By Debbie Hovanasian
TYNGSBORO -- In his younger life in Rwanda, he lived among atrocities. During a 100-day genocide in 1994, during which over 800,000 Rwandans were killed, Claude Kaitare lost several family members. Among them was his 80-year-old grandmother. Frail and in need of a walker, she was killed in her own home when she could not escape Hutu extremists on a campaign to exterminate Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
"That was a huge blow to everyone," said Kaitare, who immigrated to the United States at age 14, lives in Lynn and works at a pharmaceutical firm in Cambridge.
Kaitare, now 31, witnessed others killed with a machete.
Kaitare will be the speaker at the 20th Anniversary of Rwandan Genocide Interfaith Service of Remembrance and Healing on Sunday, May 4. The multi-cultural event, sponsored by the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance (GLILA), will take place at St. Mary Magdalen Church, 93 Lakeview Ave. in Tyngsboro. It is a free event to which all are welcome.
Beginning at 3 p.m, Kaitare will show the documentary, "Forsaken Cries" by Amnesty International. At 4:30 p.m., following the documentary and discussion, an interfaith service takes place. Later, refreshments will be served by GLILA.
According to Rabbi Dawn Rose of Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley, GLILA chose Rwanda as its fourth annual Genocide Remembrance service because "it is a recent genocide and people here in Boston still remember."
Rose adds that "local Rwandans feel they cannot go home because their lives would still be in danger. Rwanda perhaps hovers on the brink of another genocide. We want to be watching that."
GLILA's goal for the service, she adds, is to offer "hope, strength and consolation" to local Rwandans who mourn their slaughtered kin or who struggle from their own physical and psychological wounds.
"We hope to demonstrate the power of interfaith organizing, song and prayer," she said, adding that she also hopes to "deepen my service to God by broadening my service to humanity."
Those goals reflect Kaitare's own goals as he embarks on his mission to "raise awareness in hopes of eradicating ignorance over the topic of genocide and human rights violations," he said.
It's a mission he came to in a roundabout way. It all began in Rwanda on April 6, 1994. That's when Rwandan President Javenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down. Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsi-led RPF, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had been attempting to secure the repatriation of Rwanda. The act was a catalyst for the genocide against Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women and children, who were tortured, raped and slaughtered.
Since Kaitare was only 12, he had no identification card to state his Tutsi ethnicity. That allowed him to maneuver through the neighborhood and beyond, passing through Hutu roadblocks that allowed him to provide his family with food and water.
He witnessed horrific violence and his immediate family lived in constant danger until the end of April, when the RPF entered his town and removed them from danger. By that time, however, his extended family had been killed by the president's militias.
The RPF took the family to a refugee camp located in the northern providence of Rwanda, where they remained safe. Educated prior to the genocide, Kaitare, who lost his mother at age 9, worked at an orphanage as a doctor's assistant. There, he cared for many children who had been witnesses to the horrors of the genocide.
The genocide ended in July 1994. Still, Kaitare's aunt, who lived in Portland, Maine, figured out a way for him, his two sisters and a cousin to go to Kenya, where she awaited their arrival. There, they learned English and immigrated to Portland to live with her in 1995.
Kaitare's father stayed behind and eventually became a judge in the tribunals against the perpetrators of the genocide. He died in 2008.
After graduating from Portland High School, Kaitare enrolled in Clark University for pre-med. His experience at the orphanage, where he witnessed malnutrition, injury, and where "we even lost some of them," drove him to become a pediatrician.
That changed in his sophomore year when he took a class on Holocausts and noticed errors in some of the materials about the Rwandan Genocide. He switched his major to history with a minor in holocaust and genocide studies, graduating in 2005.
Kaitare has since traveled to many holocaust sites, including Germany and back to Rwanda in 2005 and 2009. There, he visited his father's grave.
While working in pharmaceuticals, he has carried out his mission to educate others, including middle school, high school and college students.
As he speaks about the genocides around the world, including the Native Americans, he urges the students that in planning out their futures, "step back and think about your moral compass -- not just financial, not just what you have to gain material-wise," he said.
"I tell them that they are our future -- not just of America, but the world."