SARAH PERLE BENAZERA
July 20th 2014
In 3 days I must sit in front of 24 Israeli and Palestinian youth and tell them that everything will be ok.
Today, a 100 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza, while thousands if not millions of people fear for their lives, runaway, or hide in shelters.
My name is Sarah. I am Israeli. I work for an online peace movement called YaLa Young Leaders. This movement brings together over half a million young women and men from all over the Middle East and Northern Africa. I also volunteer for a Jerusalem based NGO that brings Christian, Muslim and Jewish teens together.
In 3 days, I will have to find the words to reassure them, to remind them that what they do is important, unique, and that there is hope.
But tonight I am scared and hopeless. Before I talk to them, I need to remind myself that there is still hope.
A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to travel to Kigali in Rwanda since the peace movement I work for, YaLa Young Leaders, had developed a sister movement in Africa. Our newly opened office in Kigali was about to launch a micro-gardening project. Our idea is that youth from the Middle East and Africa have a lot in common and a lot to learn from one another. Our networks brought together amazing young women and men who believe they can make a change in their region and be actively involved in the development of their communities and countries. And while Israelis can teach about agriculture, we have a lot to learn about forgiveness and reconciliation. Rwandans are the perfect inspiration and role models for that.
20 years ago, almost a million people were slaughtered in 100 days in Rwanda. Neighbors killed neighbors, friends murdered friends, and colleagues chased colleagues. Men, women, and children lost their lives in the most violent way imaginable. The country was left in chaos. This was only 20 years ago. 20 years later, when I went out of the airport, all I could see was a bright blue sky, green hills and smiling faces. I was in Rwanda.
I landed in Kigali at 5pm. At 4am I was on my way to the mountains, to realize my biggest dream: seeing mountain gorillas. As soon as I sat down in the white jeep that was waiting for me outside the hotel, I knew my guide, who was driving, would become a friend. His name is Patrick. We started to speak in French. We are exactly the same age. We both love nature, and we are both the eldest of our family, with our brothers and sisters being of the same ages. But the commonalities stop here. When he was 12, during the genocide, his parents were brutally murdered because they were Tutsi. Patrick then became the adult of the family. He worked everywhere he could, and took care of his brother and sister – made sure they had food, went to school and behaved well. He never questioned his choice. He put himself aside and did what he had to do. 20 years later, both his brother and sister have gone to University and have lives of their own. Patrick did that. He never stopped smiling while he was telling me his story. He was neither sad nor embarrassed. He was strong and wise. More than a guide, it was a hero I met on this Sunday morning at 4am.
On my second day in Rwanda, I had the chance to meet the vice mayor of the city of Kigali. Her name is Hope. How poetic! We talked about the similarities between Rwanda and Israel. We talked a lot about the genocide and about resilience. She had this amazing way to look at what happened in her country. She was hopeful and was looking back at the history of her country with extraordinary wisdom and acceptance. I heard this kind of discourse from a few people during my stay in Rwanda, and I must admit that they left me speechless. The genocide is not a taboo, it is part of who they are, and they must not only overcome it, but also learn from it. According to Hope, one of the reasons for the genocide was that women had lost their leadership in society. She said that in a society where women are strong and respected, such things as the genocide would have stopped earlier, because mothers would have stopped their sons, because mothers would not see the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi baby. I found so much strength and inspiration in her words.
My journey in Rwanda was continuing. Between rain and sun, from mountains to villages, meeting the young people who were participating in the micro agriculture project my organization was running. On my last day in this amazing and complicated country, I met Innocent. Innocent works for the minister of youth as the ambassador of the Rwandese youth. While we were talking about different ways to connect the Rwandan youth to the Israeli and the Palestinian youth, he told me about a debate project he has developed in Rwanda. Young men and women from Rwanda are meeting and dialoguing about the genocide. They discuss the reasons and causes of the genocide, but also talk about its consequences. Even though most of the participants were only children or infants 20 years ago, it is part of their heritage, and together, by facing it, they find the way to learn from it and try to make their society better by learning lessons from this dreadful event.
On the flight back to Tel Aviv I was left alone with my thoughts. So many people, so many stories, so many places and multiple life lessons learned. I was a different person. I found in Rwanda something I did not know I was looking for: The power of forgiveness.
After the genocide, the country was left with over 120,000 people who had to be detained because they took part in the killing of close to 1 million people. To address this issue, the Rwandan government re-established a traditional community court system called “Gacaca”. This system would not only help the national justice system to judge these people, but it would also develop a reconciliation and forgiveness process at the grassroots level of society. The Gacaca courts gave lower sentences when the person who was accused of taking part in the genocide showed repentance and his willingness to ask for forgiveness to the community. Prisoners who confessed their crimes and would agree to face the surviving members of the family they destroyed would be allowed to go home with community service orders. People faced their victims and asked for forgiveness; people faced their torturers and forgave. Today they live side by side.
Rwanda is not a perfect country and its society still has much to do to recover from the 1994 genocide; but it is facing its past and it is promoting something I hardly hear in my region: FORGIVENESS. This word sounds like magic to me. I was repeating it to myself over and over when I was sitting on the plane, flying back to Tel Aviv. FORGIVENESS. And this terrible question has been sitting on my chest since then: would I be able to forgive?
Today I am back at home, sitting in front of my laptop, waiting for the next siren that will announce the next rocket launched on Tel Aviv, thinking of my Palestinian friends who have nowhere to hide in Gaza, worrying for my friends who have been recruited by the Israeli army, and praying for the youth, Israeli and Palestinian, I work with. Today I have my answer: I could forgive; I will forgive; I am forgiving. There is simply no other way. Forgiving means that we are acknowledging that the other side is human, that their children and ours deserve to live safely and peacefully. By forgiving I stand for the future of my region. I hope I will be forgiven too.
The people I met in Rwanda proved to me that forgives exists, and that it is possible. Rwanda gave me hope. In 3 days I will sit with Israeli and Palestinian youth, and I know what I will tell them.
Story: Sarah Perle Benazera (31) is an Israeli peacebuilder. She works for an online peace movement called YaLa Young Leaders. This movement brings together over half a million young women and men from all over the Middle East and Northern Africa and works to empower young people these regions and to foster cooperation through dialogue and education.
Artist: Galyna Uvarova