to the government. Entire families were thrown in the rivers. He remembers his father had a Bible – the only thing he kept and read it. John went through a period of alcohol dependence to escape reality. God delivered him.

In 1970, John wanted to be a medical doctor but couldn’t because of his social status and no money to get out of the country to study elsewhere. He had no refuge but God. 1982 and 1992 brought other massacres throughout the country. Genocide began on April 6, 1994. On April 7, thousands were killed. John and his family were praying on the night of 4/6/94 – "... the Lord is a haven; the Lord is a fortress. " They thought scripture was talking to them. News came that night that the president’s plane had gone down and he had died. April 7 – they attacked John’s house. His wife prepared the children to die – all together – but John refused because he remembered God’s promise to him the night before in the Biblical words.

They hid in a wardrobe which they have to this day. It is filled with bullet holes. His daughter had a stubborn cough and he had to have her muffle it. In the wardrobe he felt her ribs and realized she hadn’t eaten for a while. She was starving. They stayed there for five days and miraculously, he discovered some chocolates on the top shelf of the wardrobe which kept them alive for the duration.

On April 27, he learned that his parents and 10 siblings were killed. John felt it was all over. But he would live to tell the story. He made a promise, a vow, that if he survived it would be for the widows and the orphans that he dedicated his life. He stayed in his house for 3 months with a faith that the Lord will never let the righteous go hungry. He had food for those months – the mushrooms that grew around the house. Once a bomb came into the compound and did NOT hit his house. It hit, instead an avocado tree and the ripe avocados fell and became food for the family.

John was hired by an American NGO and he saw the pain even closer. In prayer, God told him, “Comfort” –because you have been comforted, so also you must comfort others. This is how Solace Ministries began.

The army took over the city on July 4th, (what a great day!). Remember that the widows who had contracted HIV/AIDS were allowed to live because they themselves would spread the disease -to help do the work of the enemy. CHH= Children headed households. These are 9-12 year olds who had the responsibility at the genocide of taking care of their siblings. Solace does, counseling, evangelism, children outreach, health/relief, capacity building research and community development. Evangelism is important because it is not in our imagination that God is working here. Health/relief because of poverty there is no access to medicine.

HIV/AIDS has infected many of the women who have been raped. Receiving a cow is a sign of good friendship.When we met with the women at Solace ministries John invited them to testify, so that we know that God is still working and still alive. This affirmation was reoccurring in John’s dealing with the people. It's obvious that trust has been lost. He called them up by saying, “You survived for a purpose –to tell all nations that God is not idle, but that this area is special! That you are special!”

The more I learn about Solace the more in tune I am with their mission and work. Readers who are familiar with the In His Shoes mission can see that patterns are paralleling the Solace platform. I’m finding that purpose – a Divine purpose – is a goal for all of us. “One of the ways God’s love is shown, is with the presence of these people. Just imagine, they are coming here from the strongest country in the world to be with you!” After the death of the President the killing of all Tutsis was ordered. Women and children could not run like the men. They were beat with clubs. Children were chopped with machetes. The lady at the Solace shelter (with scars) – all of her children were clubbed to death in front of her. Her parents, brothers and sisters all died. She remained alone. The lonelines sstarts here. Add to it the stigma that comes with AIDS and you can understand the value of Solace in providing not only a family, but care. When the RPF arrived, she was taken to the hospital. As people share their pain, others nod with agreement, revealing the extent of Genocide.

Next door to the Solace shelter is a large field where children played. When we drove up they all greeted us,“Bonjour.” They extended their hands to shake. I’m not really sure what’s the accepted way of greeting. For many of the grown ups they will extend their right hand and with the left, they will grab their right forearm. For others it is an embrace that puts about 6 inches between you and the greeter. Yet others will give the triple kiss – one cheek, the other, then back to the first.But the most awkward greeting is the open palm, with the words, “Give me…” It’s sad because your immediate reaction is to help by reaching into your pocket, but we are told over and over again not to encourage this behavior. It fosters reliance – and subliminally, reliance on white people!

