Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Diana Buckhantz
I was haunted by their faces. Renee with deep scars carved into what was once a beautiful face, eyes with a depth of sorrow I had never before witnessed and hands pink where her flesh was burned off. When the Interahamwe came, they burned her house after seven men raped her. She ran back inside when her eldest son slipped through her hands. As she clutched him in her arms the burning house fell down upon her. Her youngest son had already been killed by the militiamen.
This is only the beginning of her story. The degradation, misery and cruelty that Renee endured are unfathomable. Over and over people abused her while others refused to help. Then suddenly a man appeared and gave her shelter and arranged for her medical care.
Then there was Sabine, her belly filled with the child of one of the many men who raped her repeatedly over three weeks. She is eighteen years old and was captured by the Interahamwe when she was seventeen. She is alone at the Heal Africa hospital waiting for the birth of her child. She has no money and no education. She does not know how she will take care of her child.
Sabine was being held as a “wife” to the Interahamwe. One day she was sent to the market to buy milk. There a woman she had never met before devised a plan to help her escape. The next day this stranger paid for her to get to Goma and the Heal Africa hospital.
Sitting next to these women as they tell their stories is their counselor. She holds their hands and rubs their chests when they can no longer speak because the pain is too fresh and too great.
As I listen to these women and try to understand these unspeakable acts of cruelty, I struggle also to reconcile the conflicting morals of our society. When a society is in chaos, when people are desperately trying to survive, how is it that some are able to set aside their own safety to help someone else? Where did the woman who helped Sabine find the courage to risk her life for a stranger? What made the man who helped Renee stand up to an angry mob and give shelter to a poor, deformed woman in the street? Why do the women we met at Heal Africa Hospital who counsel the women and dedicate their lives to improving the health and safety of other women do so?
Over and over we hear stories of such unspeakable atrocities, while at the same time we meet people doing such selfless courageous works. History has shown us this dichotomy before. Certainly, the Christians who hid Jews during the Holocaust is one obvious example. I find these examples hopeful but I wish I could answer the question of what makes the difference. How do some end up perpetrators, while others end up as rescuers? How do some end up as bystanders while others end up as relief workers in remote, desolate and dangerous places like this? If only we knew the answer.
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November 9, 2009 | 5:00 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Janice Kamenir-Reznik
For nine years Mama Francine (for her safety I cannot reveal her true name) has lived in the safe house in a remote and isolated area outside of Goma. For six years before that she lived at a hospital and endured surgery after surgery to repair the damage to her body caused by violent rape. Even six surgeries could not repair Mama Francine’s body. “She leaks” the translator explained to us. She is in constant pain. She has not returned to her village since she was raped 15 years ago because after the rape, she was no longer welcome in her village. For 15 years she has not seen her children because after the rape, she was no longer accepted by her family. Mama Francine’s only connection with her family is Sabar, her granddaughter. When I asked Mama if she’s seen her daughter in all these years, she responded, “They sent Sabar to me”.
A dozen women, all rape victims, live the lonely days of their lives together at the “safe house” with their new family, a family borne of tragedy and circumstance. Their lives are bound together by solitude, shame, rejection, sorrow, boredom and loss. They wash their clothes, they prepare their food, they tend to their children, and no doubt, they silently relive their horrors of their past and dream of their former families and of the lives that could have been. And they pray with what appeared to me to be passionate devotion to a loving God.
There is no relief here from what I would call the living hell in which so many of the people we met today live. I am overwhelmed by sorrow and cannot imagine what additional sadness we will confront for the next seven days.
Before we said goodbye to Mama Francine and the other women, I asked if we could join hands and pray together. While I wished that Rabbi Schulweis could have been here to offer one of his brilliant and eloquent blessings, since he wasn’t, I offered a blessing with him in mind. With the women of the safe house, we prayed together for the healing of their bodies. We prayed for the restoration of their health and we prayed for the day when women would be free of abuse and violence. We prayed for the day that these women would be welcomed by their families and would return to their villages. At our guest house tonight I lit Shabbat candles, and as I did, I prayed again for Mama Francine, for all of the women, and for us. Amen
November 9, 2009 | 1:00 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Naama Haviv
Yesterday, at the Goma border crossing, a local Congolese official told our translator that she wanted to go through our luggage. We knew it was a shakedown, but wanted to avoid any trouble. Isaiah talked to her to try to smooth things over, so that she would let it go. And she told him, “Isaiah, please, make me feel better now.”
Making her feel better cost $10 - which seemed a small price to pay to avoid letting a corrupt official get a closer look at our luggage. And yesterday I thought it was actually kind of funny, the language she used: “make me feel better now.”
But that was yesterday.
Today, I met a four-year-old rape victim. That sentence shouldn’t even exist.
And now I’m angry. At the self-serving official using her position to line her pockets, despite people all around her desperately trying to eke out a living in a country where their government has abandoned them. At the fact that not two minutes away from here there is a young man at the Heal Africa hospital with a cast up to his chest after being shot in Masisi last year - a wound that he could have just as easily sustained in an attack by the Congolese army as by another militia. And at the fact that there is a little girl, not two years older than my sweet little niece, whose body and soul has already been ripped apart.
