The Valley of the Dry Bones: Genocide and Resurrection

In May 2012, I travelled on the Reflections on Rwanda program, a two-week trip for Canadian students to visit the Republic of Rwanda and study the genocide that occurred there in 1994. The purpose for studying genocide is to gain insight into human nature through studying the extremes in human action. Listening to the stories of rescuers and survivors prompts me to study the virtues required to affirm the sanctity of human persons.

Confronting profound evil is a difficult experience that challenges my faith. We toured dozens of memorial sites throughout the country. Many of these sites were former churches where people had fled seeking refuge and peace. At each site, we saw hundreds of skulls and bones of victims. Looking at those skulls and bones, I thought about my own skull and my own bones. I thought about how these bones and skulls fall short of truly representing the victims. What the skulls and bones do emphasize is equality, but what they deemphasize is individuality. When I observed a display with rosaries and identity cards among the skulls, it made me think about the dynamism of the life that once animated those bodies that were so violently destroyed.

One day, our group went down through a valley on a rickety white bus in southern Rwanda and came upon a hill in the middle of the valley. We were led into classrooms of a once-destined technical school filled with tables on which the bodies of victims were laid. These bodies had been preserved using limestone and so we saw bodies frozen in form showing the positions in which they had died. Some of the bodies had their arms crossed, some with their arms in the air, some bodies were sprawled out in utter defeat. There was one room with children and infant victims’ bodies. Sometimes clothing was attached to the preserved corpses. We saw the full bodies of the victims whose families had hurried to the site quickly enough to claim them. These bones testified to the horrors of genocide and to the fragility of human life. Did they also testify to the finality of death?

That evening, I was praying fervently and struggling with the experience. My roommate asked, “May I share with you a reading from scripture that I read today while we were at the memorial site called Murambi?” With my encouragement, she began to read Ezekiel 37 aloud.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” I shivered recalling the valley through which we had driven and the hill upon which we had ascended. “He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” I could still smell the putrid smell of the limestone that looked like chalk upon the dry, preserved corpses. My friend continued reading: “‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.'” I reflected on each body I had seen preserved. For none were the machete blows deserved.

“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.'” During the day, across the distance, I saw some children running quickly to greet us Muzungus, a local word meaning aimless wanderers used to refer to foreigners. Oh, we of little faith, I thought. We saw new life upon this hallowed hill.

The reading from Ezekiel continued, “‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.”

Children had been playing on the hill were their ancestors were massacred. Life was continuing where thousands had been slaughtered. I have seen life after genocide, I thought. And if there can be life after genocide then it is not so difficult to imagine life after death. “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.” Those risen from the ashes of genocide offered a glimpse of the hope of the resurrection. With their lives and their faith they declared life in a former place of death.

“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” As my friend read this I could feel the breeze that we had felt that day upon that hill. I reflected on the juxtaposition of the memorial site with the beautiful new lives being lived there now.

“Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” I then imagined all those bodies that I had seen rising again.

The reading continued, “I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.” What a message of hope! This message of reconciliation and healing written in the sixth century Before Christ took on so much meaning in light of the genocide in Rwanda. While the country is striving to eliminate tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, the Word of God affirms that these divisions will cease when there is restoration to the unity found in His peace.

I was in awe of this reading’s relevance to our activities of the day. My friend concluded the reading: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” What had been an incredibly challenging day and a great test of faith ended with the reassurance of God’s providence and with the joyous hope of life after death.

This blog is dedicated to my dear friend Rebecca Mattea Chadwick-Shubat who shared Ezekiel 37 with me and we both found consolation in scripture. Thank you for your friendship and encouragement. Philippians 1:3.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – Psalm 121:1

Reflections on Rwanda: Part X

The Reflections on Rwanda trip has been an incredible experience and I would like to encourage all eligible students who are interested to apply.

Here is some information on the program:

SHOUT Canada is a grassroots, national, not-for-profit organization administered by a volunteer Board of Governors.  Reflections on Rwanda (ROR) is SHOUT Canada’s flagship program, in the context of its primary organizational mandate, which is to help foster a generation of students with the power, voice and determination to affect change.

The ROR program was conceptualized and created in 2008 by the organization’s founding members who were all full-time students at the time. The year was spent putting together a pilot project, which came to fruition in the summer of 2009. Indeed, the group spent the better part of that summer in Rwanda visiting historical sites, solidifying relationships with individuals, as wells as governmental and non-governmental groups. The pilot project was implemented to lay the grounding for the 2010 ROR program.

