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Reflections
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By Suzanne Leslie

The 20th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide

I read the invitation "An Exploration and Expression of Holocaust and Genocide Experiences through Drama and Poetry." My dear friend Bernadette is one of the guest speakers invited to Toronto and I'm asked to join her.

Francis Bernadette's husband and I talk as he drives. Bernadette sits looking quietly at her notes. I can see the fine lines that form on her forehead and after some time she closes her notebook and joins our conversation.

We arrive at our destination 5 minutes to 7:00 and agree to meet Francis in the music room. The two of us look for the washroom so Bernadette can change. Within minutes she emerges dressed in traditional Rwandan clothes.

As she looks in the mirror her eyes are distant, she takes a kleenex and dabs the tiny beads of sweat that have formed on her forehead, I wonder if her thoughts are returning to the day her life changed—and the senseless killing of her family became news to the world.

We climb two flights of stairs, and follow the signs to the music room. The rich dark wood trim, old window casings and paintings greet us as we walk in. Even with the windows wide open there is a stuffy stale smell. We find Francis and sit down; the room hums with conversation. The Jewish communities have come to hear Dr. Greenspan; the Rwandans have come to support Bernadette. The "chair" introduces us to the evening and suddenly there is silence.

Dr. Greenspan is the first to speak. He reads "Remnants", an award winning voice play, which tells the stories of the Holocaust survivors he has personally interviewed. His tone is pleasant and descriptive and as he speaks I imagine I can hear their voices. When I close my eyes I envision their faces.

The woman sitting beside me leans forward and stares at me. She raises her eyebrows and smiles. I get the impression she wants to ask me something so I smile back but we exchange no words. My eyes catch sight of two elderly gentlemen a few rows up. I watch them and every so often they lift a hankie to wipe away tears trickling down their cheeks. It makes me feel sad. Is this their story being told? Who has died? A wife, a daughter, a son—maybe every person they love? While lost in my thoughts, Bernadette stands and walks to the platform all my attention is now on her she is the reason I came.

The professor from California is called upon to set up the history of Rwanda, he is a soft-spoken man and I listen intently to him. When he is finished Bernadette is introduced. Placing her hands on the podium she respectfully turns to Dr Greenspan and says, "Thank you for your compassion and your work," then she opens her notebook, and begins to read "The Quilt", one of her many writings. It is a poem about Christian women who sent quilts to Rwanda, but having no beds to sleep on there is no need for the quilts. She tells us in poetry how her mother undid the stitching to make her a dress when she was a little girl. I can see her in the dress- the rich color of the material against her dark skin, her broad happy smile and laughing eyes as she dances under the large shade tree where the women gathered in happier times.

There is a pause, then clearing her throat; Bernadette begins to speak of the genocide of her family. The loss of her father, two sisters one who was 8 months pregnant, her brother his spouse, their children and many close relatives-35 all hacked to death with machetes.

Emotions over take me, first fear, disbelief and finally great sorrow. My heart begins to ache for her, not because I understand-because I don't, but because she is my friend. Now it is I who wipe away the tears.

When the speakers are done there is a time for discussion. I sit and listen to the question of how to rightly express the artistic value of human suffering to students of the arts. One Jewish man asks, "How do you teach this, and not teach the students to hate?" It is a good question one with no answer.

I leave Bernadette talking with survivors of the holocaust. Francis and I make our way to the debate room. This room is airless like the first and just as ornate with the dark wood trim and paintings, except this one has food. As we enter the room Francis is joined by friends, I listen as they greet each other and then continue on my own.

Wandering around I eventually help myself to a drink and sweets. Not knowing what else to do I lean against the wall and watch the people so many have come. I listen to the voices and as the noise level rises I note there is a welcomed release of tension and grief-even laughter. I glance around the room for the woman who sat beside me but I can't find her in the crowd. I look for the two old men and I see them smiling-I smile too and reflect on how resilient we are, one moment in tears the next laughing, living between joy and sorrow.

The scripture "Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted" enters my thoughts. Just for a moment I witness the amazing grace of God in my friend Bernadette and those like her. They have overcome fear and hatred, choosing to tell their stories of finding grace, peace, and forgiveness and yes-even joy.