A Discussion with Violette Nyirarurkundo, Founder and Director of El-Ezer Counselling Ministry in Rwanda

May 21, 2009

Background: As part of the Peacebuilding Practitioners Interview Series, Dr. Eric Patterson interviewed Violette Nyirarurkundo, the founder and director of El-Ezer Counselling Ministry, who formerly worked with Compassion International and Medical Assistance Programs International. In this interview, Nyirarurkundo speaks about how her experience working with Compassion International in Rwanda during the genocide and how the genocide was instrumental in determining her path toward founding El-Ezer Counselling Ministry. Additionally, she speaks about the role religion played during the Rwandan genocide and the importance of reconciliation efforts post-genocide.
Ms. Nyirarurkundo, can you speak about your background and how these experiences have led you to your current work?

For almost a decade before the genocide I worked with Compassion International, a child advocacy ministry which provides children with food, shelter, education, and healthcare, as well as Christian training.

Once the genocide started, Compassion International moved all its Kigali workers to Bakavu, with the belief that the violence was confined to the capital. We quickly realized this was not the case but were kept safe in Bakavu. However, I remember seeing so many people fleeing Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It seemed as if everyone was fleeing. So in September of 1994, some family members helped my husband, me, and our six children to buy flights to Nairobi. We stayed there for three years, during which time I worked with Medical Assistance Programs International (MAP). At first MAP simply delivered medical supplies to refugee camps, but quickly realized there was more work to be done. In fact, during one visit I remember a pastor telling me that while our supplies were very helpful in treating the bodies of survivors, there was also a need to treat their souls. In recognition of this, MAP established a program called Healing and Reconciliation for Rwanda, with which I was in placed in charge of ministry for women and children.

Through my work with the Healing and Reconciliation for Rwanda program I met several people who had visited many of the refugee camps for Rwandans, as well as visited with survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. I found myself as a witness, but one crying inside because I realized that everyone was wounded: survivors of the genocide, displaced persons, refugees, and even the genocidaires. I myself was confused. Was there a beast inside of me waiting to come out? This discover was very painful, and I was afraid. One local pastor I worked with during my time with MAP, the director of church relations for the organization, suggested that I consider training in counseling, as this might help me to do what God was calling me to do.

In 1997, my family returned to Rwanda, but I enrolled in an M.A. program in biblical counseling at a university in Nairobi. So while my family settled back in Kigali, I spent most of the two years in Kenya.

When I completed my M.A., I returned to Kigali and began working closely with church leaders and encouraging them to consider the need for lay counseling in their parishes. This then led to my creation of El-Ezer Counselling Ministry.

How is El-Ezer Counselling Ministry organized in Rwanda, and with what types of projects are you involved?

We are a very small organization, but a ministry I felt called to start. You see Rwandans are a population of survivors, all types of survivors—genocide survivors, survivors of refugee camps. And everyone has a story that needs to be told. Telling these stories is a very important part of reconciliation in Rwanda.

Basically I run things in our Kigali office, but when there are workshops or seminars there is a team of trained counselors and other people I can call upon.

In the beginning, for the first three years or so, we actually worked in collaboration with World Relief Rwanda (WRR). While we had many technical skills in terms of counseling, we had no private funding at that time. And since WRR was very focused on HIV/AIDS awareness, we led an AIDS counseling program focused on dealing with trauma—both the trauma of living with AIDS and as genocide survivors. We spoke at both levels. We spoke about the need to create rooms for sharing; how these rooms are necessary for healing to take place.

Today we have some very small private funding from individuals in the United States, which helps cover our basic expenses, but we are limited by our funding. So we often work in coordination with other religious organizations, like Lutheran World Federation and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). We were even asked to minister in the DRC with MCC after the volcano eruptions there a few years ago. In the end, I would say our primary work is to train people in local communities to be listeners for others. You see, everyone has a story. And when we hear someone else’s story, we may react in two ways. Often people speak “killing words,” like “at least you…” This minimizes someone’s pain and keeps a person in their suffering. However, the other reaction is to listen and create rooms—physically and metaphorically—where people can share and be embraced where they are. Once people have experienced this telling their own story, they are often ready to listen to others.