Where did this habit begin.In Kigali, or on the roadside, they come up and say,“Give me…” with their palms out. It must have begun with the first relief workers who provided and now its turned into this awkward greeting. We ended the stay at Solace with lunch at a nearby house.
© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

3/14/06 - The Question of Co-Existing

3/14/06
A few years back, my bishop, Abp. Vatche Hovsepian visited Der Zor. He returned to give us a testimonyI could never remove from my mind. He remembered grabbing a handful of sand off the desert floor and feeling pieces of bones, then some 80 years after the Armenian Genocide. His emotions – his loss for words were a powerful descriptive. “Nothing which is hid shall not be revealed…” You can never hide this type of evil.

It's only been 12 years since the Genocide in Rwanda and all over you see references to it. Signs, memorials – they are there. But the expressions in the faces – is it fear? Suspicion? Some happiness and joy peppered amidst it all. But there is something strange going on here too. There is no denial! The Genocide is recognized – two ways – first by the perpetrators, which is the major recognition. They are having trials, against the criminals. It’s a slow process, but still, its there. Secondly, it is recognized by the people themselves. The murderers are living with the victims – many times on the same streets, in the same neighborhoods.

Rwandans are called to this ultimate challenge – to live in harmony with the enemy. It becomes obvious very quickly that there’s something unusual going on here. It's not only that they’ve survived genocide, it's that they’re somehow dealing with the bizarre state of life. Like the Armenian Genocide, Rwandans were killed in their own homes and homeland. Unlike the Armenians, Rwandans are back on their historic homeland after the Genocide. And along with them are the same people who perpetrated the Genocide. In reference to the Genocide they refer to the perpetrators as “the people.” We know about Tutsi andHuto, but you won’t hear it from them. And with good reason, the killers are living right in the same town with the victims/survivors.

We’re hearing stories of people seeing the killers of their parents on the streets. We’re hearing stories of victims dealing with the assailants. One man told us how he has to see the man who killed his father almost daily because he is living right across the street. Not to mention that the distinction is part of the reconciliation effort, but most everyone knows who is Hutu and who is a Tutsi. According to the history, the class distinction between the two groups was a creation during the colonial era, circa 1890s, and the Catholic Church. Later it became used by people to separate and put enmity between brothers and sisters.

So what about the perpetrators? They’re living in the mix. Some of the highest-level criminals are involved in the Gachacha (sp?) trials and even trials in Tanzania. Here is the frightening part of the equation – they, the perpetrators, are here and they have a story. Is this a story that needs to be heard? It’s an uncomfortable path to go down for the obvious reasons. Is anyone interested in hearing the story of the perpetrator? Would you listen to Talaat or Hitler’s side of the story? Perhaps, if you can use it to see how these types of events develop.

These people were brothers and sisters, living in the same region, the same street. What makes one man rise up and butcher his neighbor? Is there some directive, or some persuasive sales pitch that makes the irrational seem rational? You could possibly understand one or two deviants in a population, but how could a whole group of people take a path of barbarism? This is the same guy who just a few years ago stopped his car for the kids playing in the street and in the next moment takes a machete and chops up the child. This is the same woman who folded clothes with her neighbor and in the next moment is the loyal wife of a husband who rapes and beheads her closest friend.

And as you hear the stories of the survivors, the brutality with which the killings took place jump out at you like a spear through your heart. The stories I had heard as a kid – of pregnant women whose bellies were sliced, of babies being tossed across bayonets –makes the killing of a person with a bullet through the body seem humane. What kind of monster does this kind of act? And next… after the dust settles, that monster is going to live across or down the street from you???? And you’re expected to coexist?

