EEFJE DE VOLDER
On 20 June 2013, an interview took place with Mama Lambert in the Synagogue in Tilburg as part of a commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi’s, organized by Intervict Tilburg University, Academic Forum and the Mukomeze Foundation. Mama Lambert, a genocide survivor who lost five of her children, her husband, her parents and many more family members and relatives, conquered her trauma and now works as counselor to comfort other traumatized survivors for Solace Ministries, a Rwandan organization by and for genocide survivors, many of which endured sexual violence as well. In the interview with professor of legal philosophy Bert van Roermund, she talked about her own experiences of trauma and healing and how she forgave the man who killed five of her children. This article provides her personal insight in the process of reconciliation, healing and forgiveness in Rwanda, 19 years after the genocide. The article concludes with a special afterthought of mr. Jean Pierre Karabaranga, the Rwandese Ambassador to the Netherlands.
Interview between Bert van Roermund (hereafter BvR) and Mama Lambert (hereafter ML).
BvR: By way of introducing yourself, could you explain how you were given the name Mama Lambert, since it is not your real name.
ML: My real name is Beata Mukarubuga. Beata means ‘blessed’. After the genocide, I did not want to be called ‘blessed’ anymore: Beata without husband, without parents, brothers and sisters. Beata without five of her children. Beata without a house, cows, anything. One of the other survivors proposed to call me mama Lambert, mother of Lambert. Lambert is my youngest son, who was only one year old during the genocide. After I had to flee, I took him, tied on my back. Three months we had to live in the bushes. With our feet in the water, no food and continuously frightened for the killers who would send dogs into the swamp to find us. In my son Lambert I recognize God’s protection. Until now, everyone calls me mama Lambert: mother who survived with her son Lambert.
BvR: You went through all these horrible events of the genocide, losing five of your children, your parents, your husband, relatives, brothers, sisters. I can imagine it could be such a traumatic experience that it would literally paralyze you for the rest of your life. Somehow you managed to become a driving engine of a survivor’s organization, Solace Ministries, that supports widows and orphans. How did you come from that deeply traumatic experience and awareness of being a survivor of the genocide to generating the energy and the drive to support others?
ML: After the genocide it was not easy. I was very traumatized. I passed the night without sleep. I would call my children and my husband. I decided that the only way out was to kill myself. I cried, only cried. I hardly took care of myself and my son. I was severely traumatized and as a result I also traumatized him. I lost everyone; what was the use of having him? In 1995, the cousin of my husband told me about Solace Ministries.ii Solace is an organization that comforts widows and orphans and those who are HIV positive. These widows and orphans form a new family. For those who lost family, the orphans become children and the women become mothers and aunties to the orphans. Solace Ministries started with a few women and nowadays has more than 60 communities spread over Rwanda. I met Jean Gakwandi, himself genocide survivor and founder of Solace Ministries, and through a process of healing I was able to conquer my trauma. I have been comforted by Solace Ministries and then I wanted to help others. From 1995 to 2000 I did this on a voluntary basis, since 2000 as a staff member of Solace Ministries.
BvR: You say that you have been comforted and now you comfort others. Can you say something more about what comforting people actually is?
ML: Comforting is a process. The first phase is to listen to the stories of the survivors. Listening is a very vital part of healing a trauma. Survivors lost families, properties, relatives. At times they don’t know what happened to them. In other instances, they witnessed their and other killings. If someone is traumatized, the person is not accepting him or herself. They normally don’t take care of themselves. It may be a process of months, but more often it is a process of years. This is what many people tend to forget: the lengthy process and complexity of trauma counseling, particularly after conflict situations. After healing, they need to receive support to move forward, such as education, income generating activities and agricultural projects. Remember that these people lost everything during the genocide. The Rwandan government tries to assist the poorest families by providing one cow per family. Solace Ministries also provides cows to the communities. Cows are a status symbol and an important form of nutrition in Rwanda. Yet, during the genocide all the cows were slaughtered and eaten. When people have cows they can sell the milk and for those who have land the compost can be used as a fertilizer. Especially for those survivors with HIV-aids, the milk from the cows gives them good nutrition, which is important for the effectiveness of the medicines.
BvR: Solace and comforting thus is not just listening and healing but also the mobilization of capabilities and possibilities to live on, even in the economic sense of the word?
ML: Yes indeed. Solace Ministries has been able with the support of Mukomeze [a Dutch Foundation supporting particularly genocide survivors who endured sexual violence during the 1994 Genocide, in cooperation with Solace Ministries, EdV]2 to provide fruit plants and cows to families, to support orphans in pursuing a university study as well as making income generating activities possible through microcredit. However, counseling remains an important part of the process, particularly in the cases were girls/women and men were raped during the genocide. Counseling is done in group and individual sessions. Yet, many survivors of sexual violence are HIV infected, while both rape/sexual violence as well as HIV-aids are controversial topics in society. Therefore we sensitize in the individual counseling sessions on HIV and discuss why it is important for them to take an HIV-test. If the person turns out to be HIV positive, we will continue counseling on the importance of taking medicines and ensuring good nutrition as well as how to deal with the disease.
BvR: It is one thing to become a driving force behind this network of Solace Ministries and to help build that network and to do the counseling and healing, it is another thing to enter into a forgiving relationship with those who actually killed your loved ones. You can do one without the other. Nevertheless, there are people in prison who killed many people in the few months in 1994, among them those who killed your loved ones and somehow you managed to enter into a relationship of forgiveness with them. What gave you the strength, the motivation to do that?
