War is an event that spreads death and brings pain and anguish to everyone it touches. But at the same time, there are bonds that can form between people during times of war that are different and in many ways stronger than any other kind of relationship. The bond formed between 2 particular men would be even more special than most.
A clean-shaven man named Sammy sat down in front of a computer screen, anxiously waiting for a Skype call to connect. The Canadian had just gotten rid of his beard that morning. “I want him to recognize me,” the former soldier explained, referring to the man who would be on the other end of the call, a guy also named Sammy…
Tale of 2 Sammys
When the second Sammy picked up the Skype call on his end, he did it from about 7,000 miles away. “Hello, muraho!” the Canadian shouted, greeting the second Sammy in English and in Kinyarwanda, one of the official languages of Rwanda.
It was in Rwanda more than 2 decades ago that the 2 men who shared a name first met each other during one of the worst man made catastrophes in modern history, the Rwandan Genocide. Over a 100 day period from April to July of 1994, over 800,000 people were brutally slaughtered along ethnic lines….
The Canadian Sammy was among 400 Canadian soldiers taking part in Operation Lance, an advance force meant to prepare for the arrival of a force of 5,000 UN-approved soldiers. The Canadians were among the first outsiders to witness the horror of the genocide and face the anger of the survivors.
That anger was due to the slow response of the international community to react to the situation, whose roots could be traced back to Belgian colonists intentionally increasing tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi, the country’s 2 primary ethnic groups. “When we showed up,” the Canadian Sammy Sampson said, “we were the people that had to apologize for the world. We were the white faces that the people of Rwanda felt had let them down.”…
Surrounded by mass murderers and starvation they were all but powerless. A key ally for the soldiers of Operation Lance during that time was an 82-year-old American woman named Rosamond Carr. Carr had come to Rwanda decades earlier and owned a flower nursery on the edge of the Gisenyi Jungle.
When the genocide began, Carr converted a large brick plantation building into a home for a group of children who’d been orphaned by the violence. Sampson and his section of 6 soldiers began assisting her in protecting the abandoned children, and sometimes bringing children they found while on patrol back to Carr…
But not every child could be saved and sometimes the soldiers were forced to leave children behind. “As a corporal, you’re making life and death decisions about who gets to live, who doesn’t” Sampson said. “It attacked my morals and ethics…You don’t leave kids crying in the middle of the street… I left them because I had no choice.” But the orphans they could save were eternally grateful, especially one boy.
“I Like You”
One 4-year-old orphan took an immediate liking to Sampson, introducing himself by wrapping his arms around the tall, muscular Canadian soldier’s leg. Sampson shook him off “But then he had the audacity to grab it again, and all the kids started laughing,” he said. “This little fella didn’t care whether I was a big white guy with a machine gun… he grabbed my leg and that was it.”…
Over the weeks that followed, Sampson and the boy, who had no known name, would single each other out each time he visited the orphanage, which was called Imbabazi. Despite the fact that he spoke no English, the two formed a special bond. Sampson found himself spending more and more time at Imbabazi.
“It was the only place in Rwanda where I could let my guard down,” Sampson said. “I could actually become a human being for a short period of time with these kids.” When he returned to Imbabazi in December after spending time in other parts of Rwanda, Carr told the soldier that the boy had been named Sammy, after him. “Nothing like that had ever happened to me before,” Sampson said…
They Must Be Gone
Sampson’s mission came to an end and the Canadians left Rwanda in early 1995. Shortly after, he heard that ethnic violence had flared up again in the region where the orphanage was and Sampson feared the worst. “While Mrs. Carr might have made it, I [couldn’t] really see a situation where any of these kids could have survived.”
Guilt and Sorrow
Sampson was on a UN mission in Haiti at the time and could do nothing to help the children he’d help protect though the genocide. For the next 23 years, he struggled with the belief that his efforts to help the people of Rwanda, especially the children at Imbabazi, had amounted to nothing. He would be wracked with guilt and sadness every time he thought of it…
Each time Sampson saw a small black child, he would be put into an acute state of despair. After continued service in Haiti, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, Sampson would be diagnosed with PTSD, largely as a result of his ever-growing guilt related to Rwanda.
Sampson’s dark feelings were destroying his life. His marriage broke down and he was unable to hold down a job for very long. Rwanda would continue to torment him until late 2017, when his girlfriend Susie decided to find out for sure what happened to the orphanage he’d protected. To her surprise, she discovered that Imbabazi not only survived, but had flourished…
Since it began in 1994, the orphanage had cared for more than 400 children, had won international awards, and had been the subject of several films. Imbabazi had become a model for orphanages across Rwanda and around the world.
In even better news, all of Imbabazi’s original orphans survived, several ever growing up to become teachers, politicians, doctors, and lawyers. Susie was able to locate Sammy Tuyishime, the man who had bonded with Sampson as a child, on Facebook and convinced Sammy Sampson to contact him…
“What did Mrs. Carr tell you about your name, so I know it’s really you?” Sampson asked. “There were UN soldiers… Among those soldiers, there is one who looked [after] me and loved me so much and gave me his name Sammy,” Tuyishime replied. “And I am that man,” said Sampson.
As they spoke on the Skype call, Tuyishime told Sampson that the 19 original Imbabazi kids considered themselves a family and, once a year, they gathered at the orphanage to commemorate Rosamond Carr, who they call “our lovely mother.” Tuyishime now operated a successful tourism company that brought people to see landmarks, museums, and offered face-to-face encounters with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s national parks…
Look At The Positive
“I have thought about you for 23 years,” Sampson said. Speaking with Tuyishime restored his belief in the good he did all those years ago. “Canadians did good work in Rwanda, but they are forgotten.” Sampson said. “If we could just stop and take a look at the positive things we accomplished.”
Proud Of You
Sampson began a fundraiser and quickly raised the funds to pay for Tuyishime to come to Canada for a visit. He also made plans to go visit Imbabazi in the next year. “I’m so proud of you Sammy,” the Canadian said over the computer screen. “I am a proud of you too,” the Rawandan said. “Even though it is not possible for everyone to understand that, for sure you did a lot.”