On May 17th 2010, the first ROR cohort, comprised of 11 young Canadians from all corners of the country, met at London’s Heathrow Airport to be briefed about their imminent arrival in Kigali. On May 15th, 2011, the second ROR cohort landed in Kigali. In this context, SHOUT Canada is pleased to be offering the ROR program again in 2012 [and stay tuned for 2013!]

Here is some recommended reading material and films on Rwanda via the Reflections on Rwanda leadership team:

Reading Material:
1. Power; A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide
2. Des Forges; Leave None to Tell the Story
3. Melvern; Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide
4. Melvern; A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide
5. Courtemanche; A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
6. Hatzfeld; A Time for Machetes
7. Dallaire; Shake Hands with the Devil
8. Gourevitch; We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our
families
9. Prunier; The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide
10. Prunier; Africa’s World War
11. Hatzfeld; Into the Quick of Life
12. Thompson et al; The Media and the Rwandan Genocide
13. Temple-Raston; Justice on the Grass
14. Mushikiwabo; Rwanda Means the Universe
15. Immaculée Ilibagiza; Left to Tell

Films and Documentaries:

1. Sometimes in April
2. Shake Hands with the Devil (there is a documentary and a feature film)
3. Shooting Dogs
4. 100 Days
5. A Sunday in Kigali (based on A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali)
6. Journey into Darkness (documentary)
7. A Culture of Murder (documentary)
8. When Good Men do Nothing (documentary)
9. Triumph of Evil (documentary)
10. Ghosts of Rwanda (documentary)
11. Scream Bloody Murder (documentary with Christian Amanpour, you can view this on Youtube)
12. Africa United (New light-hearted film about Rwanda that doesn’t mention the genocide!)
13. If Only We Had Listened: The Prophecy of Kibeho

If anyone would like to ask me any questions about the trip, please email me at amanda.achtman@gmail.com

I look forward to speaking in schools, universities, churches, and other public forums about the genocide commited against Tutsi. Please contact me if you have any suggestions to this end.

Peace,
Amanda (Action) Achtman

Reflections on Rwanda: Part IX

As the programming changed from memorial site visits to meetings with current and emerging leaders who are moving Rwanda forward, we seized the opportunity to visit the Office of the Canadian High Commission to Rwanda in Kigali.

Promising that they would make an effort to avoid speaking to us in “Bureaucrat-ese”, Willow and James discussed the relationship between Canada and Rwanda. We learned that the first provost of the National University in Butare was a Catholic priest from the Université Laval in Quebec. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has been active in Rwanda since 1967. There are opportunities for student exchanges between Canada and Rwanda.

We also discussed the influence of the funding cuts to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) on development initiatives in the country.

Then, we visited an Islamic cultural centre and school. The centre and school were a donation of the former ruler of the Libyan Arab Republic, Muammar Gaddafi. Reportedly, the centre and school were not attacked during the genocide and no one was killed there, we were told, because of fear that Gaddafi would intervene during the genocide if the Islamic centre was attacked.

Later, we spent the afternoon at a coffee shop discussing religion and genocide. The discussion was not too profound and centred mainly around the failures, to say the least, of religious leaders and lay people to lead lives worthy of their callings.

Absolutely no topic has been off limits on this trip. I admire my new friends for their courage to be challenged by controversy and their dedication to challenging others and inspiring them to reflection and action.

The next day we visited the National Commision for the Fight against Genocide. An article was written about our visit and appeared on the CNLG. Here is an excerpt from the article:

A group of 18 scholars from Canada who came for official visit to Rwanda, on Wednesday May 23, 2012 were received by the Executive Secretary Mr. Mucyo Jean de Dieu at CNLG Headquarters in Remera, Kigali.

The Executive Secretary explained to them that though the Genocide was perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda, it’s a crime that concerns the whole world because it’s a crime that violates human rights. He told them that the National Commission for the Fight against  Genocide was established in 2008, but the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission had been established before the Genocide, from Arusha agreement of 93, to fight against hatr[ed] and discrimination based on cultures that Rwandans had even before…

Following that we had a meeting at the Association des Veuves du Genocide (AVEGA). AVEGA is an organization dedicated, in particular, to serving widows, orphans, the disabled, and elderly victims of genocide. Services provided range from medical aid to micro-financing grants.

