Rwanda 20 years: Why I was afraid

Rwanda 20 years: Why I was afraid  | World Vision Blog

After the 1994 genocide, World Vision's work in Rwanda helped give Zaphran (center) a new life and family. (Photo: 2007 Jon Warren/World Vision)

Seven years ago, staff writer Kari Costanza visited Rwanda for the first time. She was able to replace her fear about the trip because of stories like Zaphran’s.

World Vision’s early work in Rwanda immediately following the genocide focused on peace-building, livelihood training, water and sanitation, agriculture, education, and health issues like malaria and maternal and child health.

Read how these programs helped reconstruct a new orphan’s world … and her sense of family.


Going to Rwanda for the first time made me nervous. Really nervous. I’d read a lot of books about the genocide. I’d watched Hotel Rwanda and nearly come undone. I dreamed of machetes.

It was March 2007, and photographer Jon Warren and I were traveling to visit World Vision projects in southern Rwanda, gathering stories and photos about sponsored children and an innovative program that freed children from dangerous child labor and placed them back in school.

The work was good, the country beautiful—lush landscapes of verdant hills and rich red soil—but I was in a dark cloud, a question niggling: How could it have happened? In a place that had played host to mass murder, I felt afraid.

What do you do to vanquish this kind of fear?

You replace it with love.

As a storyteller for World Vision, I replace fear with love by listening to people and opening my heart to care. On that first trip, there were so many people to love.

One was Zaphran Murekatete. She was seven when the genocide began. Her family fled to Congo. There, one by one, she watched as nearly every member died of disease and hunger. "I didn't know what was happening,” she told me. “I just knew that I was scared." Scared, and becoming more alone. "Our mother died. My brother died. My sister died.”

Eventually, only Zaphran and one brother remained, hiding in the jungles of Congo, constantly on the run. "It was very terrible," she says. "We moved from one place to the other without clothing."

Zaphran lifted up her feet.  "I had terrible wounds. We were hit by sharp, thorny plants in the jungle," she told me, pointing to the tops of her feet that had been bloodied by barbs, and then turning them over to show where the thorns had pierced her soles.

Eventually Zaphran was separated from her brother, whom she never saw again. An absolute orphan, she was trucked back to her home in southern Rwanda to begin life from scratch. World Vision came to her community, repairing schools, health clinics, and water systems—everything that had been destroyed in the genocide.

Staff paid special attention to Zaphran. They knew she needed more than a rebuilt community. She needed a family. World Vision staff treated her as a daughter.

And World Vision did more, inviting Zaphran to work in a vocational program to learn a skill that would change her life: working with leather.

The girl who had survived barefoot in the jungles of Congo became a shoemaker.

Thirteen years after the genocide, for Zaphran and others, life in Rwanda was moving ahead.

I still carried my fears, but they were settling. I was beginning to see that we live in a world where nothing is ever completely good, but that, when put into a hard place, humans can behave like Zaphran, with bravery beyond her years.

Story after story ping-ponged between courage and cowardice as we met people who had survived and those who had slaughtered. By the end of the week, I was developing a new understanding of humanity. People weren’t either good or bad. People were both. And I realized that I hadn’t needed to come to Rwanda to find that out.

All I’d had to do was to examine my own imperfect heart.

Throughout April, we’re telling the full 20-year story toward reconciliation in Rwanda and the integral part World Vision has played in that process of healing. Read our Magazine feature here.

The process of reconciliation and recovery contiinues. You can be a part of it. Consider sponsoring a child in Rwanda today!

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