In addition to seminars based on these ideas, another big success has been the creation of training audio tapes. They are very cheap (1,500 FRW, less than $3 USD) and are in French and Kinyarwanda. These tapes are a way for more people to learn the lessons we seek to share since we cannot be everywhere in the county. The first cassette focuses on counseling as a ministry at the church level. The second on good listening skills. The third on the mourning process. The fourth on trauma. The fifth on trauma and children. The sixth on trauma and AIDS. We hope these cassettes will further facilitate dialogue and healing in the country.

Can you speak about this need for healing? How do people look back today and remember the genocide?

You have to remember that everyone was wounded in the genocide; everyone was affected. The whole event took us by surprise. We Rwandans, who are such gentle and kind people, suddenly became beasts. We killed not only men, but women and children. Still, I would say, we do not understand what happened. We can’t explain it to this day. We put aside our cultural and religious values for those 100 days. In my opinion, this has much to do with fear. We were led mainly by fear and the propaganda that if we didn’t kill we would be killed. One lesson from Rwanda is that under fear people will do all sorts of things.

After the genocide, people were like zombies, even if they don’t seem so on the outside. Many, many people did not recognize themselves. They were confused from the bottom of their heart how they did such things. They were left asking, “What did I do?”

So the major ministry of the churches and government is to restore dignity to all Rwandans. Survivors also must forgive, but how do you forgive.

Can you speak more about what reconciliation means to you and your organization?

Reconciliation is a process. If people are not healed we cannot even begin to talk about reconciliation. And, reconciliation is a long process, but one that always has to be started. It has to involve both sides—those who murdered and those where were victims. When people recognize a bad deed, committed by them or against them, and when people are ready to receive healing, then forgiveness begins. And on that level, we can speak about reconciliation.

You know, some people talk about political reconciliation, about living a good cohabitation, but where people do not necessarily like one another. But this is undermining the future of our children. Reconciliation is deeper.

Let me tell you one story from a workshop. During these events, you hear of impossible things happening. During one workshop, there was a genocidaire that had killed 19 people. After the genocide, he turned himself in, was imprisoned, and then later released according to a presidential pardon. He joined an association that brought genocidaires and victims together, to work together. During one workshop, he recognized a woman he swore he had killed. He remembered how they had left her to die. Somehow she had survived, losing one hand and having some permanent bruising on her head. These two people worked side-by-side for a long period of time until one day the man finally went up to the woman, kneeled down in front of her, and said, “I am so sorry. Can you ever forgive me? I am the one who killed you.” Of course the woman was in utter shock. She had known him only as a kind man, a friend. But after some time she came back to this man and said that she did forgive him. This is proof that reconciliation is real in Rwanda. It is down in the grassroots level; it is there.

Can you speak about the role of religion in the genocide?

When people felt danger during the genocide, they sought refuge in the churches. They could never imagine killings in churches. The fact that some people died in churches is of course a very hard thing to comprehend. However, it shows two important things. First, it shows that the churches were open to people, trying to help them. Second, it shows that people trusted in the churches. The fact that some people did not respect religious beliefs and the sanctity of churches and murdered people there does not necessarily mean all religious people or all churches were complicit. Many, many tried to help in a very confusing time.

What of those religious leaders close to the regime?

What I have heard, like most people, is that some religious leaders were connected to the governing regime, and when you are close friends with someone it is hard to know the right moment to separate. People now look to place responsibility for what happened. And if religious persons survived—priests, pastors, nuns—some say they are responsible for what happened because they survived. This seems an unjust accusation to me. Yes, there were some religious fanatics that did know how to draw the line and killed. But many tried their best in a very confusing time.

What of religion today in Rwanda?

In general, people still trust in the churches. Not all of course, but many. You must remember that there are two types of people in a church. There are those that have strong faith and seek a deeper relationship with God and others who are just members; they come and go but don’t believe deeply or seek to grow in their faith. So just because you are baptized does not mean you are a good Christian. Still, who can say who is a good Christian and who is not? I think both types of people will always be a part of churches. While some people today tend to be critical, we should also ask, “What now? Is the Church ready to play a prophetic role? Or, will it compromise with the government again?”

Ms. Nyirarurkundo, thank you very much for your time today.

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