Later we met with Zozo, who was a concierge at Hôtel des Milles Collines [Hotel Rwanda] during the genocide. It was a crazy experience to read his name, the day after having coffee with him, in the novel that a friend lent me called A Sunday at the Pool at Kigali. For a moment I put down the book and paused to reflect: “Whoa, we just met him!”

He was the most chipper and bubbly man. He seemed to laugh in such a way so as to stave off tears. Cracking endless jokes and speaking teasingly, we marvelled at his sense of humour while discussing the tragic events of eighteen years ago.

We also had the opportunity to meet with members of the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF). The military members who hosted us were extremely friendly. We felt as though we were receiving the sort of hospitality expected by lofty foreign ambassadors and not by students. The RDF members were courteous and engaged in an enriching period of questions and answers.

A neat stop on the way to lunch one day included a visit to a gift shop filled with locally-made crafts. The shop is managed by the cousin of one of the founding students of Reflections on Rwanda, and so we were especially enthusiastic to shop there for souvenirs for our Canadian family and friends.

We visited the Institut de Recherche et de Dialogue pour la Paix (IRDP), the Commission for Unity and National Reconciliation, and also attended an excellent presentation on the Gacaca courts.

Operating under the principle that “justice delayed is justice denied” it was determined that the ordinary court system would not be adequate for trying genocide crimes in a timely manner. For this reason, Gacaca courts, a form of community justice inspired by ancient tradition, were used to try genocide crimes. With ordinary courts, only 6000 cases had been heard in 5 years. But in ten years, the Gacaca courts handled two million cases.

There are three tiers in the Gacaca system. The first level concerns organizers, leadership, and planners in genocide. The second level concerns those who executed orders. The third level concerns property-related cases. In most cases, it was ruled that property stolen simply be returned or compensated. Immediate confessions often led to reduced sentences. Sometimes a perpetrator would receive the option to complete half of his or her sentence in prison and the other half in community service. The Gacaca courts are set to close on June 18, 2012.

The people of Rwanda have made tremendous strides and the country is developing at an impressive pace. After spending one week focused on the past and the second week focused on the present and looking to the future, I have certainly learned a lot.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to making this trip possible!

In gratitude for their leadership, this post is dedicated to Audrey, Kurt, Rachel, Margot, and Faustin.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part VIII

We drove from Gisenyi back to Kigali. En route we stopped briefly at an orphanage. We were ushered first into a room lined with a row of cribs where newborns were sleeping. In the next room infants were all being fed by several very dedicated women. The next room was filled with dozens of toddlers. As soon as we walked into the room, the children swarmed – competing for our attention and scrambling eagerly to be lifted up into our arms.

When we later debriefed our visit to the orphanage, some team members said it felt like a kind of voyeurism and that the visit made them feel like shit. I had a different experience though. The children showed me the purity and sincerity of the desire to be loved and to belong. As I picked up each child, I thought about how every one of them matters. Everyone longs to belong, to be affirmed, to be uplifted. How can I lift up others? What is the status of orphans in Canada? How can pro-lifers be more proactive in serving orphans in North America?

We continued our journey to Kigali, with a brief stop for beef samosas.

After lunch in Kigali we stopped at Camp Kigali and visited a memorial site commemorating ten Belgian soldiers who were killed. We drove by the president’s house and then arrived to Hotel Milles Collines.

The film “Hotel Rwanda” was inspired by events that took place during the genocide at Hotel Milles Collines. Also, I had begun reading the book “A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali” that morning and so it was amazing to, in the evening, be standing at that pool.

At Hotel Milles Collines we sat on the patio, ordered coffees, and then had a visit with an inspiring young man named Yannick. In 1994, Yannick was four years old. He told us that his childhood was idyllic. He had a loving family. “Initially, I had everything,” Yannick said, “But then, everything changed.”During the genocide, Yannick’s mother wanted to protect him from learning about the killings and so she told him that they were going to Grandma’s house for holidays. At first Yannick’s whole family was going to stick together, but then it was reasoned that the family should separate so that if anything happened to some members, the family would still be preserved somewhat.