Here we are in Africa, not knowing where this small detour in our lives is leading us, but knowing that there are some answers here for everyone – the Rwandans and us. For me, there’s a connection and an answer.
© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

3/14 - Solace Ministries

3/14/06 - (Writing time) A nice hot shower takes away your irritation, but not the pain. At least it washes away the dust – left from walking through bones and remains of the genocide. Our day began yesterday – 3/13 - with a tour of Solace Ministries – a small NGO that was going some big things in Rwanda. We met John and Ben from the ministries, both Rwandans, both survivors of theGenocide. During an early morning discussion, John explained what the perpetrators of the genocide expressed about the baby murder. Why did they kill babies? The rationale was given – that these babies would grow up to be the killers, so they need to be exterminated early.

They took us to Solace Ministries Center where women who had been raped and left widowed after the Genocide were finding solace. John gave us a background to the Genocide and his personal struggles growing up in Rwanda. We heard the stories of Hutu and Tutsi, but it was all mixed with the sadness that bottomed out on neighbor hurting neighbor. “Twelve years ago everyone abandoned us,” John told our group. “Some thought that even God had abandoned us. But today we know he hasn’t because you are here. You have spent your money and time to come and visit us.” I'll write more on Solace Ministries in a bit.

We loaded up in the Toyota van and headed off to the village of Bugesera. There we would see Solace in action. The road to Bugesera was one of the worst, they told us. It was a dirt road with holes and breaks. Very bumpy to say the least. At the village we found a group of women. They were widows of the genocide. They ranged in age, but I’d say most were in their 30’s or 40’s, though the toll of life betrayed them with and older appearance. You have to think 12 years ago they were all young brides. A few got up and gave testimony. One beautiful lady with a huge scar on her cheek also showed us her back. The scars were the gashes of the machete blade.

It’s difficult to kill someone with a machete. You need power, they told us. You need to repeatedly hit and beat. This woman watched as her children were beaten and killed. She saw her whole household – parents, brothers, sisters die. And her story was not unusual. It was the story of most of these women. A large number of these women also were HIV/AIDS infected. They were raped during the genocide, infected and left to die. The perpetrators of the genocide, they told us, would not kill women that they raped, because once infected, they could then spread the killer disease to others.

A young 19 year old girl got up to speak. She began by telling us she was 7 years old when the Genocide took place. She tried to go on, but her story wouldn’t come out. She was overtaken by tears and emotion. One of our group members, Renatta works with trauma patients all the time. She went up and gave her a hug. Rev. Murray did the same, insisting that the girl didn’t need to continue. They introduced us to the group. Don and Lorna have been to Rwanda 8 times. What a comfort to these women to know that people from outside cared so much for them! Don turned to me and asked that I say a few words. He introduced me as a grandchild of Armenian Genocide survivors. The ladies listened attentively. I tried to speak but got choked up. Was this not the scene of our parents? It was like looking through time in the aftermath of our Genocide, where women, children came together… where good intentioned souls got together to help. Did our mothers have the same support that these women have? How could they go on with their lives?

I was in front of the group briefly. I told them that we were kindred spirits – that in standing in front of them, I was seeing my parents, my grandparents. Tears started flowing from them and from me. We spoke of the resurrection… that beyond every crucifixion there is a resurrection. The women nodded in agreement. I explained that as Armenians we had known persecution since the early centuries but knew very well that God never abandons us. It was an exhilarating and moving few minutes.

Outside the kids huddled and laughed. Life was continuing. The meeting of the widows broke up with Rev. Murray’s prayer and blessing. One woman got up, with a smile that didn’t masquerade her pain, but certainly revealed her joy. She insisted that she would not leave until she got a hug! The next few minutes were what we could describe as a hug-for-all. A lot of energy was passing through that gathering. The kids came up to our car with big smiles. They all spotted my BIC contrasting against my shirt. And my sunglasses – well let's just say the pen was more important for me, so the glasses went. We had lunch at a small house – where one of the Solace leaders lived. I had a some crosses fromEtchmiadzin. I asked that they be distributed to all the women in the shelter. In a small way, a blessing from one Genocide to another was passed through the symbol of suffering and the symbol of victory.

