Laura in Rwanda

Laura is a senior journalism major in Meadows School of the Arts with minors in art history, photography and human rights. In August 2009 she is participating in the Human Rights Education Program trip to Rwanda, where the group will visit sites including the Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial and Urukundo Home for Children.

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Human rights and sobering memorials

Day 2

Today, we woke early, which was much, much easier after getting a full night of restful sleep.

The first stop of our busy day was a visit to the Rwanda Human Rights Commission, where we met with Deogratias Kayumba, who is the Vice President of the Commission, and Laurent Nkongoli, who is a member.

The commission is made up of seven members – a president, a vice president and five board members. Of those seven, at least 30 percent must be women. Members are proposed by the government and then parliament approves the selections.

Kayumba and Nkongoli spoke to us about the current state of human rights in Rwanda and what strides are being made.

Rwanda is surprisingly a progressive country in many ways. In Rwanda, students study a mandatory human rights curriculum in school. In addition, in 2003, Rwanda outlawed the death penalty.

As I browsed through the Commission’s 2007 report, I read cases pertaining to wrongful imprisonment, rape, unpaid salaries, murder and other human rights. In all honesty, the report could have just as easily have been written about the United States.

Women For Women

IMG_7690.jpgAfter the presentation, we drove to Kimihurura, a Kigali suburb, where we visited the Women For Women project. Many of the women come with their beautiful children in tow.

IMG_7676.jpgWomen For Women offers classes for women of all ages, ranging in a variety of topics. The topics for our day included Hygiene, Women and Voting, Domestic Violence, Malaria Prevention, Raising Boys and Girls with Equality and even a class on building a small business.

The program lasts for 10 months, and women are grouped according to where they live. This way, women who are neighbors can reach out to one another for support.

In my session, Women and Voting, we learned about government structure. In Rwanda, 30 percent of the elected roles must be filled by women. The other 70 percent are split between men and women.

All of the women in our session had voted. Our group leader explained to them that it is always important to vote for women as well, as they will help to promote women’s rights throughout the country.

A few of the women then asked us questions – how our government is structured, what roles do women play in U.S. politics, etc. The women also asked questions about domestic life – are girls treated equally, do men ever cheat or abuse their wives, and what roles women play in the household.

Sites of massacres

After lunch, we drove to the Busegera province for sobering visits to the Nyamata and Intarama memorial sites. Both sites were formerly churches, but during the genocide, 5,000 people were massacred in each church. Now, the sites house mass graves that serve as a testament to all who visit.

IMG_7712.jpg The churches at both sites were filled with clothes – clothes hanging from the ceiling, sitting on the pews, draped literally everywhere. It was strange to think about the fact that, when these people took refuge in these churches, they had no idea that those would be the clothes that they would be murdered in.

At Nyamata, there were mass graves behind the church that you could climb down into.

In one of the graves, there were coffins stacked over my head. Our guide, a young man who had survived the genocide himself, told us that there were between 40 and 45 skulls in each coffin.

IMG_7771.jpg Skulls and femurs were piled high above me as I walked in the second grave. In this grave, the bones were out in the open, just inches away from where I was standing. Many of these bones bore the marks of torture – bullet holes or machete slices that cut right to the bone. The ages of the skulls ranged from infants, who were likely murdered by being smashed, repeatedly, against a brick wall, to the elderly. No one was immune from the horrific killings, regardless of their age, stature or even, in some cases, ethnic status.

IMG_7741.jpg At each site, there was one thing that made it all more bearable – the local children. Every time our group drove up in our big black Land Rover Defenders, the children would run behind us, shouting “Mizungu! Mizungu!” which means “white person.”

From the moment we got out of our cars, the children would huddle around us, laughing with as we took photos with them, talking with us about their school, and asking us our names and where we from.

The children’s infectious cheerfulness was a living and breathing representation of a country that truly is moving forward every day – in leaps and bounds.

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