When the family divided, Yannick went with his mother. His father, three-year-old sister, and one-year-old brother separated. Yannick walked with his mother for three weeks with almost no food. He contrasted this experience to his childhood before the genocide during which he said that he had never walked more than twenty minutes and had always gotten three meals a day.Yannick’s mother tried to suppress her son’s endless questions about what was happening. They came upon a young man who Yannick’s family had cared for as a son, but this man said that he would kill her because she is a Tutsi. Yannick’s mother paid him money to not be killed by him.

Meanwhile, Yannick’s little sister had been found by a Hutu woman who had taken her in. In an attempt to mitigate risk, the Hutu woman hid the girl in a deep well where she survived for two months before being rescued. “A dog found a kid who looked dead in the well and it was my baby sister,” explained Yannick.

Yannick’s grandfather was killed and his body was put in a latrine. Houses were burned. Animals were stolen. Yannick’s infant brother was smashed against a wall and his grandmother was forced to drink the baby’s blood. Yannick is my age. I marveled at his courage in telling us his story. His strength is incredible.

Yannick’s father was in the RPF and helped to end the genocide. However, the first time that Yannick saw his father again was 1996.

Yannick told us that, as he grew up, he wanted to learn everything. When he was eleven-years-old he decided to help prevent genocide from ever happening again. He realized that his key resource was his time and so he began volunteering and working to combat bullying. “If you start bullying each other, then you’ll start killing each other,” Yannick said urgently.

I asked Yannick whether or not he forgave the killers. He said that hating the killers was killing him and so he made a choice to forgive and has to consciously continue to affirm that decision in order to continue healing. He says, “I realized that you can’t put the country together with hatred.”

Recently Yannick completed an internship during which he managed Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s twitter. “I don’t fear any door,” he said, “I always knock and then I walk through.” There was no internship position, but he sent a letter and resume to the president and got a job.

Yannick says that Rwanda is a school where people can come and learn important lessons. What can we learn from the genocide against Tutsi? How can you take responsibility and make a difference in your community? What can we learn from Yannick about courage, service, and forgiveness?

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Jana Drapal and the Diocesan Office of Social Justice in Calgary.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part VII

We drove from Kibuye to Gisenyi. Along the road we made a pit stop to do a tire change. For about an hour we played soccer and volleyball with some young people. I brought a book with images of Calgary. Everyone enjoyed seeing pictures of the prairies, mountains, snow, and city centre.

We had a long drive to la Maison St. Benoit where our accommodations were at the site of a Dominican convent. Upon arrival we kicked a ball around, strolled along the lake, and had lunch before some free time.

During this time I spoke with Sister Francoise. We chatted in French about faith and suffering. She spoke quietly and piously saying that God is always present and that during the genocide, He was present in those who risked their lives (and, in some cases gave their lives) to save people. She and I marveled at how resilient people are and how people can live and flourish after the horrors of genocide. The way she spoke about the miracle of life after genocide inspired me to think about the miracle of life after death, of resurrection.

In the afternoon we went to the Congo border. We observed hundreds of people easily moving between the two countries. Border security is virtually non-existent and passports are not required for residents of the border communities of Gisenyi and Goma. In some areas it’s unclear whether a house is in Rwanda or in the Congo. During the genocide, the place that we visited was one of the main points of exit for people fleeing Rwanda. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) liberated the country, the perpetrators fled the country through Gisenyi and set up refugee camps near Goma. After the refugee camps were set up, the international community intervened swiftly. However, a lot of the people in the refugee camps were perpetrators meaning that aid and relief often reached perpetrators before reaching victims.

Amanda and Faustin

In the evening we learned even more about the spillover effects of the genocide into the Congo, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Our Rwandan guide and friend Faustin told us his personal story. He was fourteen years old in 1994. He joined the RPF and worked as a driver. When they went into one of the towns that the RPF liberated, there were several small children crying for their mothers. He was able to help one child by taking him to his boss’s wife. She raised him as her own. Faustin remains in touch with this young man whom he considers to be a brother. The young man is now studying in university and was eventually able to find some of his family members who survived.Then, in the evening we went dancing at a club beneath the restaurant. We drank Ugandan gin and danced to “Waka Waka” and “Call me maybe”, our team’s favorite songs. One team member remarked that clubbing felt a bit like emotional whiplash. It was good to go out mid-way through the trip though as we transitioned from despair to hope and from tragedy to optimism.