And for what? So that Congolese officials, armed groups, foreign governments and anyone else that has the smallest chance of exerting any power can continue to feed off the people of Congo? So that they can continue to sap the resources of this land, drain the strength and character of its people, destroy the potential of this incredible country?
So that they can continue to “feel better?”
Today I met a four-year-old rape victim. And I don’t want to hear it anymore. I don’t want to listen to excuses about how overwhelming it is, how complex or seemingly insurmountable. I don’t want to reflect.
I want to act.
And I want you to act, too.
November 9, 2009 | 3:43 am
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Diana Buckhantz
Congo is unlike anything I have experienced. I can barely process what I have seen and heard today. The poverty and desolation are unimaginable. There is such a waste of human potential.
Three years ago the volcano at the edge of Goma erupted destroying the entire town. Today people live in stone huts on top of piles of black molten rock and garbage. Electricity is intermittent as is flowing water. It feels unfathomable that in 2009 people live like this.
Last summer I visited Vietnam. With outdoor markets and people working rice fields with oxen, it was like stepping back in time. It was primitive. It was charming.
Goma is not charming. It has heartbreaking abject poverty. I look around and wonder how it is that I was born where I was born and these people are born into these circumstances. What flip of the coin gave me the life I have?
At the Heal Africa hospital, which is considered a model in the region, we met a personable young man who had been shot in the war and who needed a special diet to build himself up before surgery. The hospital could not provide the special diet and his mother could not afford to purchase these foods. Most likely he will die in the hospital before surgery. He is 20 years old.
There is hope, however. Tomorrow we will visit a program designed to prevent death in childbirth. Today we saw a gardening project which will help people in remote villages sustain themselves. But there is much to do…so many to help.
Tonight their faces haunt me: the faces of the women we met who had been raped and still suffer physical and emotional damage and the faces of the engaging children with no education and no foreseeable future. But tomorrow I will wake up reinvigorated and renewed. I believe, because I must, that our visit here will lead us, Jewish World Watch, to a project that can begin to make some small difference in these lives.
November 8, 2009 | 7:23 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have cancelled their joint public lecture in Los Angeles, but the sponsoring American Jewish University believes that the cancellation rests on a misunderstanding and is working to reverse the presidential decisions.
The joint lecture was scheduled for Feb. 22 at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal City and tickets went on sale last Thursday.
According to Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna, the two former presidents were offended by the way promoters handled publicity for another joint appearance on Feb. 25 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
However, the arrangements and advance publicity for the Los Angeles event were handled independently of the New York organizers, AJU President Robert Wexler told The Journal Sunday.
McKenna said Clinton was upset because the New York promoters advertised their forum as “the hottest ticket in political history,” implying a clash between the 42nd and 43rd chief executives, rather than a moderated panel discussion.
“It’s unfortunate that an overeager promoter ruined the opportunity to hear a serious discussion on the issues between two former presidents, who have a great deal of respect for each other,” McKenna told The Times.
By contrast, the full-page ads for the Los Angeles event, placed in The Journal by AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, were low-key, reprinting the presidential inaugural oath, and using such headlines as “One Unprecedented Night” and “The Wait Is Over.”
Wexler said that he and Gady Levy, AJU vice president for continuing education, were notified of the cancellation on Friday.
“We arranged for the appearance of the two presidents independently through their respective speakers bureaus and made it clear we would conduct the moderated discussion on the highest level,” Wexler said.
“President Clinton has talked to us on two previous occasions, which were very successful,” he added. “We are hopeful that the decision will be reversed.”
Tickets for the Los Angeles forum were advertised as ranging from $75 to $125. Fees for the two speakers were not disclosed, but each received a reported $150,000 when they spoke recently in Toronto, according to The Times.
November 7, 2009 | 11:26 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
Los Angeles police are still trying to find a smooth-talking crook who stole $26,000 in cash, jewelry and watches from the Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv basketball team.
According to police and local media reports, the suspect slipped into the locker room of the Staples Center, where Maccabi was playing the local Clippers Oct. 20, and stole the money and valuables from the lockers of the 11 Israeli players.
The same man was seen earlier in the day at the Staples Center and was ejected for not having proper credentials, witnesses told police.
“Apparently the man returned, dressed in a suit, holding a clipboard and with some kind of credential sticking out of his pocket. A ball boy saw the man in the Israeli team’s locker room after the players went on the court, but the ball boy assumed the man worked at Staples,” Police Lt. Paul Vernon said.
Maccabi players discovered the theft during halftime and then went on to lose to the Clippers 108-96.
Based on surveillance videos, the same chutzpadik con artist earlier stole a laptop computer from the office of a Los Angeles police detective.
He had struck earlier, on Sept. 22, when, dressed in a jersey with the colors of the visiting Chivas soccer team from Mexico, he hugged the players as they left their hotel on a team bus for the game.
