On April 13th 1994, five-year-old Sylvain De Greef was among 15 children who were rescued from Les Erythrines, an orphanage located in Sake Sector, of Eastern Rwanda, by the last Belgian troops that were leaving Rwanda for good.
Amidst the confusion that masked Rwanda during the I994 Genocide against the Tutsi, he had lost contact with his parents. He was adopted by a Belgian family.
Fourteen years later in 2008, his cousin, Patrick Severin, a Belgian journalist from Liège, connected with him and ventured on a journey to trace Sylvain’s roots back in Rwanda.
The outcome was a documentary film, ‘Des Cendres dans la Tête’ literally meaning, ‘Ashes in mind’ that will be screened during the Rwanda Film Festival, at Ishyo Art Center, Kacyiru, on Sunday 24th July at 3:00 p.m.
Below are excerpts from Sylvain De Greef and Patrick Severin.
Patrick Séverin, 31 years, is a Belgian journalist who recently organized a project in Kigali: “Take your chance, Be the change” that trained 24 journalists from Europe and Africa on ‘Stereotypes and Prejudices in the media.’
He followed his Rwandan cousin to trace his long lost parents in Rwanda.
TNT: What is ‘Des Cendres dans la Tête’ about?
SÉVERIN: Four years ago, by chance, I discovered that my cousin, Sylvain, comes from Rwanda.
This information answered the question I’ve never asked myself: “Why does my cousin have a black skin?”
Sylvain explained to me that he was born in Rwanda few years before the 1994 Genocide; he was saved by some Belgian soldiers who brought him to Belgium where he was adopted by a woman who later became my aunt when she got married to my uncle.
He was in my family for 10 years and I didn’t know anything about his story. He is a survivor. I felt shocked. He told me he dreams about going back to Rwanda.
“To see the country.” So, I proposed that we returned together the following summer. He accepted.
This was the starting point of this documentary, investigating the path of his memory, 14 years after he left the country.
TNT: What inspired you to shoot this documentary?
SÉVERIN: One week after I spoke with Sylvain, I moved to Montreal, in Canada. While there, I went to a theater that was showing the movie by Roger Spottiswoode: ‘Shake hands with the Devil’ (This movie has never been screened in Belgium).
In this movie, I learned part of the story of my own country, Belgium, in Rwanda’s history. As everyone, I knew what happened in 1994 but I had no idea of the roots of the conflict, and, of course, no idea about Belgian involvement in it.
This was a second shock for me. Not because this story was dirty, but because I studied at University and I was a journalist for five good years yet, I didn’t know about this story.
The History of my country: My History. This lack of knowledge about something so important as Genocide hurt me and I decided to include this in the documentary.
TNT: Why the title ‘Des Cendresdans la Tête’?
SÉVERIN: The documentary follows Sylvain but I guess the main character is myself, as the crossroad of two forgotten and damaged histories: the small one (Sylvain) and the big one (Belgium in Rwanda).
‘Des Cendresdans la Tête’ literally means, ‘Ashes in mind’ because of the flashes of memories of Sylvain and those that Belgian people have about their own history.
However, ‘Des Cendres’ can also be understood as ‘Descendre’—‘to go down in the mind.’
This documentary is like an introspection about “What do I have within me?”, “What’s my identity?”, “Why is it important for me to know who I am?”, “What should I remember and what is good to be forgotten?”
TNT: What is your connection to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda?
SÉVERIN: I was 14 years during the Genocide. I was at the right age to understand the horror of what was happening here but too young to be interested in the political and historical context.
My grandfather went to Butare with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) and I remember how shocked he was when he came back. At my University, I met Anita Munyaneza, (She returned to work in Kigali in 2007).
She was my first Rwandan friend. As far as I remember, it was really hard to connect her to the Genocide. There was no bridge.
These realities were too different. This Genocide was something so awful that it was not possible that my friend had to go through it.
This is so easy to do when you are far away to avoid the reality—to escape from it.
In Belgium, ‘Genocide’ is only a word. It was only when I decided to make this film with my cousin that I began to read and watch everything about the process of Genocide. I really understood that this abomination happened to real people, like my friend.
TNT: How does this make you feel?
SÉVERIN: Till now, the more I dig into Rwandan history, the darker it gets. At one point, few years ago, I was almost depressed because of that.
But now, it is because of the young generation, all my friends in Kigali that I have some reason to hope for a better future.