We drove on through to the site of a large-scale massacre – a church. It was were 5,000 Rwandans had been hiding, betrayed by the priest and then killed. The bones were still there. It was truly silencing.What could you say against an atrocity the size of this? We walked through the church. The bones still on the floor. A few hundred skulls had been rounded up and placed on a display. Other bones were bagged. Ben said that when he first came here – when Solace just started, the flesh of the dead were still on thebones. It's been 12 years now. It was a terrible, terrible site. We made our way back to the car and back to the hotel.

Here’s some discussion: Why? How could people be so filled with hatred that they would not merely KILL but they would sadistically destroy? How could they kill babies? How could they shove machetes in a woman’s body and then twist it? How could they? How could they…? How could they…And the bigger questions are coming…I haven’t been able to find Internet connectivity yet. There is MUCH more to write, but trying to find the place (and now the time to write) is becoming difficult. Off to another day now. Will write later.

© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

3/13/06 - The Genocide Memorial and Worship Service


3/13/06 (Writing time) -
It's 4:00 AM – My day began a while ago. I caught up on sleep, but I’m out of sync with local time, so what? The sun is coming up. Rwanda is awakening. I can hear the birds outside my window. Turned on the TV to pick up the latest news. The BBC and CNN are the main news sources here – both are blaring the news of Slovodon Milosevic’s death. Ironically, it was the first news we got when we got to Rwanda. One genocide was melding into the other, even as we arrived here in Rwanda – even for me, a grandson of survivors with all the feelings and pain that we’ve known throughout our lifetime.

Sunday 3/12 -- So with the history of Bosnia being broadcast over and over on TV yesterday, we made our first stop - the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. It was incredibly emotional. Outside we saw the mass graves. They were large concrete slabs which housed the bodies of genocide victims. Two hundred and sixty thousand(260,000) bodies were accounted for in these graves. The memorial also had a genocide museum next to it. One of the concrete blocks was open. It was the latest grave to be filled. As remains are found, they bring them to the Memorial where they are interred. Inside the graves we saw the caskets – stacked. Each casket contained 4 to 60 bodies. That was the rule. The bodies were sometimes decomposed, sometimes ashes –that’s how they put them in one casket. I prayed the “Hokevotz” to myself. It is the requiem prayer of the Armenian Church. It was too overwhelming to be at this site. Armenian Genocide in my head, thinking of the graves that our grandparents never had– thinking of denial and barbarism, of hatred – how it could be so powerful to take out entire populations.

I touched the grave. A light powder of cement stayed on my hands for the rest of the memorial tour. We went inside to the museum. A Rwandan tour guide greeted us. She told us that over ONE MILLION Rwandans had died. The museum was very nicely constructed and the displays were graphically inviting. Everything was written in three languages – the local language, French, and English – and in that order. We saw the disgrace of humanity, over and over. We saw the role the Church had played in promoting separatism and class struggle. We read, we wept, we stood in silence. A couple of stained glass windows on both sides of the building were symbols of endurance, of life continuing.

Rwanda is about the size of Armenia and has about three times the population – just over 8 million. All around, you saw people. They were out on the streets – walking and talking. Is this what life is like without TV and all the other detractions that prevent us from living? You mean people may actually find that socializing with each other, playing together and going through life hand-in-hand is conducive to a healthy soul?

After we spent time in the exhibits, we went upstairs to the second portion of the exhibit. It was a museum for all acts of genocide! Here in the middle of this poor country called Rwanda, in the middle of Africa – I found a museum with the pictures I had grown up with – it was a wall and video dedicated to the Armenian Genocide of 1915. I was too overwhelmed – standing there and reading the stories I knew so well – the stories of the Syrian desert, of rape, of massacre, of butchery. They were the same stories I had heard as a child – the same stories that we read about on the first floor regarding the Rwandan genocide – the same stories over and over again. What’s wrong with those people who look for an argument against evolution? Isn’t this it? Is there a greater argument against evolution, than this? How dare we say the human species has evolved when all around us we see the proof of the same hatred and the same killings?