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Students of the University of Calgary.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part VI

Josephine

In the morning at Kibuye we met an amazing woman named Josephine. She was a rescuer. During the genocide, she found a nine-year-old Tutsi boy named Thomas. Thomas thought he would be killed by a Hutu woman but Josephine gained the boy’s trust. She brought Thomas to her home and introduced him to her sons saying, “This is your brother.”Josephine’s husband was furious with her for risking the family’s lives to save Tutsis. Repeatedly he derided her, evening threatening to turn her in for her defiance. But she said to her husband, “How can you accept for Thomas to be killed? He is a boy just like our son. They are the same age and should have the same future. I will accept to be killed with them but I cannot refuse to save them.”At one point Thomas asked Josephine what his new father had said of him being there. Josephine refused to tell the boy that her husband thought that he was a threat and lied saying only, “The killings will stop soon.”

Numerous times the family escaped death and helped Thomas and several others to survive. Josephine said that her sons were happy to help and enjoyed playing with Thomas. Unfortunately, both of her teenage sons died after being recruited to fight in the Congo. They did not get to know that Thomas survived.

Josephine says that her regret during the genocide is that she did not save more people. She informed us that Thomas is alive and well, completing a university degree in management. “He calls me mom and I call him my son,” concluded Josephine beaming with pride and exuding great joy.

Following the genocide, Josephine was taunted and bullied for saving Tutsis. She recounted an instance where community members took all of her bananas and threw them into the lake. Ultimately, some local authorities had to threaten to arrest those harassing her in order for them to stop. She received little  recognition for her heroic actions. One survivor said, “I will give you a cow because you saved me.”

Josephine’s story was a tremendous example of self-sacrifice, courage, perseverance, and extraordinary  love. After listening to her story, I thought to myself: If the only thing I did on this trip was sit at Josephine’s feet and listen to her story, it was worth traveling across the world.

We are sometimes starved for heroes. On this trip I have gained a better grasp of the wide range of human action, from the capacity for great evil to the capacity for great goodness. Who are your heroes? Can you give examples of extreme vice and extreme virtue? How important is it to have heroes to emulate rather than only tyrants to condemn?

In gratitude for her support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Pat McGowan.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part V

This morning we visited a memorial commemorating an event in 1997 at Nyange School. Three years after the genocide a group of infiltrators came into a school and told the children to divide themselves: Hutus on one side and Tutsis on the other. But these children had learned a lesson from the genocide and refused to be divided. “We are all Rwandans,” they insisted. Angered by the children’s obstinate courage, the infiltrators killed six of the children who had banded together during this incident.

These children who remained steadfast in their resistance to the infiltrators attempt to manipulate them and were slain as a consequence, are rightly remembered as heroes. The memorial is a modest grave behind the school. The school continues to function as a school today. We toured the classrooms and tossed around a Frisbee with the students.

After visiting the school, we went to a memorial site at Bisesero called the “Hill of Resistance”. It was at this site where the Tutsi population sought to defend themselves by strategically assembling atop the hill in order to throw rocks at their attackers. Initially, their defense worked against the killers’ clubs and machetes. However, the Tutsis’ humble efforts were no match for the second onslaught of attacks that included modern weapons and a heightened level of genocidal organization. Approximately 50,000 people were killed at Bisesero. Survivors numbered around 1,000.

We visited a section of the memorial filled with thousands of skulls and bones of victims. It was so bizarre to see these remnants of such horrific abuses against life, while at the same time being able to peer outside at the stunning scenery including beautiful Lake Kivu. It was hard to fathom that the site was a place of mass murder. All that we could see for miles was luscious greenery, the sparkling lake, smiling passers-by, and the brightly coloured sky as the bold sun began to set. The contrast between the locale’s present life and its history of death was stark.

At Bisesero we listened to a survivor named Damascene tell his story. He told us that it was bad leadership that manipulated the population to believe the genocidal ideology of ethnic cleansing. He pointed to us and said solemnly, “It was people who were young like you who they incited to kill.” With so few survivors, Damascene says he is convinced that God saved the few people to be ambassadors tasked with preserving the memory and testimony of the genocide. He urged us to help combat genocide denial and to spread the lessons we have learned. “Genocide can happen anywhere”, he said. So it is essential to learn from one another and to resolve to constantly affirm the message “Never Again.”

Damascene told us that the Tutsis at Bisesero especially wanted not to be slaughtered like animals, but to (at very least) have had the dignity of fighting back against the genocidaires.

