Columbus Zoo Partnership in Rwanda Helps People and Animals

The Columbus Zoo’s 15-year-old Partners in Conservation program looks at ways to help people who live near endangered animals. For example, by helping poachers find ways other than killing gorillas to support their families, PIC is saving animal lives. The program was underway in east central Africa at the time of the genocide in Rwanda. The aftermath of that tragedy led to a partnership that continues today.

The Rwandan genocide lasted several months in 1994 and took an estimated one million lives. The Interahamwe, which means “Those Who Attack Together,” were among those responsible for the killing. After the genocide, many lived in the forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) and periodically came into Rwanda to rob and kill people.

Frederick Ndabaramiye today describes the Interahamwe as “bad people.” On July 22nd, 1998, he was still in his teens. He was traveling on a bus to northern Rwanda near the town of Gisenyi when, he says, a band of Interahamwe stopped the bus and took the people off the bus. His voice trails off.

Charlene Jendry, coordinator of the PIC program and a close friend, gently asks if it’s alright for her to continue the story. He nods. Jendry says, “After they took him off the bus, they said, ‘If you kill those people, then you will live.’ And Frederick said, ‘My God won’t let me do that.’ And so they tortured him during the day. And to punish him, they cut off his arms that night. Completely severed his arms.”

Jendry says Ndabaramiye was likely given the option of killing the others because he is Hutu as are the Interahamwe. The others on the bus were likely Tutsi. Jendry says Ndabaramiye made his way to a road where 3 girls found him the next morning. He was hospitalized for a year, then directed to an orphanage for children whose families were killed in the genocide. That’s where the Partners in Conservation Program found him.

The PIC program brought Ndabaramiye to Columbus a few years ago to receive prosthetic hands which he calls “fingers.” Jendry says she and Ndabaramiye were on their way to physical therapy in Columbus when he asked a question:

“Why do you think I didn’t die when the men cut off my arms during the genocide? ‘I said, why do you think you didn’t die?’ He said, I think it’s because God had something else for me to do.”

Jendry says, 18 months ago she visited Ndabaramiye in Rwanda and he told her he had found something -helping others like himself “I can help! Something in me, I know many different things, but I know I have things to give.”

He and a friend founded – and financed – the Ubumwe Community Center. The word means “working together.” The center is located in one room of a Catholic school in Gisenyi, Rwanda. Ndabaramiye is passionate, placing his arms without hands over his heart, as he describes how much he wants to help others forget the genocide and gain skills for the future.

“I try to see how children can forget things that happen to them. I say when we teach them things – some things to give them good life and a future.”

Ndabaramiye says many Rwandan people with disabilities sit in their homes and, he says, “make a sad heart.” He goes from house to house, talking to families, encouraging people with disabilities and using himself as an example of what can be accomplished.

Word of mouth also brings people to the center. Ndabaramiye smiles about being one of the attractions at there. “When they saw me writing with no hands, they come quickly!”

After the brutal attack in 1998, Ndabaramiye took stock of what he had to offer to others and decided he could teach. He could teach the Bible. Among the lessons he describes is one he has clearly mastered; “When you love your enemy, it’s a hard thing to think about, but it gives you peace. I have peace in my heart right now.”

Ndabaramiye recently had surgery in Columbus for nerve damage in his right arm. Charlene Jendry says, even while he is undergoing painful therapy, Ndabaramiye is looking ahead to his return to Rwanda. He wants to expand the Ubumwe Community Center to accommodate the growing number of people seeking assistance there.