In 1994, when it became frighteningly clear that Rwanda’s Hutu majority planned to stage a massacre against the Tutsi minority, Thierry Sebaganwa Ukobisaba shifted into survival mode.
“First, we had to find food. I remembered what Martin Gray did; that came to me right away.”
Sebaganwa is the subject of the documentary Shared Memories, by first-time French filmmaker Ygal Egry. The film explores how victims of trauma can grasp and cope with their reality by learning and empathizing with stories of other traumatic events.
In 1990, four years before the Tutsi genocide took place, Sebaganwa saw the film For Those I Loved, based on the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Martin Gray. Sebaganwa was shocked at the brutality and inhumanity in the film, but didn’t imagine that it could ever happen to him. Yet over the course of 100 days, from April to mid-July 1994, Rwanda’s Hutu population, in coordination with and planned by government forces, systematically massacred one million Tutsis and Hutu moderates in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
Sebaganwa credits his survival to lessons gleaned from Gray’s survival and the lessons of the Holocaust. While chaos was escalating outside Sebaganwa’s home in Butare, he brought one of his sisters to a Hutu family’s house to hide her. He planned an escape route out of his house to avoid detection and contacted a friend familiar with the border with neighboring Burundi; Sebaganwa is the sole survivor of his family.
Tall, dark and handsome, Sebaganwa is an affable man. Walking the streets of his native city, he calls hello and shakes hands of people he passes. His friends describe him as outgoing and comical.
In 2005, Sebaganwa was invited with other Tutsi survivors to Israel to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and learn how to commemorate and memorialize their own tragic history. In Shared Memories, Sebaganwa relates how the visit was a powerful transformative experience for him, giving him the words and tools to talk about his own suffering and connect with other survivors. Yet the most dramatic thing Sebaganwa took away was his desire to educate others about the horrors of the Holocaust.
In 2006, a year after Sebaganwa returned from Israel, Egry visited Rwanda with a delegation of young French Jews and Tutsis to learn about the genocide.
Egry is one of the founders of Passeurs de Mémoires, a Paris-based initiative that combines elements of formal and informal education to better teach people of the dangers of prejudice. One of his projects is to help Holocaust survivors document their stories.
Sebaganwa was the group’s guide throughout their stay. One night, he invited them to his house, where Egry was stunned to discover a home-made museum dedicated to the memory of the Shoah.
Yad Vashem had given Sebaganwa photos, documents and teaching materials to bring back to Rwanda.
Instead of storing them, he tacked them up on his walls, with accompanying descriptions, and invited people into what he called the “Shalom House.”
“I felt strange,” Egry says of his first impression of the museum. It was a surreal experience, traveling to Rwanda to learn about their genocide, but entering a survivor’s home and getting a lesson about the Holocaust.
After a week in the country, Egry and the delegation traveled to Israel, but Sebaganwa stayed in Rwanda.
Egry couldn’t shake his meeting with the amateur museum curator.
Egry approached Sebaganwa about making a documentary of his story and the story of Shalom House.
Sebaganwa was hesitant at first, but ultimately agreed.
“It’s a unique project,” Egry says. “I was very touched that a survivor of Rwanda was teaching the Shoah to his people.”
Egry says that it is getting more and more difficult to teach people about the Holocaust – particularly in France. He says that the rise of anti-Semitism in France over the past 10 to 15 years is very real, and this is one of the difficulties. “In schools, in colleges, when the teachers want to teach about the Shoah, there is opposition from young people: ‘Why do you speak about this? My people suffered too.’ Some feel that there is an exaggeration of these things, they are fed up with Jewish stories.”
THE FILM focuses on the power of realizing shared experiences and coming to terms with and being able to speak of one’s own history.
“The idea for this museum came to me,” Sebaganwa says on film, “when Eliezer Sharon, an old [Holocaust] survivor, deported from France, shook my hand.
“He said, ‘This boy, this young man knows what I’ve experienced.’ In other words, he identified with me. In other words, he was a Tutsi too. He felt the suffering of the Tutsis the way I felt his suffering.”
Shared Memories doesn’t explore the circumstances leading up to the genocide, and only briefly touches on the atrocities committed. A visit to the Rwandan genocide memorial in Kigali gives the film some of its most disturbing images. It shows propaganda: a political cartoon in which a therapist asks his sick patient what’s wrong. “The Tutsi!” he answers. It describes brutality: a picture of an innocent, wide-eyed little girl with a caption that says she loved cake and milk, singing and dancing. Cause of death: stabbed in the eyes and head. Images of bodies in ravines, butchered and hanging out of burnt out cars, masses of bodies in buildings...
“When I was editing the movie,” Egry says, “I tried to be loyal, not to make emotion for the sake of the emotion. The emotion is in the story. I didn’t want to show people crying, death, [graphic] photos.
It’s not a historical film, it’s a film about the work of memory, it’s a film about what happens after the genocide.”
In another poignant moment of the film, Sebaganwa is showing a group of students – child Tutsi survivors – around his museum. He asks them if any of the images resonated with them. One young man says he could relate to a photo of a starving man, “I remember being hungry.” Another says that he can remember his fear of not knowing where to run, having nowhere to escape. Yet at the end of their discussion, a man comments that they can learn from the Jews – to see how they’ve moved on, they have hope for their own people, they can grow as well.
THE FILM took six years to make; its debut screening was in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2014, the 20th anniversary of the genocide.
On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz a screening was arranged for Holocaust survivors in Paris. Unknown at the time, a Tutsi survivor was in the audience. The woman came as a representative of a similar organization for Tutsi survivors and shared her story. Since then, Egry says, they have organized coordination between the two groups’ activities.
These types of happenings cause Egry to step back and look at the power of the film.
“I said to myself, ‘whoa, it’s a little bit because of Thierry,’ because the starting point of this project was the movie, the project link with people who want to fight for the memory of genocide to be recognized and brought a link to the Jewish people and Rwandan people.
I told this to Thierry and he was very touched.”
In December 2014, Egry met Martin Gray, who had seen and was moved by parts of the film. Egry wants to arrange a meeting between the Sebaganwa and Gray, although financial constraints have held him back so far. “It’s very expensive to fly from Rwanda to Europe,” he says.
Shared Memories was last screened in Berlin at the 6th annual Muslim-Jewish Conference in August.
“It was very important to screen this movie with 160 people from over 40 countries, Jewish and Muslim.
The audience reaction was interesting and the questions at the end of the screening were very relevant.”
The next stop for the film will be a human rights film festival, and Egry hopes to submit the film to festivals in Israel. “It will be a dream to screen this movie in Israel with Thierry. The project was born in Israel, in Yad Vashem. It should be screened in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. If we can organize a screening in Israel – and also in [the Palestinian Authority] – I think the story, bridging between the Shoah and Africa, can prove compelling. It’s important for all parties to see it.”
IN ADDITION to bringing Jewish history to the Shalom House in Rwanda, Sebaganwa also brings a bit of Jewish culture to his visitors. In pouring out some glasses of beer and soda for visitors, Sebaganwa proposes they raise a toast. “I’d like us to drink to our health. In Hebrew they say, ‘L’haim,’” he explains on film, but is quick to add: “We also have to look into each other’s eyes.” For more information visit Association Passeurs de Mémoires: http://www.passeursdememoires.org; email@example.com