Now, people who turned so dramatically against one another during the genocide have returned to being neighbours and in some cases, even friends. How is this possible? What are we to think about victims who fought back in resistance versus those who gathered in one place because they wanted to be killed with their family and friends? Can genocide happen anywhere? What is the best defense against the instigation of genocide? In what ways does the Internet make it less likely or more likely for genocidal ideologies to be propagated and how do we guard against this possibility?

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Matthew Raketti, Chris Tonellato Barnstead, and Jeremy Fraser.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part IV

Today began with a visit to the National Museum of Rwanda in Butare. The museum featured Rwanda’s history, language, geography, topography, and anthropology. We observed traditional dress, housing, and art. Many of the photographs in the exhibits were taken mid-twentieth century by Belgians and Germans. I marvelled at the photographs that were evidently fairly recent, but that seemed to represent such an ancient way of life. We also saw currencies from throughout Rwanda’s history. Currency is a neat token of a country. It reminded me of a first university assignment that involved inquiry into the history of an era through studying an ancient coin.

From the museum we departed to the Murambi Memorial. At this site there was a technical school that had not yet been opened when thousands fled to it during the genocide. The school was on top of a hill. We were led into classrooms filled with tables on which the bodies of victims were laid. These bodies had been preserved using limestone and so we saw bodies frozen in form showing the positions in which they died. Some ofThis image is from a Google Image Search the bodies had their arms crossed, some with their arms in the air, some bodies were sprawled out in utter defeat. There was one room with children and infant victims’ bodies. Sometimes clothing was attached to the preserved corpses. We saw the full bodies of the victims whose families had hurried to the site quickly enough to claim them.

During the genocide French soldiers came, but they had come too late to Murambi. We saw a plaque marking the place where the French soldiers  played volleyball over the mass graves. Not far off from there we saw homes where people live in close proximity to the memorial. Children came running up the hill to greet us. It was quite the juxtaposition to be in a place were such horrific killing had taken place. Whereas now it is aplace so scenic and beautiful, filled with new and innocent life.

From Murambi we traveled to the National University of Rwanda in Butare. We were greeted by Rwandan university student ambassadors who gave us a tour of their campus. The students who we met are studying International Relations, Applied Mathematics, and Computer Science. The campus seemed familiar with an ICT building, sports field, administration buildings (of course), and the campus pub located strategically so that drunk students do not have too far to walk home to their dorms.

Augustine and Amanda

I met one student named Augustine, an international relations student who wants to work in non-governmental organizations. He was a talkative and exuberant young man. He said that he was so pleased that we had come to Rwanda since everything we knew about his country could have been hearsay. I was amazed at this comment because it had been my own reflection a few days earlier that foreign lands are like an unimaginative fiction – accepted and not contested, but only confirmed and believed or disproved and rejected when experienced. I told Augustine this quotation by Saint Augustine: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Augustine took great delight in sharing this quotation with his friends and with the other Canadians in our group.Then, the Rwandan and Canadian students gathered in a circle for some intercultural dialogue. As we drank Fanta and beers we discussed the future of Rwanda and asked questions back and forth to one another. It was so cool to be chatting with other university students. They responded to us saying, “To the question of my neighbour…” or “As my friend was saying…” or “In response to my fellow student…” Sharing the common student experience made for an engaging discussion.

The Canadian team asked what they thought about protectionism versus free markets. A student named Denis responded that Rwanda is open for business and investment. “You are welcome to come to Rwanda to work and to invest,” he said. This surprised some of the Canadian students who expressed concern that foreigners would steal Rwandan jobs. The students insisted that this was not a concern and recognized the globalizing world. The students do, in fact, look to the world in order to develop Rwanda and many of them recognize the increasing importance of technology.

We asked the students if they had any questions about Canada. A computer technology student named Joel said that they cannot know how to improve their university and their country unless they know what they are missing. This startled the Canadians who were too politically correct to vocalize the shortfalls of the National University. “The university is great and we do not come here to tell you what you are missing. Rwandans are capable,” said a member of our group. But they insisted consistently that by alerting them to the shortfalls and highlighting needs for improvement, “that is how you can help us.”

There was some tension between the kinds of questions we asked and the unexpected responses we received. One person from our group suggested that foreign aid should not be given with strings attached. But the Rwandan students discussed corruption and said they see merit in foreign countries attaching strings to the aid they gave.