I was silent from this point on. I couldn’t contain my emotions. In the middle of Africa, to find a genocide memorial dedicated to the Armenians! Next to it was an exhibit with hundreds and hundreds of pictures of children. All small photos/snapshots. A statue says,“I never asked to be an orphan.” I sat there and looked at the face of a child. I saw my grandfather. This kid's skin was black, my grandfather’s wasn’t. This kid saw death in Rwanda and my grandfather in Armenia. I stood in silence, in tears because it all made sense. I was color blind. I was living a dream. I was seeing all of the children – as children of God. The tour guide found me in that room. She came and apologized, “I’m sorry.” What was there to apologize for? She didn’t want to see my sadness, her stories were no less difficult and tragic.

I went outside the memorial and waited for the rest of the group. We were going to a church service that evening. Don came by and said that we probably wouldn’t have time to go. I mentioned that it would be good to go, just to let us know that life does go on after this. We packed it up and drove off to the church. Throughout the streets, people all over the place. The sun was setting – it was getting dark. You’d see these bright faces shining at us in the headlights. A big sign over the bridge said, “Jesus Christ.” I assumed this is where we were going and we did.

Church had started. The pastor was talking. He in French, and next to him a woman echoed in the local language. We sat in the back. They moved us to a nice spot. I sat next to Chip Murray. He’s one of my idols from years ago, an honor to be on this journey with him. He was the pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central Los Angeles. He brought hope and dignity to a lot of people. It was surreal to be sitting there in this church. Soon they sent over some interpreters to sit with us and give us the English take. Our group was sitting together, and the interpreters came right in –squeezed into the spaces between us. They’d echo in English, though I think the gentleman who was translating for Chip & I was definitely on his way to some preaching in the future. He was ferocious in his zeal for his faith and what was going on at this church.

The church is a big large hall. Stage in the middle with a few arm chairs placed in the center. A podium –and to the side a band set-up – drums, guitars and keyboards. The pastor preached. The congregation was made up entirely of young families. He got some applause along the way. The message was one of God being with us – all the time – God never abandoning us in our most difficult times. Unexpectedly, he called us up. Chip and I went up onto the stage. It was like looking at a miracle when you consider the genocide scenes we had seen just a few hours earlier. This was the power of God and I announced that to the congregation and thanked them for the opportunity. Chip gave a blessing and the crowd broke out into a round of song and praise. It was 7:00 p.m. – a quiet dinner in the hotel and we were off to bed.

© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

3/12 - First Impressions of Rwanda

3/12/06
Nairobi airport: We’re in Africa – the “mother continent.” We’re still dazed because of all the time differences. We’re now headed to the goal – Rwanda. You can stroll through the airport and feel all the different countries and kingdoms that this continent is home to. The ornamental clothes, the head dress, the skin – in different shades, different patterns, different wrinkles.

The duty-free stores are filled with American items/products. We made our way to the Rwandan Express terminal. There’s probably one jet in the fleet, and we we're going on it. The man at the gate saw my passport and greeted me as “bishop.” I explained that I was a priest. He smiled and took me through this very light security detail. I think there was no x-ray machine – they just put our luggage through a machine – but I don’t think there was anything being scanned. It was very relaxed. In fact, one of the machines didn’t even have a person on the other end – the bags just went through!

We walked over to the plane. All of the luggage we had check in at LAX was out on the tarmac next to the lane. We had to identify our own – if we did, they put that piece of luggage on the plane. If no one claimed the bag – I guess it stayed there. We were all excited. The moment was a good one, we were getting close to our destination. It was Don’s 60th birthday. One of the ladies from USC – Beth – got the pilot to announce the birthday, and they brought over some champagne. It was a nice surprise. Anyone who would want to celebrate their 60th birthday in this type of environment certainly deserves a lot of recognition.

The champagne came in glasses with stems. I think my suspicions about no x-ray in the machine were right. This was just a relaxed way to fly. We arrived in Kigali – the capital of Rwanda – an hour and ten minutes later. They distributed small questionnaires as a prelude to the customs routine. It asked “Surname” and the second line said, “Christian name.” Nice touch – especially considering that baptismal names sometimes don’t stay throughout life. (Hmmm… the passport situation wasn’t going to leave me alone, even here!)

