An update from Michelle, a sophomore majoring in human rights and anthropology:

Some thoughts as we go into the end of the trip…

Everything about our trip to Rwanda has been more eye-opening than I could have ever imagined. Simply reading about it was shocking, but no words can describe actually being here and seeing the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. The more I learn about human rights, the more it seems as if there is no end to what humanity can do, both to and for one another.

One thing our entire group has mentioned is how the genocide has affected virtually every single person in Rwanda, in some way or another. The more we interacted with the people around us – including our amazing drivers, memorial guides, hotel employees, organizations we have visited, and just people on the street – the more the reality of this hit us; everyone had a story. This made every person with whom we interacted into another piece of the puzzle that we are all simply trying to put together.

No matter how much I learn, I will never understand the genocide; I don’t think any rational person could. Although most of our travel group refers to it as happening “only” 18 years ago, to me, that seems like a lifetime ago, well, because it was. I was 6 months old when the genocide started. In terms of the recovery of an entire country, though, these 18 years will be just one moment in its long journey of rebuilding. That is what is so hard to even comprehend because that has been my entire life. Maybe that makes it even more shocking to me; not “just” 18 years, but a whole 18 years later, and everything about the country is still so dictated by what happened.

What affected me most on this trip was our visit to the genocide memorial site at Murambi while in Butare. At this point, we had seen multiple genocide sites, all of which were sobering, to put it extremely lightly. In comparison to these, Murambi is beyond explanation. No matter how mentally prepared I could have been, it wouldn’t have been enough. About 50,000 Tutsis died at this site, which used to be a school. Now, instead of classrooms, they hold bodies preserved in lime.

It is one thing to see a mass grave and be told there are 18,000 people in it, which we also saw there. It was another to go into room after room after room, seeing the bodies of people in their state of death. Some still had some hair; some even had clothes.

After the first few rooms, it became hard to even walk over the threshold of the doorway to the next; I had to take a deep breath every time. It is crazy how strong of a physical reaction can come from emotions. I was shaking and at times felt nauseated; not because of the literal sight of the bodies, but the fact that this was something one human could do to another. When I got past the first hallway of rooms, I was relieved for it to be over. The next hallway had the same thing, which I was not expecting, which is when the tears came.

I was at the back of the group at this point; I process things like this better when I am not with other people and only am thinking about my reactions. Behind me was one of our drivers, JD, who had told us earlier that his grandparents and his aunt’s family were from this area and were killed. He offered me a tissue. …I cannot even describe the feeling I had. This man’s family members could be lying as unidentified genocide victims in front of us, and I was the one crying.

I had asked the question earlier in the week of how people could still be here and be reminded of the genocide of their families every day; this was when I finally understood, even though I had heard the answer before. This is where their family is. Seeing JD’s eyes search the bodies and the clothing piles made me understand that staying in Rwanda or the town where you lived or even right next to the genocide memorials is by choice, and that is their way of dealing with what happened.

This was when I began to realize the theme of juxtaposition throughout the trip and the country. The juxtaposition of the survivors’ hope for closure about what happened versus the sadness of the memory was very clear to me watching JD at Murambi. Being inside  the fences of this tragic site and those rooms full of twisted bodies to look out and see the beautiful hillsides of Rwanda was another interesting juxtaposition. This beautiful country does not seem like it could have been host to such evil events.

Walking out of the site may have been the most somber I have seen many of our group. As we left the fences of the memorial, we were met by many children from the town, who had also greeted us as we went in. They were playing and being normal kids, right outside the fences of the Murambi genocide site. I think that may have been the most in-your-face juxtaposition of the trip, at least for me.

We walked out of a place so scarred with the loss of life, a place where many people did not have the chance to walk out, and were met just outside by one of the most joyous forms of life I think there is: kids being kids. That is the one thing that left me with a little bit of hope walking out of one of the most tragic places I will ever see.