Another Canadian student asked the students whether they thought that the ethnic tensions in Rwanda have ceased. The students said, “Yes, we are all Rwandese now. We all say ‘never again’ and we consider those who bring up the genocide repeatedly now to be mentally disturbed and in need of counselling. Rwanda is a united country now.” The students hoped that we would see the reasons that they love their country. When I asked Augustine what made him proud to be Rwandese he said that he is proud of the nationalist solidarity in Rwanda now and that it is fundamentally people who make a country.

In the evening we had a good dinner and debrief. I grappled with what the essence of humanity. What does an innocent newborn have in common with a genocidal killer that they are both called human? If the central problem we encounter with genocide is dehumanization, then how do we humanize humanity?

Some said that visiting so many sites with bones and skulls is beginning to seem like gratuitous viewing. It is easier, many agreed, to affirm life and humanity in images of the living than in dead bodies. Yet, some had earlier said that what makes us human is our flesh and bones. Surely this is not the essence of human life itself. Studying genocide inspires a lot of reflection on human nature and the human condition.

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to my uncles André and Paul Lambert.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part III

We travelled to the Bugesara region to visit the Nyamata Memorial and to listen to the testimony of a rescuer. The Nyamata Memorial commemorates the thousands of people who were killed in the Catholic church to which they fled during the genocide. Interestingly, there had been an attack in 1992 when Tutsis had escaped death by fleeing to the church and so this was remembered and it was expected that the church would be a refuge again in 1994, but this was not the case.

We entered the church through a door that had been destroyed using a grenade. Bullet holes were visible all over the roof and walls of the church. On the pews were piles of clothing that belonged to the victims. The altar was draped with a cloth, once white as snow, that had become stained with the victims’ blood.

We descended downstairs inside the church and observed rows of skulls and bones from the ceiling to the floor. There was also a casket draped with a white cloth and with a wooden cross on top. This was to represent all of the rape, the horrific and disgusting violence against women and girls during the genocide. The woman who is buried there was raped repeatedly by numerous genocidaires. She was then killed by the most torturous method that involved piercing a spear through her genitals to her head.

Tomb of Tonia Locatelli

We walked outside of the church and saw the tomb of an Italian nun andhumanitarian named Tonia Locatelli. She is remembered for her bravery and her opposition to ethnic violence in Rwanda. When the systematic killing began, Locatelli gave food and shelter to the persecuted and sought to alert the international media of the horrific events. Her actions did not go unnoticed by the local government and she was killed on the steps of her home.

Then, we proceeded to visit the mass graves and more rows of skulls and bones. It is overwhelming to see so many skulls and bones at these memorial sites all across the country. My heart begins to sink each time we drive up to a memorial site marked by purple and white flags and banners. Each site has a story and it is important to bear in mind the individual lives stolen in the genocide. I try to acknowledge that each skull represents an individual person and to reflect on that individual life. To be distracted from this point by the shear numbers of victims seems to dehumanize and dishonor them. Still, it is incomprehensible that one million people were killed during this genocide, about one in six Rwandans comprising the population at the time.

From there we ventured to the Ntarama Memorial. At this site there is another Catholic church where Tutsis sought refuge but were tortured and killed. There were mass graves inside the church and the clothes of victims scattered on the pews.

Behind the church there was a small building, a children’s Sunday school. There were a few rows of small pews made of clay where the children sat. At the front of the room the brick wall was stained with the blood of  children who had been killed by being thrown against the wall. It was devastating to learn of such brutality against children, especially in the place where they would have learned the faith. Meanwhile, I could hear the laughter of children across the street from the memorial. I sat on the little pews inside the Sunday school imagining that I was a young child learning the ‘Our Father.’ The genocide is the most severe contradiction to every line of that prayer. How many faithful would have prayed, “Deliver us from evil” before being tortured and killed? That  many Rwandans have lost faith seems understandable and that many Rwandans continue to have faith seems remarkable.

In the evening we had dinner followed by a debrief of the day’s activities. Our nightly debriefs are an essential component of the trip. As a team, we share our most immediate reflections and allow ourselves to confront the challenges of the past, present, and future. Sharing these experiences with a diverse group of Canadian students inspires tremendous growth. As we journey together we ask thousands of questions. What are we to make of all that we are learning? What lessons will we take away with us and share with others? How can this education be transformed into action? What can I do to promote peace and respect in my community?

