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Last Updated: Friday, 2 April, 2004, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Hope in Rwanda: The magnificent Esther

Paul Bradley
Paul Bradley visited Rwanda's genocide memorial
Former EastEnders actor Paul Bradley visited Rwanda in 2000 with the charity Comic Relief.

This is his description of the courage he saw among the genocide survivors he met.

In a place peopled by killers, survivors, accomplices and witnesses to slaughter it is the air of normality which is unsettling.

People go about their daily business in a lively bustle of activity. The beautiful flowers, lush green fields and trees, still in the heat, could lull you into believing that the genocide never happened.

You want something in nature to mark the abominable slaughter perpetrated by man here.

The facts of the genocide remove that false sense as I interview survivors. Young women relate their rape and subsequent Aids infection, the mutilation of their dear ones and their violent ordeals.

Survivors talk of being condemned to live
One retells how she pulled off her gangrenous arm to stop the infection spreading, surviving a salvo of 17 machine gun bullets. Each story drains me emotionally and induces head-aching, sense-numbing shock.

Listening becomes physically painful. Each woman says she did not suffer the worst. It is incredibly painful for them to speak, they do not want to remember such atrocities but do not dare forget in case they are denied.

Flashbacks

Going to Rwanda left an indelible impression on me. I suffered shock and still have nightmares and occasional traumatic flashback. I often feel cursed to have gone there. But had I not gone I would never have met Esther Mujaweyo.

I went to Rwanda for Comic Relief to show the work of an organisation it funds called Avega Agahozo. Avega is the French acronym for Widows of The April Genocide, later the Kinyarwanda word Agahozo was added. It means "to wipe away the tears".

This word denoting a small, personal, motherly gesture describes beautifully the work of this organisation. In the face of impossible odds, the death of loved ones, the rape, torture and trauma scorched into their memories, there is a resolution to face life positively. Esther started the organisation.

I first met Esther six years ago in Rwanda. The genocide begun in April 1994 came to an end 100 days later leaving a million people dead. It also left those who lived through it devastated. Esther herself lost 37 members of her own family including her bedridden mother.

Condemned to live

Esther's husband, Innocent was, by dreadful irony, slaughtered on Justice Avenue.

"I loved my husband. He was a good man and I miss him badly", she said, "but I am one of the lucky ones. I was not raped, I was not hit by a machete. My children were not harmed. I am alive."

Esther Mujaweyo meets an orphan in Nyarubuye
Esther Mujaweyo meets an orphan in Nyarubuye
Not only is she alive, but her whole raison d'etre is to try to encourage the survivors she meets to be what she calls "alive, alive".

Survivors talk of being "condemned to live", a living death where memory tortures them, poverty exhausts them and they see no justice forthcoming. Esther and Avega make hope an active force.

She had managed to find the only sanctuary in Rwanda in 1994; the Milles Collines Hotel, the eye of the storm during the genocide but not entirely safe.

One time when we were filming in the hotel Esther shivered as a memory was triggered by a litter bin.

Soldier and priest

I had heard part of Esther's story two years earlier. She and her children Anna, Amelia and Babiche had all witnessed their father's slaughter from the bushes. She had bribed a soldier US$80 to take her into the hotel, the only safe haven in the capital city, Kigali.

The soldier came back later with a man wearing a dog collar and carrying a gun.

He put it on the table and then said that he would bless everybody in the room. The others knelt in front of this man of God but Esther didn't saying: "I'm sorry but I am a Protestant", though in accordance with her husband's wishes she raises her children as Catholics.

The priest blessed them and then looked at Frances, an attractive 21 year-old woman who had also found shelter here. He asked her to go with them and get some water to store in the bath for them. Although Esther didn't know Frances, she suspected the motives of the two men who appeared to be saviours.

Acting on intuition she said "I'm sorry but my Babiche, my baby cries a lot and only this girl can get her to go to sleep. We will get water later." There was a silence with looks from soldier and priest to the girl and then they smiled and said "of course" and left.

Mind of a killer

Esther says she doesn't know how she came out with what she said. Her tone must have been so motherly and convincing that it touched some iota of goodness remaining in those men and they reluctantly left the girl alone.

