In 1994, 99.9% of the population of Rwanda witnessed unspeakable violence. Exactly 20 years later, some still cannot utter a word about what they saw. When I was asked to lead a session on the atomic bomb for a group of my fellow staff members, I wasn't sure I could. How do you dare bring up the atrocities of nuclear weapons to people who have seen how evil man can be without them?
Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (www.asyv.org) is a place described as a haven for the vulnerable youth of Rwanda to become the future leaders of Africa. A unique atmosphere, it is modeled after the youth villages of Israel that absorbed children orphaned by the holocaust, or as it’s called in Rwanda “The Jewish Genocide.” Most of ASYV’s students were orphaned in the genocide against the Tutsi, but as time moves on, Rwanda’s orphan problem persists and they now accept many who were not directly affected by it. The village is billed as a healing place for vulnerable youth, but it also heals the staff. Each family is comprised of a mama to care for them, a big brother or sister to counsel them, and foreign cousin, for the 1st year students to introduce them to English. Each week we participate in a learning community where we discuss topics ranging from the holocaust, to yoga and sports. Recently I was asked to hold a session about the atomic bomb.
My Mentor Dr. Kathleen Sullivan has been working in New York City high schools for years bringing atomic bomb survivors to give testimony with her NPO Hibakusha Stories. I modeled my session after one she would do. Usually she opens with asking the audience to imagine the one thing in the world they love the most, the one thing they would want to protect. When I asked my audience they gave me answers like, “The lives of others,” or, “my religion,” or even, “myself.”
It is very difficult for Hibakusha to come all the way to Rwanda, but sharing their eyewitness testimony is very possible. Their words may not be as valuable coming from my lips as opposed to an actual survivor’s, but soon these words will be all we have left of their precious testimony. I shared with the group the story of Asami Yoriko, one of my dear friends, and former peace boat participant in the 6th global voyage for a nuclear free world. I tried to convey the brutality of her words with the same soft rawness she uses in her delivery. I was simultaneously translated into Kinyarwanda, the local language. They cried out when I revealed her mother’s condition as Asami found her huddled under the window covered in blood and glass. They cringed when I told them about her brother’s wounds, his head that stuck to the pillow as he healed from his burns, muscle and bones that fused together. They were frustrated to hear about the life of illness he still struggles with because of the invisible force of radiation. They nodded their heads when in understanding at the grinding poverty she was reduced to after the war, and the shack she built with her family to survive, while she persevered to regain a normal life.
Later, we folded paper cranes, and I split the group into pairs, and asked them to complete sentences including, “If I had all of the power in the world to abolish nuclear weapons, I would…” One Mama said, “ I would call all of the world leaders together and sit them down to tell them exactly what I heard today. I would tell them my story too. People never listen to each other anymore. If only we communicated before killing, if only we got to know the other side before dehumanizing them into the enemy, we would understand, and we wouldn't let these things happen again.”
What makes Rwandans unique is their empathy for human suffering, and a desire to gain an even deeper perspective of other people’s experiences. Many in Rwanda have no idea what a nuclear weapon does exactly, only that two were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Rwanda there is no nuclear weapon, and no nuclear power. However, part of breaking the nuclear chain means preventing it from making new links.