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Georges and Grace Lambert.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part II

Today we made an early departure to  Nyarubuye, a district in the province of Kibungo near the border of Tanzania. It was a four hour drive.  As we drove to the remote area, many people waved to us and children had beaming smiles as they attempted to chase the van to greet us or waved from the sides of the streets.

We arrived to Nyarubuye church. It was here that a terrible massacre occurred and where we would listen to the testimony of a survivor named Ferdinand.

Before that we were guided through the ruined rectory of the church that has since become a memorial. We saw large sticks that were used to torture women and girls while raping them. We saw clothing that been collected from the victims scattered in and around the church during the massacre. We also saw sharp metal tools that were used to torture and kill. There were rows of violently destroyed skulls and piles of bones.

At the end of the room there was a Christ figure, a clay sculpture. The arms had been cut off by those who said that the image resembled a Tutsi. Similarly, the large image of Jesus at the front of the outside of the church had been shot at because the genocidaires said Jesus is a friend of Tutsis. This was all quite shocking to hear and see.

We walked past a row of latrines. There we learned that many bodies of victims had been thrown down there and it was not until last year – eighteen years after the genocide, that the bones were collected and then buried.

We made our way into the Catholic church at Nyarubuye where the massacre occurred. Ferdinand, one of very few survivors, began to share his testimony. He started by insisting that we should not feel bad that he is recounting his traumatic experiences to us, but to remember that this is medicine for him. He thanked us for coming to hear his story and urged us to share his story and the history of the genocide with our friends and families.

It is difficult to recount his two hour testimony in a few paragraphs, but I will do my best. Ferdinand told us that Hutus and Tutsis had lived peacefully in the region together and there were never any problems. However, shortly after Rwanda’s Hutu President Juvenal Habyirimana’s plane had been shot down, the genocide began and quickly escalated.

Many Tutsis in Nyarubuye fled to the church to seek refuge, but the militia quickly arrived and began slaughtering Tutsis. The militia surrounded the church and forced the Hutus and Tutsis into segregated lines.

Ferdinand was at his home but knew that his family had fled to the church and so he went to find them. As it became clear that there was an effort to exterminate Tutsis, many flocked to the church wanting to find their families, even if it meant dying with them.

Ferdinand found his wife and two of his three children. The four of them hid in a washroom in the church for two days after a member of the militia took money from Ferdinand in exchange for guarding where they were. Eventually Ferdinand became separated from his family. A Hutu friend of Ferdinand’s, however, made an attempt to do the family a favor and said to an authority that the Hutu police had insisted that Ferdinand’s wife and two children be kept safe until he came back to give further instructions.

There are many intricate details to Ferdinand’s testimony and he says that the four days that he spent escaping death seems like at least a year. During those days, his wife was raped, his son was thrown into a fire, and his daughter was smashed against a wall. It was overwhelming and heart-wrenching to listen to him tell his story, I was in awe at his resiliency and his courage. He was remarried after the genocide and had one child, but then his wife passed away. After that, he remarried again and now has five children. He lit up when speaking about his children and it was good to hear of the joy in his life that his young children bring to him.

He is an old man now he says. After the genocide, Ferdinand joined the army because he figured it would be safer to serve in the army than to live as a civilian. They told him he was too old, but he eventually persuaded them to let him join.

After hearing Ferdinand’s story while sitting on the pews in the church in which the massacre took place, there was a lot to think about. We saw children playing not far from the mass graves and thought about how many people are missing from the streets and yet how much hope there is for a peaceful future for the bright-eyed, smiley children.

Amanda, Ferdinand, Faustin, Aditya and Jacob

Courageous people like Ferdinand offer examples of the resiliency of the human spirit. Any small sacrifices that are made during this trip are made with a tremendous perspective now. Hearing about Ferdinand’s life inspires reflection on the fragility and sanctity of life. How can we forget for a moment to be thankful for every breath?

Ferdinand’s main message to us was: “Never Again in Rwanda and Never Again Anywhere Else.” Of course we have heard “never again” before and yet genocides continue to happen. This is challenging to confront. How can we truly mean “never again”.

How will the study of genocide influence our lives on campus? Mother Teresa said, “If you want to work for world peace, go home and love your family.” How can right relationships be foundation upon which to build a consistently life-affirming culture?

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to John and Barbra.