Together we went to Rwanda and discovered what peace and reconciliation really means. Together we faced our fears and faced each other. Do Israelis and Palestinians have to go all the way to Rwanda to finally believe that peace is possible?
We spent 10 days together in Rwanda. And when we say that, we mean that we spent almost every minute of every day together. Together we listened to terrible stories, to hopeful or terrifying anecdotes…we laughed, and we cried. We shared our own stories…and often, we stayed quiet. We have known each other for over 2 years, but those 10 days in Rwanda changed everything.
Hamze: Last week, my family commemorated the 39th anniversary of the loss of my grandfather. He was a Palestinian fighter rebelling against the Israeli Army. Even though he was killed before I was born, I know everything about him. His name and story have been kept alive; the same way we keep the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict strong throughout the years. Why haven’t we come to terms with our conflict after all these years? 21 years after the Oslo accords, a reconciliation process seems further away than ever.
Sarah: I know that when I work with Palestinians or Arabs, my parents are worried. I was taught to be proud of my country and of its history: “We were weak and few, they were many and so strong, but we won because this is our land”. The worries are also mixed with fear and suspicion. I heard more than once in my childhood: “You cannot trust an Arab! Look at what happened to us in Algeria.” How come the trauma of past events and national mythology can define and shackle our future?
21 years ago Rwanda went through one of the most horrific chapters in human history. In only 100 days, 1 million men, women and children were slaughtered with machetes. Their killers were their neighbors, their friends, their colleagues; their fellow Rwandans. It was genocide against the Tutsi. Tutsi were dehumanized, blamed of all the flaws of the country and called cockroaches. Hatred was taught in schools…How far are we, Israelis and Palestinians, from this?
Today Rwanda is unrecognizable. We arrived in a beautiful country – clean, safe and welcoming. Everywhere we went, we met people who told us about their personal story and how the genocide had affected them. Some of them were survivors, other were perpetrators. Both sides had to go through a forgiveness and reconciliation process. They had to listen to each other and to accept each other. The stories brought tears to our eyes more than once – children seeing their parents killed in front of their eyes, brothers hiding in a church for months, neighbors waking up and being asked to kill their friend next door…Their pain was familiar to us, but they taught us something we never saw before: The past belongs to the past, the future is what matters the most. Every day, the memory of the genocide victims reminds the people of Rwanda and their leaders that they must focus on their future.
We went to Rwanda with many questions. They were all answered. No, we are not different from each other; the tears and pain of a Rwandan are the same as an Israeli’s or a Palestinian’s. We must acknowledge the pain and the tears of the other side. No, we are not condemned to an eternal bloody status quo. We have been confusing forgiving with forgetting for far too long. We can honor the memory of our victims AND work on our future. Sadly, we are getting closer and closer to the kind of hatred that devastated Rwanda, but it is not too late! We can learn from their history and teach the new generation tolerance and hope.
Israelis and Palestinians, just like Rwandans, are prone to a very promising future. A peaceful and safe future, a future of economic development and social justice. We simply need to decide that this future is OUR PRIORITY.
We came back from Rwanda with many answers, but also with a question for you: Don’t you think it’s about time to start focusing on the future and saving lives?
Sarah Perle and Hamze Awawde.