Growing up in Rwanda in the early part of the 21st century, the horrific events of 1994 were a constant — but mostly unseen — backdrop to the lives of Aline Joyce Berabose and her friends. “People of my generation, or the ‘post-genocide generation’ as we are called, often don’t know where they fit into that,” she says. Between April and July of 1994, a mass ethnic slaughter left between 500,000 and a million people dead across the tiny nation of Rwanda, as the world watched on. “As I was growing up, my mother tried to avoid the topic because she felt that I deserved a right to live as a normal child.”
Then one day, shortly after her 15th birthday, Aline made a life-changing discovery.
Not who she thought she was
“I discovered through my documents and birth certificate that they didn’t identify me as a Rwandan person,” she recalls. Aline had in fact been born in the country then known as Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Naturally, she had a lot of questions for her mother, Marie Ange. “I got home as soon as I could to confront my mum. She said ‘I knew it was time to explain to you anyway.'”
And so unfolded the epic tale of Marie Ange’s flight from Rwanda. Tearfully she described to her daughter a chaotic scene of bullets and “unimaginable violence” as she fled her homeland. “It was the very first time I saw my mum being that sad,” according to Aline.
Sitting in a leafy, sun-dappled garden in the now-peaceful suburbs of Kigali, Rwanda, Marie Ange takes up the story. “I moved (from Rwanda) in 1994 and I entered Kitale (refugee) camp in DRC. After two years, I became pregnant and life was very hard there. That is when Concern really came into my life.”
The bleak, volcanic flatlands of Katale, near Goma in DRC, became temporary home to hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding across the border in the weeks and months following the Rwandan genocide. And it was here that Concern centered its response to what was quickly turning into a new humanitarian disaster, with the threat of starvation and cholera looming. Concern’s current CEO, Dominic MacSorley, headed up the response at the time. “Goma was a nightmare — overcrowded and insecure,” he recalls. “In terms of infrastructure, these were some of the worst camps I have ever been in… pitching tents or digging latrines on hard unyielding lava rock was a huge challenge .”
The long road home
Having endured the privations of refugee life for two years, and now a malnourished mother to a newborn baby girl, Marie Ange was desperate for help. Concern is the aid agency that she remembers best. “It really touched me deep in my heart when they gave us biscuits, milk, and other food,” she recalls. “I was so thankful to get that help from Concern.”
“I ate the biscuits one by one, through the journey of three months.”
By squirreling away some of the rations she was receiving, Marie Ange built up a secret food package and took the decision to return home, on foot. “I ate the biscuits one by one, through the journey of three months, and it gave me the strength to feed my daughter.”
Now a smiling, urbane young woman of 22 years, that daughter speaks candidly of her feelings following her mother’s revelation of a hidden past. “It was a really difficult moment for me to understand what my mother had to go through and knowing how lucky I am to be here,” she says. “I could have died from hunger or she could have died from the hunger or she could have simply left me on the street, as I was a burden.”
A change of course
Aline says the knowledge of what had happened changed something deep within her. A childhood dream of becoming Rwanda’s first female airline pilot started to fade. “I felt within me that I had a responsibility to give back to the community and if I became a pilot, I wouldn’t be living that purpose anymore.” She shifted her vision towards community service, working with genocide survivors in a village near her school being the first step.
And so to that 2014 summer afternoon on the banks of the Thames in London. Invited to travel to the UK to take part in a debating camp at an English university, Aline came bearing a gift basket from her mother for the organization to whom she felt a debt of gratitude. Sitting with the Concern team there, she says “I just realized ‘this is the environment I need to be around’.”
With the encouragement of her mother, Aline switched her studies to social sciences and began to spread her wings and make her mark. She and a group of like-minded partners founded their own non-profit, African Dream Movement, aimed at bringing young people from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries together to share experiences and learn leadership and other skills. Next on the agenda for the team is the Africa Global Youth Peace Summit in South Africa this December.
Marie-Ange is obviously proud of her daughter’s drive and enthusiasm for the future of her country and the continent around it. “Through your life, everything must teach you something. If there’s someone who helps you, please help others too.”
“What kept myself and my mother going was not when someone came and gave a million dollars to us…”
As for Aline, or “Jojo” as she’s known to her friends, she believes her back-story has fated her to be a changemaker. “A step you make — whether it’s sending a message to someone or donating one dollar — can change somebody’s life. What kept myself and my mother going was not when someone came and gave a million dollars to us… it was a biscuit that kept us going. If it wasn’t for that small biscuit, I wouldn’t be here helping hundreds of youth in Africa.”
Alien Joyce Berabose has been appointed Youth Ambassador for Concern Worldwide.