Sometimes I wonder what is in the minds of the killers. They were human beings and they killed human beings themselves
Esther Mujaweyo
I had never heard Esther talk about this before but she believes she saved that girl from certain rape. Apparently, although the hotel was safe, government army officers and Hutu extremists held a free rein on the first floor of the hotel.

To this day there is an indefinable aura there. Esther stayed at the hotel one night in the very same room where this occurred "to lay the ghosts to rest".

Her courage then is matched by her present generosity and hope. "The circle must be broken" was for her not a fine phrase but an active practice of which I witnessed many examples.

At the massacre site of the church at Nyarubuye in front of hundreds of skulls of slain Tutsi people laid out neatly on white tables Esther said: "Sometimes I wonder what is in the minds of the killers. They were human beings and they killed human beings themselves. They lost their humanity, so who are they now?

"Sometimes we say we are living dead but we try to be 'alive, alive' and not 'alive, dead'. But I think it must be something similar for the killers. One day I will have the courage and talk with them."

Traumatised

Esther has a sixth sense, a finely tuned intuition for those most in need.

I am one of the lucky ones. I was not raped, I was not hit by a machete. My children were not harmed. I am alive
Esther Mujaweyo

In a crowd she would find the child or mother who most needed her quiet voice, her humour, her wisdom. She always spoke from the heart to the heart and listened more.

I saw her talk to many people but two stand out - a boy whose parents were butchered in the genocide and another whose parents helped carry it out. To me they epitomise Rwanda.

Two kinds of victim

The orphanage at Nyarubuye contains 170 children displaced and orphaned during the genocide. Some children here have simply died of sorrow.

One particular orphan boy had seen his parents killed and was so traumatised that he could not speak for a year. His eyes were concentrated on an image from the past - locked in a world of unimaginable horror.

Esther is softly cajoling him; he is passively resisting. She is trying to reach him. Esther talks softly to the boy, listens to him, encourages him. But his body language, hand to the side of his face, body turned away from her shows that he is not ready. Perhaps he will never be healed.

Esther and a boy whose parents took part in the genocide
A different kind of victim: a boy whose parents took part in the genocide
Perhaps as I do here, he wants to cry out at the absurdity of life going on. The sun comes out, the plants grow, the birds sing, it rains. How can these things happen after such a cataclysm.

I observe from a distance and take photographs. His expression is gut wrenching. He is looking at death in the past and in the future. Men and boys were the first to be killed.

He has seen his father butchered and knows that if it happens again he will be among the first to be killed. He cannot get over it. He cannot let it go .

As I approach, Esther says something to him and I capture the moment. The boy looks at the camera and for the first time in ages he smiles.

The second boy we come across is at Nyarubuye church. The church contains the bodies of over 3,000 Tutsi men, women, children and babies who were shot, burned and hacked to death by their Hutu neighbours and fellow Christians.

The boy is sat on a pile of rubble. Behind the wall he leans against is the whitewashed room with long trestle tables on which lie the skulls of the dead.

Their clothing fills another room. The killings started in the school classrooms where I have just been. The bodies have been removed but whilst leaving one room I trod on children's teeth, lying on the concrete floor.
This poor boy cannot come to terms with what his parents have done

I see Esther talking to the boy and steel myself to take a photograph. I can't bear to see another distressed child so, after taking the photo, I walk on. Esther listens to his stories .

Later, I ask her about him. She tells me that his story was confused, inconsistent; one moment he tells her that his father died before the genocide, then that his father died during it. Esther asked the parish priest here about him.

The boy is a fibber. His parents are alive and took an active part in the killings.

This poor boy cannot come to terms with what his parents have done. He is a different kind of victim from the boy in the orphanage. To get love and sympathy he lies. He too needed love. Esther gave it.

The future for Rwanda lies within these two boys; one Tutsi, one Hutu.

They stand next to each other with Esther between them. She holds their hands and, ever so slowly, is bringing them together.

Paul Bradley visited Rwanda for Comic Relief to highlight the work of the organisation, Avega Agahozo, Widows of The April Genocide.

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