When a 24 or 25-year-old youth says ‘We are equal, we are all Rwandans,’ then I really do trust them. I can feel how sincere they are.
TNT: How did your journey back to Rwanda begin?
SÉVERIN: Together with Sylvain, we came to Rwanda in the summer of 2008. For one month we explored all the provinces of Rwanda searching for Sylvain’s parents.
We worked with an amazing Rwandan team: Urungano Youth and Media and I want to thank Olivier Ndikumana, Jacques Bugingo and Anita Munyaneza for their help. Without them we wouldn’t have this movie today.
TNT: How do you feel that 17 years after the Genocide, your film is showing at the 2011 Rwanda Film Festival?
SÉVERIN: Those who watch it, see different things. For some viewers, what is important is the history of Belgium in Rwanda. It shocked many people in my generation in Belgium to learn about the Genocide story they were ignoring.
Others are moved by how Sylvain is living. The steps an adopted child has to overcome to know who he really is and where he comes from.
But from my point of view, what is totally amazing is the incredible energy the Rwandans we met used to help find clues about Sylvain’s history.
We went across the country and everyone was interested, people were very kind toward Sylvain in his search for his parents.
I guess this is because many Rwandans have been through the same process of searching for their living relatives. So I can’t wait to know how this movie will be received by a Rwandan audience.
TNT: Any message for the viewers?
SÉVERIN: My next dream is to be able to screen it in Sake, in the village where Sylvain lived before flying to Belgium.
Also, we need to understand that it is important to know your national history in order to play an active role as a citizen.
Working on Rwandan history helped me a lot to understand what is happening now in Belgium, between the Flemish and Walloons, with some politicians trying to build hate between these two communities.
What happened in 1994 in Rwanda happened because people had forgotten who they really were, where they really come from. Because of Rwanda’s history, I will take care to know mine better.
Sylvain De Greef
Currently, 22-year-old Sylvain De Greef lives in Saint-Hubert in Belgium and works as a professional electrician. In 2008, he embarked on a courageous and brave journey to trace his roots in Rwanda.
TNT: Who is Sylvain De Greef?
DE GREEF: I am 22 years and I was born in Rwanda, but I don’t know where exactly. And I don’t know exactly when because all my documents burned during the Genocide.
If I am still alive today, it’s because some Belgian soldiers came to take me from Les Erythrines, in Sake, on April 13th, 1994. We were almost 15 children there. It was their last mission before leaving Rwanda for good.
TNT: What are your earliest memories of Rwanda?
DE GREEF: I was five, so, quite young. I have some smells in me, like old memories. I also do remember the journey by bus when my father brought me to the orphanage.
I remember that my sister was at school. And I have some flashes about the travel with soldiers from Sake to the airport.
TNT: Do you wish to live here again?
DE GREEF: Do I wish to live again in Rwanda? Yes, why not. If I can find a job there and if my familial situation allows it in Belgium, I could.
TNT: How do you feel about being the film’s focus in ‘Des Cendres dans la Tête’?
DE GREEF: I don’t really feel like the focus of the film. I was more like, living my own experience. The film was not my aim. I was there to discover my story.
At the beginning, it was weird to be followed all the time by a camera but then I forgot about it. It also helped that the director was my cousin, so I was feeling comfortable.
I don’t feel disturbed by the fact that my story is shared with an audience because I think my story could help some children who are hesitating to do the same.
I did it. And if it can show other adopted children that this is possible, then it’s great. It’s important for them not to stay with sadness inside themselves.
TNT: You didn’t find your parents, how did you feel and deal with this?
DE GREEF: When I began this adventure, I knew I would probably not find anyone. In my mind, there was an 80 percent chance of not finding any relatives because I was sure they were all killed during the Genocide.
At the same time, I was a bit anxious with the idea of finding someone, anyone. But, what if we have nothing to say to each other…?
TNT: What about your family in Belgium?
DE GREEF: They are wonderful. They have always been there for me. I love them so much.
If all Rwandan children could have found a family like mine, I’m sure all adopted children would be happy
TNT: What is your life’s inspiration?
DE GREEF: This life is like a second chance for me. So I live it 100 percent. I enjoy it as much as possible.
TNT: What are your dreams for the future?
DE GREEF: To build a family. To feel good. I don’t have so many dreams. I just live day by day.
TNT: Any message for the Rwandan youth of today?
DE GREEF: If you have a goal in mind, never let it go. If you want to reach it, keep going, even when you feel there is no chance of success. Always keep going.