ML: Forgiveness is a step by step process. You cannot start to talk about forgiveness with someone who is traumatized. Some people start to talk about forgiveness in the early stages, but that is not good. It is important to first be comforted, subsequently be healed and supported to get your life back on track and then, as a last step, you can start thinking about forgiveness. Forgiving for me was difficult. Many times I forgave others before. In 1959 we forgave; in 1963 we forgave. Even in 1973 when they tried to kill and rape me, we forgave again. When in 1990 tutsi’s were imprisoned, we forgave. But after the genocide, I did not want to forgive anymore. It was difficult. When they would talk about forgiveness, I would leave. In 1995, I was comforted by Solace Ministries, and after healing and comforting others, I continued to think about forgiveness. In 1998 one of the killers wrote a letter to me. It was very sad. He used to be an acquaintanceof me. He wrote a letter from prison admitting that he had killed my children and others: ‘This day I killed these persons, the next one I killed these one. The third day I killed the children of Beata.’ He enlisted all. It was not easy to read this. I read the letter but I did not respond. A few years passed and then, in 2000 he wrote again. I asked myself: ‘can I forgive him? He who killed my husband, he who killed my children.’ In my mind he was always there. It preoccupied me the whole day. One day, I decided to forgive him and then I felt comforted, I felt at peace. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. I am without my children because of him. I remember my past. I remember my parents, my children, my husband, my siblings. Without staying in the past, to accept the present and to continue to think about the future, forgiving is an important step.
BvR: So it was mainly in order to liberate you from the way he dominated your live, you decided to forgive him? Is it out of a way of self-respect that you forgive him? Is it more for you than for him?
ML: Yes that is true.
BvR: How is your relationship with him now?
ML: I visited him a few times in the national prison, together with others. We talked to him and to other perpetrators. ‘How are you? What can you say now about the atrocities you committed then?’ Sometimes no one can confess about sexual violence. No one up to now confesses about sexual violence. Some refuse to show where they buried the body, just like the killer of my husband.
BvR: How is Lambert doing today? How does the youth today experience the commemoration of the genocide?
ML: Lambert is now 20 years old. He is a miracle of God. He passed three months without food. He did not cry. After I was comforted, I comforted him. I had traumatized him. He finished secondary school and wants to go to university. He cannot remember anything from the genocide but he asks continuously about his father. He uses the commemoration to honour him and the rest of the family and relatives. The commemoration gives us the opportunity to teach our youth to do good without genocide. To consider the past when they take a decision in the future. And to make sure that it will never, ever happen again.
Afterthought by mr. Jean Pierre Karabaranga, Rwandan Ambassador to the Netherlands
It is difficult to find the right words after the interview with mama Lambert. A message from a mother in Rwanda is a strong message that you have to keep in mind. Therefore I will not only address you as ambassador, but also as a person, as Rwandan. This year we commemorate the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Rwanda at that time had a seat at the Security Council. Still the government was able to organize the genocide against the Tutsi. It is important to emphasize that we should not talk about the Rwandan Genocide: this seems to imply that Rwandans were killed because they were Rwandans, but they were killed because they were Tutsi. That is why we now refer to the genocide as the genocide against the Tutsi. This worst of all crimes was happening in our country. As mama Lambert said, everywhere where people lived, people were in danger. Today we all have to live with the consequences of the inaction of the international community. Many countries knew what was going to happen. Everyone was talking about the genocide. Almost twenty years later we need to inform the youngest today and consider the dangers of genocide. For each of the survivors, like mama Lambert, we have a duty to remember. More than ever we have to fight ignorance and indifference. Listening to the stories like the one of mama Lambert makes the outside world realize that what took place in Rwanda was actual and real. I did not know mama Lambert before today, but what she said here is new to me. Every survivor’s story is different.
There are a million stories to tell. Even when not all stories can be told, listening to testimonies like the one of mama Lambert will support us in the fight against ignorance and indifference. We must comfort the victims and survivors, just like mama Lambert does. We have a duty of justice towards all of our survivors. We try to create justice for everyone, even on the country side. It is not easy. It takes a long time, but we have taken up the challenge. The commemoration is a moment of sharing our history, an opportunity to remember what happened and to reinforce to prevent such atrocities from happening again. Never again. Perpetrators should admit, confess and ask for forgiveness for their crimes. These efforts are necessary for Rwanda. We are building were possible and we invest in education, in the youth. This is the only way we can prevent genocide. Education is an important driver of prevention, as ignorance was one of the causes why the genocide could take place on such a massive scale in Rwanda. Currently 98% of the children go to school. Although we are still struggling to maintain children at school every single day, progress is made in making Rwanda a modern society. Reconciliation is another key element in building Rwanda. Rwanda is moving forward in development at all levels to make sure that the country recovers fully from the destruction caused by the genocide in both the human and material resources. But we are only able to fight against another genocide, if we do it together. Thank you for your support to the Rwandan people.
- Bert van Roermund, ‘Samenleven kan ook met vergeving’, Brabants Dagblad, 20 juni 2013.
- http://www.solacem.org/ Solace Ministries of Ruanda
- www.mukomeze.nl, Stichting Mukomeze verbetert de levensomstandigheden van vrouwen en meisjes die allerlei vormen van seksueel geweld tijdens de genocide van 1994 in Rwanda hebben overleefd.