Then the man walked back into the hotel, convinced the desk clerk to give him the keys to the players’ rooms and made off with $10,000.
One month earlier, on Aug. 29, it was the turn of a visiting salsa band staying at a downtown hotel. The mystery man told the hotel’s receptionist that he was a member of the band and needed the pass cards to the musicians’ rooms.
The receptionist turned over the cards, the man gave the clerk a music CD as a tip, and then took $9,000 from the band’s rooms.
Police Lt. Vernon summarized the lesson for future tourists. “These out-of-town visitors are often unfamiliar with their surroundings and are often carrying lots of cash,” Vernon said.
November 6, 2009 | 1:03 am
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by John Fishel
Yesterday we drove east from Kigali to visit the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, an extraordinary program established by Jewish philanthropist Ann Heyman as a response to helping Rwanda move forward following the horrifying genocide of the early 1990’s. While visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali earlier in the day, we stood in a room filled with snapshots of hundreds of men, women and children who were murdered. But we cannot forget that thousands of youngsters survived, many without any family or with families that lost mothers or fathers. Agahozo is an effort to work with these survivors now, in their later teenage years, by bringing them to the Shalom Youth Village to live, to study and to grow as future young leaders whose potential will be essential as Rwanda struggles to recover from its tragic history. We visited as the program was completing its first year. A class of 125 teens, both young men and women selected for the vulnerability of their situation and potential, had completed the inaugural year and with the exception of two, were away on a school holiday. The two still in residence had no surviving relatives to visit.
The visit reflected the potential to implement a vision and with extraordinary collaborators, make a difference in the aftermath of the unthinkable. We had the privilege of meeting with Alain, a young Rwandan in his early thirties who, after a successful career in business in other parts of the world had returned to give back. As the director of the Shalom Youth Village he showed us the facilities, but more, he demonstrated the difference a dedicated staff person can make in fulfilling Ann Heyman’s vision. His commitment to the potential of his young charges was overwhelming. It was clear that he had brought a range of social entrepreneurial skills to an important human service operation that makes a difference.
Agahozo is modeled on a successful Israeli program, Yemin Orde, familiar to many of us. The best of Yemin Orde and other programs aimed at maximizing the potential of youth have been forged into a Rwandan reality. It was inspirational to talk briefly with the other teaching staff. Nir, an Israeli, discussed with Alain how to assure that while encouraging the young residents, they also taught them to believe that “the sky is the limit.”
Today we drove from Kigali to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The drive was among the most beautiful territory I ever had the opportunity to see. What struck me as we drove was the vast number of people walking along the roads in the rural areas, which make up the majority of this nation. I couldn’t help but reflect on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide when the images in the news focused on hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Tutsi refugees moving along these same roads.
Crossing the border reflected the difference between a nation that has addressed its past and is building its future, and one that has not. Of course, enormous challenges remain in Rwanda. With the reestablishment of a rule of law and an effort to encourage forgiveness between survivors and perpetrators built into the society, crossing into Congo could not have provided a starker difference. Entering the town of Goma, where wars continue to rage, atrocities continue in the outlying areas and refugees flock for safety, the absence of normalcy and rule of law, and the lack of respect for human life resonated. The next week will provide us with the ability to consider how Jewish World Watch can involve itself in an area of the world where 5.5 million lives have been wasted and the world remains unaware and unconcerned.
November 5, 2009 | 9:59 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Diana Buckhantz
As we drive through plush verdant fields and towering mountains on our way to Kigali and the Congo border, we pass men, women and children walking and riding bicycles. The scenery is spectacular. Children wave with bright smiles. The women carry baskets and packages on their heads. Life seems easy, slow, peaceful.
This scene is in sharp contrast to the images we saw at the Rwandan genocide museum yesterday. There we read about and saw pictures of such atrocities—the decimation of millions, mass killing of children, brutalization of women—such hatred, such loss.
The museum also profiles some of the other genocides of the 20th century: Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Bosnia. What is startling to me is that in every case there were warnings that a destruction of a people had started and in every case the world did not come forward until it was too late.
But there was also hope in the museum. The goal of the museum is “never again. It hopes to educate so that these genocides will never again be permitted.
Rwanda is a country that is transforming itself, economically and politically. It has had a stable government for many years and is trying to reinvent its tourism industry. But most importantly, it is transforming itself on a spiritual and emotional level. Rwandans are clearly engaged in a process of reconciliation and healing. For example, there is a program whereby perpetrators are brought to justice. In this case justice means being required to apologize to the families of their victims who are then empowered to forgive. The hope is that with forgiveness comes change for future generations.
I was struck by the lack of bitterness in the people we met and their sense of optimism for and hope in the future. As we approach Congo, my apprehension rises. My guess is that our visit in Congo will not engender such good feelings. Perhaps, however, we will be able to carry the hope we found here in Rwanda to our experiences in the Congo. We shall see…