We went through customs. They stamped our passports and we were on Rwandan soil. The police/military were around. No weapons showing, but the bourees were a nice trademark. Outside the terminal our hosts – from Solace Ministries – had gathered. They shook hands, some hugged, all smiled. They took our luggage – wouldn’t let us touch or be burdened by baggage. We got into a Toyota van and took off to the hotel. It was the same type of van Paul drove in the movie Hotel Rwanda. That movie was our tour-book up to this point and soon we would get the real thing.

Driving to the airport – people were on the streets. I remembered it was Sunday. People were walking, moving. They were dressed up. They were dignified. It as a town full of life! It was happening. The homes/huts would signal poverty by all of our standards, but you couldn’t say that about the life on the streets. It was rich life. Of course, it was my first impression – just driving through. We got to the hotel. There was small video store next to it with a poster of Don Cheadle – advertising HotelRwanda. It was the only mention of the hotel. You would think there would be a marking on the wall – something to say that here the brave and heroic acts took place just 12 years ago. It was a hotel, with front-desk, with computers behind the desks and ellhops ready to take our bags to our rooms. We checked in. Freshened up and so began our first day.

© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

3/12/06 In Flight Over Africa

3/12/06
I’ve lost track of time – all I know it’s early in themorning here, because in a 2.5 hours we’ll be landing in Nairobi and the local time there will be 7:30AM. The airline provides a small video screen next to each seat which keeps flashing pertinent information, such as expected time of arrival, ground speed, altitude,outside temperature. Also they flash a map of the continents – with a graphic representation of our airplane flying to its destination.
We started in London, south through Europe and sometime around midnight, we arrived at the edge of the African continent. Egypt and the pyramids (if we could see them) - right outside the window!
The small little clip-art airplane moves along the screen from London to Nairobi. Just about a half an hour ago it showed that we flew over Darfur. I couldn’t help but feel the symbolism in this fly-by. The passengers on the plane are asleep. The lights are dim. Every here and there you notice the glare of a video monitor, for those of us whose body-clock is out of whack. Genocide is taking place six miles below our plane! How far is that? Glendale to Burbank? Mothers are being raped, fathers are being killed, and a new generation of orphans are being formed. And the plane cruises on – probably on auto pilot – as the passengers may or may not notice the small dot on thescreen that says “Darfur.”
There’s a eerie parallel to our Armenian Genocide.When you read the articles and accounts of 1915, it was SO evident that a systematic extermination was taking place, and like the passengers on this large Boeing 767, the entire world flew over Armenia, most of them asleep and certainly, most of them unable to understand the scope and magnitude of Genocide – not only for the people dying in Armenia, but for the scars that would haunt generations to come.
© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

Saturday, March 11, 2006

In London

Made it to London - at Heathrow right now. The entire trip to Rwanda is going to be 23.5 hours in the air. So we just completed the first 10 in British Air. How can I describe the trip? Imagine Southwest Airlines, packed & cramped. Then imagine the flight lasting 10 hours!

OK, that's the last complaint (a minor one) because from here on it's going to be different and certainly moving. We travelled with Professor Don Miller (Director of the USC School of Religion and Center for Religion and Civic Culture) and his wife, Lorna. Together they have authored the "Survivors" book -- interviews with Armenian Genocide survivors. At their home we saw a book - pictures & stories of the Orphans of Rwanda. They refer to them as their "kids" and from what I understand the kids affectionately refer to them as their parents.

So the journey has started. I appreciate the comments and prayers. I can feel them. I'm off to Nairobi now and then Kigali from there - my next post will be from Africa. Take care.

©Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Night Before

Getting ready for the trip. I'll be spending time in Rwanda, 12 years after the Genocide. Imagine Armenia in 1927. What would we have seen? What would we have heard? That's the trip.