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Mary Sweeney memories of 1994 Rwanda genocide (Video transcript)

Rwanda 1994

Voice of Mary Sweeney

It’s very difficult, looking back now, it’s very difficult to explain to people exactly what it was like. It was a country in the throes of the most difficult situation – just imagine in Ireland - after 3½, sorry, after 30 years, we had 3½ thousand people killed. This is a country - 100 days - and between 800,000 and 1 million people hacked to death by the use of a machete. People in Rwanda paid to be shot if they could.

I remember distinctly at one stage being in Eastern DRC, just in Goma, visiting one of the camps - 300,000 people in about three different camps and coming across a family - Bishop Kirby was actually with me - coming across a family of about 14, the mother, father, granny, children - all of them had been hacked to death and killed. I remember distinctly actually Bishop Kirby taking up the little cangles that were covering the bodies and saying a prayer over their bodies.

I don’t go back there very often in terms of my memory because it was a really difficult time.

So, again like that, we went in to work in Rwanda. We worked in a camp, in the beginning called Cyanika in the south western part and there were about 60,000 people in the camp and doing what we could to bring food and water and sanitation and healthcare and medical care and I have a distinct memory of one particular evening. I remember well having 19 different tasks in my diary - food to be trucked in from Rwanda, medicines from Uganda, as I say, just a number of different things that had to be taken care of, and I was going to a meeting with the UN again, around 8 o’clock in the evening in Cyanika in Gikongoro and as I left my house to go to the meeting I noticed a 19 year old boy left for dead outside the door of the house. He had asked people where he could get some help. His mother, father, brothers and sisters - everybody belonging to him had been killed in the genocide, and he had nobody left to look out for him, to show him compassion, to show him love and they said 'there are some white people living in a house just down the road' and he tried to make it as far as their house and he collapsed.

He was completely dehydrated, completely malnourished, almost starved to death. And I came out and the eyes of this young man were looking up into my soul, begging for a chance to live. He had his own ideas for his future, his dreams for his life and I could not help that young man that night. I remember I could go into the camps with the 60,000 or the 80,000 but this one human being so close to death, as I say looking up into my soul and I remember crying my eyes out under a beautiful palm tree, looking up at this balmy starry night and I was so angry with the world and with God for letting this happen.

I felt really overwhelmed and I went into a nun that I was working with - Sister Siobhan - she was a Medical Missionary of Mary and she came out and she saw the young man and she went in and she dipped a little bit of bread in water and I watched her feed that young man with love and compassion and he returned to full health. And for me, at that time, I'll never forget that because it is the essence of what I believe Trócaire is about.

I remember going back years later. I want back to  Rwanda a number of times - 95, 96, 97, but on my last trip back I remember sitting in a mud-hut with a man called Taen and his whole family had been wiped out in the genocide. One of our partners was working with him through the Anglican church. His whole family had been wiped out. And he was sitting beside a young man called Emmanuel and it was Emmanuel's family who had killed his family.

Taen himself had left Rwanda, had gone to Burundi with his 3 children, one died while in Burundi and he came back with his 2 children and tried to rebuild his life in Rwanda and he got involved in the Anglican church and it was really to bring about peace and reconciliation amongst people. When the people returned - they had stayed in the camp in Eastern Congo for years, and when they returned - remember they are coming back into the community where they had killed members of the families where they were returning back to. And he was sitting beside Emmanuel, Taen was, for a year or so before he could find it in his heart to forgive because he realised Taen's life was more of a struggle than his own and he found it in his soul and his heart to be able to forgive and he took Emmanuel on as his godson and while I was there he explained how he was trying to help to build a home for Taen and had given him some money for his dowry so that he could get married, and a little bit of land to build his home on and I sat in this mud hut with this family who were living on less than 1 euro a day - they had no windows, I remember well - it was actually up in the hills. It was cold, it was almost like it is here today, it was a little bit chilly and wet and windy. 

And I started crying. I was so glad that the room was quite dark because I actually started crying and I said 'If this happened to me and my family was wiped out, would I have the capacity, even though I believe I have a strong faith, would I have the capacity to forgive?' and I don't believe that I would and yet I looked at this man and he had, working alongside Emmanuel and I just saw how far Rwanda had come.

But I have profound hope and just such regard for the work that was done at the time. But for me the work was done mainly by the Rwandans themselves. You know often we forget in the international community, we summersault in, a lot of organisations and the reason I really do love working with an organisation like Trócaire is that we stay.

We don't just go in during the emergencies and a lot of the organisations do and of course you get a lot more publicity but to belong to an organisation that stays for the long haul, that's there to rebuild and to help in the whole process of peace and reconciliation and building up livelihoods, but the essence, and when I look back, and the inspiration, where I draw my inspiration, is from the people themselves. Really they rebuild.

We go in and we work alongside and we go in as partners, but the strength and the vision and the courage and the perseverance and the love and the real compassion came from the Rwandans themselves and from people in the region themselves and we offer, we do, we offer and we bring a certain support, which is great and necessary and important and it shows our solidarity and our love and our affection but really the work and the hard work, in any emergency situation that I've worked in, or any place that I've been, comes from the people themselves and their own strength and their own faith and their own compassion and their own courage and their own insights and their own vision about how they rebuild their own communities.