Tapestry

Rwanda's genocide against the Tutsi and the Holocaust: survivors teach one another how to go on

Genocide survivor Eloge Butera was dealing with deep psychological trauma when he came to Canada several years after the atrocities. There Butera encountered a group of people specially equipped to help him learn to cope: elderly survivors of the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivors in Winnipeg helped Eloge Butera learn to cope with his trauma

Eloge Butera in Rwanda's Akagera National Park with his son (Submitted by Eloge Butera)
Listen27:57

"What do you do with your life when the world doesn't end? When you see the worst that human beings can do?"

That's a question that Eloge Butera, a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, says he's had to contend with for the last 25 years of his life.

The pursuit of that question brought Butera to another group of survivors — those who had lived through the Holocaust — and led him to eventually turn to the Jewish faith as his chosen religion.

Life was going to keep on happening to me whether I stay in 1994 or not.- Eloge Butera

Butera told Tapestry's Mary Hynes that his friendships with survivors of the Holocaust provided "a testimony for hope" — and a blueprint for how to continue living on his own life.

"They didn't survive simply to survive," he said. "They survived with a purpose, to try to make the world treat other people better."

'Miracles and coincidences'

April 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, when up to a million people were murdered in the span of just 100 days.

Eloge Butera, right, with his family. This is the last photo taken of his father, Dr. Guillaume Butera, before he was killed in the genocide (Submitted by Eloge Butera)

Butera lost his father, grandfather and much of his extended family to the violence, when he was just 10 years old.

But he doesn't see his own survival as simply a matter of fate.

"A series of miracles and coincidences conspired to get me and most of my immediate family through the genocide, where so many of our relatives perished," he said.

After the genocide started, Butera and his brother spent about a week on the run, until they were taken in by a Hutu family. They spent the rest of the genocide hiding in that family's home.

His mother's life, meanwhile, was saved by another "miraculous event," he said.

She was about to be killed by Hutu extremists in her home when a family photo album fell out of her bedroom wardrobe ... open to a photo of Butera's father, a physician. Her would-be executioner, a patient of his, recognized him in the photo and decided to let her go.

Soon after, she was reunited with Butera and his brother.

"It was a very abrupt end to what had otherwise been a peaceful and joyful childhood," Butera recalled. "My parents had insisted not to expose us too much to the hateful language and propaganda that was rampant in Rwanda before 1994."

"And yet, here I was, a witness to the worst human beings can do to one another," he added.

'A forceful response for hope'

After the genocide, Butera moved to Winnipeg. And it was there that he met the people who would have a profound effect on his life: elderly survivors of the Holocaust.

Eloge Butera on his day of graduation from McGill Law, alongside his mother, Jeanne Mwiliriza, who traveled to Montreal from Rwanda for the occasion (Submitted by Eloge Butera)

"Many of them like me had lived through the Holocaust when they were about my age … the teenage years of an abruptly ended childhood," he said. "From them, I learned the lesson of what you do with your life when the world doesn't end."Through his friendship with Holocaust survivors and educators, Butera soon also discovered the writings of Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel gave "words to describe the kind of trauma that I had experienced, the kind of evil we had witnessed," Butera said.

He also taught him that there was a purpose to his life: "Having survived all of this, you can still live meaningful lives … life was going to keep on happening to me whether I stay in 1994 or not."

"The force of this violence is to be met by a forceful response for hope."

Wrestling with God

Back in Rwanda, Butera grew up in a very rigid Christian society, he said.

"The kind of Christianity practiced in Rwanda to really cope with hundreds of thousands of perpetrators and hundreds of thousands of their victims needed to present a bit of a forceful case for forgiveness," Butera added.

"There were very difficult questions about how you co-exist with the imperfect justice that is delivered on this journey as a human," he said.

After surviving the Rwandan genocide — but losing much of his family to the atrocities — Eloge Butera struggled to find meaning in life. Connecting with elderly survivors of the Holocaust helped him find his way (Submitted by Eloge Butera)

But Butera found himself asking more and more questions. And that search for answers eventually led him to embrace the Jewish faith.

In Judaism, he said, he found the tools to make sense of the complexity he faced.

It provided "the space to ask those difficult and almost impossible questions," Butera added."The questions themselves were actually honoured and valued … And it was important to have enough faith to ask them of God or of your community."

The conversion to Judaism gave Butera the opportunity to wrestle with God, he said.

"There is space to believe in God. There is space to agonize with that belief," Butera added.

"When you watch a genocide or a mass atrocity take place in front of you … I think for my spiritual health and really overall existence, I needed that space to be struggling alongside those voices from the past over the meaning of God's will on the earth and in my life in particular."


To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.