Not afraid to shake hands with the devil

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Chance meeting banishes ghosts of Rwanda

Out of the Fog (on Rogers Cable) presented quite a powerful interview last week with General Romeo Dallaire (left), who was in town to receive his Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from Memorial University.

Senior Producer Roger Samson engaged Dallaire in a compelling, brutally frank discussion about the genocide in Rwanda and, as always, the general left us with much to think about. At one point, Dallaire said, in effect, that the genocide in Rwanda did not penetrate to the core of our consciousness; that most of us were too busy dealing with day-to-day lives to comprehend the true gravity of what was happening, when it was happening.

This comment resonated with me because I was one of the few if you accept Dallaire's theory who actually did take this tragedy on board.

It haunted my days and nights, right from the start.

I was a new father in 1994, when news of the genocide began to filter out of that lush little African country. My little boy was just two years old. Every day, I would take him for meandering walks, during which we inspected bugs on the road, threw rocks into the ditch and fed apples to the horse at Somerville Meadow.

The highlight of this trip was an old path that linked Monument Road to Miller's Road, in Topsail. It was quiet and wide, with exposed roots, a carpet of pine needles and moss, surrounded by stands of old trees with a canopy that shredded the sun's rays into confetti.

It was here that the ghost of Rwanda first touched my shoulder. I have an overactive imagination anyway, and was digesting news reports of how Tutsi families had taken to the forest and were being hunted down and killed by the Interahamwe. I was watching my little boy toss pebbles into a brook, keenly aware that we, too, were standing in a forest... when I heard a twig snap behind me.

My heart leaped into my throat as I spun around. Nothing there. Probably a cat or a squirrel. But for that split second, I was deathly afraid. I could imagine with sickening clarity how those parents must have felt upon being discovered by the men with machetes.

Those ghosts followed me throughout the genocide, which started in April and ended in August of 1994, as the images on TV grew progressively more hideous; the piles of bodies grotesquely higher. At night, my thoughts were intruded by visions of a faceless mob surrounding my home, the deep rumbling voices of the ringleaders, coaching neighbours how to kill neighbours. I agonized about the abject horror felt by parents unable to protect their own, and the indescribable terror of the children as they searched for mercy in the faces of their attackers. I came awake suddenly from dreams too frightening to describe.

But the worst place was that path through the woods. I walked it daily at my son's insistence, and each time felt the dead eyes of the killing mob peering from the shadows.

I was not a working journalist at the time and didn't have a ready outlet such as a column or editorial to purge my outrage, though I did talk about it to others. I remember saying to a co-worker, Did you know that right now, there is a stadium full of refugees and the UN is going to pull out and let them die?'

It was tough. Last year, I read Dallaire's bestselling book Shake Hands With the Devil'. That was hard too. The turning of each page awakened ghosts long dormant. Fortunately, I was able to set them aside for the most part each time I closed the book.

Last Friday, in one of those wonderful parallels that can only happen in real life, I met a young woman who had been to Rwanda at an event a stone's throw from the venue where Romeo Dallaire had received his degree two days before. I was volunteering as a career mentor at a Junior Team Canada luncheon at Memorial University, when I met Sarah Pyndji (right), a Grade 12 student at Prince of Wales Collegiate.

Sarah has lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Uganda and Tanzania countries that surround Rwanda and has visited Rwanda twice. "Although, I did not go through any strife, I saw people around me slowly being crumbled down by disease and poverty," she told me.

Her family was living just 25 km from the Rwandan border when the genocide broke out.

"The Rwandese people including men, women and children were running away from all the turmoil in their country to Kivu province, knocking on our doors asking for food. My mother's sister at the time lived in Rwanda and her husband was killed by the Rwandese Hutus as he himself was a Tutsi something that will haunt that family's hearts forever."

The tensions in Rwanda have mostly ended and the country is healing, a point made by Dallaire on Out of the Fog. These days, Sarah is preoccupied by more serious issues in Africa.

"There's something else that I have seen that eats physically, mentally and emotionally at the hearts of many Africans, and that is AIDS. You know what? It gets so tiring hearing all this about Africa, when I know that something can be done about this. Most people who have died from AIDS didn't have any education at all on the disease. The solution is simply education. In Canada, children have books and resources, and awareness of AIDS is everywhere. Consequently, the contamination risk is very low. But just imagine Africa where million of kids are homeless and uneducated, busy roaming the streets with no food to eat and no shelter. Of course there's higher risk of AIDS ruling over Africa."

Sarah said it seems as if Africa is "becoming lazy" and leaving the rest of the world to solve its problems.

"I believe that the African nations can use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses," she said. "I grew up in Africa and saw people around me who were unbelievably smart who had the best ideas and suggestions, but were too afraid to speak out or simply didn't have enough education to pursue their goals. The African nations need to come together and start planning how each country can spread the word out more, especially in the rural areas. Money should be spent towards building more schools, and taking those kids off the streets which would bring down the level of crime, and make sure they are in school each day to ensure that they have hope for the future."

Sarah has been studying in Newfoundland for 18 months, and lives with a host family (her family is in Arusha, Tanzania). She plans to enter university in Canada to study humanities and political science, then return to Africa to do her part in turning things around.

"I want to work in an international organization that will help me achieve my goals so most probably the United Nations," she said. "I do not want to be a bystander, the girl who stood by and watched her continent destroyed by a disease that could have been prevented. My dream is to see Africa growing out of what it is... breaking out of its shell, and showing the world that we're worth more than people think. My goal is to travel throughout Africa and set up centres all over, where young people my age could understand issues that prevent them from growing... I want to make sure that Africa has a voice."

Sarah is just the person to give it that voice. At 17, she has seen more pain and suffering than many will in a lifetime, yet her mood is upbeat and she is determined to make a difference. I walked away from our meeting energized and feeling optimistic about the fortunes of a troubled continent, half a world away.

I know now that the future of Africa is in good hands, and my own lingering ghosts of Rwanda have been banished forever.

NOTE to Editors: Sarah is available for media interviews. Contact me if interested.

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Recent comments

  • Keith
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Really enjoyed article about General Dallaire and Sarah Pyndji. I know Sarah very well and, speaking as an educator, human rights activist and human being, I certainly hope people contact her and invite her to speak. Her message, like that of the General, may be the most important one they'll ever hear.