April 03, 2004

Rwanda: The (Irish) Mercy Story

In October 1996 six Sisters of Mercy went to Rwanda. In that Spring they had gone to learn French in Belgium in a Language Training School for Missionaries, Mission Langues. In Rwanda they first had to learn Ikinyanrwandan, the only language spoken in the South West , a dominantly Hutu area, to which they were going. Ikinyanrwandan was taught through the medium of French. Their teacher was the priest who was the first to write down Ikinyanrwandan and the last remaining one of the Missionaries for Africa (White Fathers) in Rwanda. It was a collaborative mission with St Patrick's Missionary Society, Kiltegan, who were located about an hour away in Cyanika and three Medical Missionaries of Mary who were located further to the east in Kirambi.

The language was far from easy to grasp for six brave women in their 50s and 60s. With the exception of Goretti Rule from the South African Province, none had worked in Africa before, nor did any of the Sisters know one another beforehand. Martina had been in pastoral ministry in the U.S. Province for many years, while the other four were from the newly formed Southern, South Central and Western Provinces in Ireland. Teresita Mitchell and Stephanie Murphy were nurses, Maria Hayes a teacher, and Mary Walsh a Social worker. The house which they went to had to be "rehabilitated" with all the challenges that operating in a strange land and an even stranger language posed.

Despite the inevitable difficulties posed by language, isolation, the roads, and finding a way of communicating with a terrified people, their presence became a point of comfort and consolation for the silent people. In the wake of the genocide, the countryside was left uncultivated. It was a population of women and children, with scarcely a man to be seen. People were still emerging from hiding in the nearby forests of Burundi and the Congo. Checkpoints were in place along the roads, where nervous young men, carrying weapons, checked permits and ascertained the business of those wanting to pass. People disappeared mysteriously, while new faces appeared. Gradually gardens and fields yielded up the remains of the thousands that were slaughtered throughout the countryside and were laid out, or stored, awaiting the mandate from the Government that burials could be done in mass graves. Faces peeped out from behind bars of local cachets, which housed those who were taken in for questioning and held locally. News of happenings in other locations were exchanged when people met those whom they knew they could trust, and whose language they understood.

Gradually, the Sisters reopened the adjoining clinic, a place where people had sought refuge in April 1994, only to be slaughtered together .The bodies which were cleared from the site and laid out in little bundles in two of the rooms got buried, remnants of clothing still clinging to them. The place was freshly painted and, by degrees, people began to filter back.

The two nurses were soon busy doing what they could to care for the fearfilled sick people, training new recruits in professional skills. Boundaries of the property got defined, with Mary's increasing facility in the grammatical nuances of Ikinyanrwandan; gardens produced food, vehicles got repaired. A food programme and Womens groups took hold and local people were enabled to take on responsibilities. Involvement in a housing project with the Indigenous minority, the Twa, signalled that the Sisters were neither on the side of Hutu or Tutsi. Martina got pastoral work in a location which was accessed only by the power of the four-wheeled drive, chugging and sliding and the grace of God enabling the wheels to avoid the gaping cracks in the roads and passes. Goretti used her skills from Monday to Friday in teaching English in a Secondary School, while progression from Food Aid schemes saw Maria procuring limestone and equipment to till the leached hillsides and working in a local Agricultural College. The valleys began to blossom once more. Applications were tediously written up for one scheme or another. Visitors arrived and went and the Sisters came out on leave, sometimes to Ireland, sometimes to the Sisters in Kenya, whose expertise in many matters was generously shared and greatly appreciated.

Slowly, the afflicted and sorely bereaved people trusted enough to smile; gradually children began to play again and new children were born. With the growth of trees and shrubs, all of which had been ravaged for firewood while the people were in the green-tarpaulined camps, birds came back and the smell of eucalyptus scented the air. Local people returned from neighbouring countries, to which they had fled, and a semblance of normality settled over the uneasy peace. Occasionally one spotted a dog or cat, and a rare flock of two or three kid goats. A bakery opened in the Cyanika Centre and the restaurant, Jean Jacques', had a couple of extra lines on the menu, even if one had to wait an hour and a half to be served. A man plied his feet on a sewing machine at the Cyanika crossroads and NGO personnel came and went. The occasional three to four hour trips to the capital, Kigali, included making phonecalls, searching for faxes that might have come to one address or another, looking up Embassy personnel where the latest news on safety was sought. By July 2000 the Mercy presence in Ruramba had come to a close. A community of African Sisters had been secured to take their place there and arrived, delighted with an established mission. On August 15th they were attacked and robbed.

From the Mercy presence in Rwanda, this little country just south of the Equator, the horrific pain of its people entered the hearts of the friends, families and colleagues of the six who went forth in the name of the newly-founded Congregation.

Elizabeth Manning rsm (Congregation)

The Perils of Indifference:Rwanda Ten years after the Genocide

Deirdre Mullan rsm (Director, MGC)

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