Human Rights, Rwanda 2012

A group of 20 SMU students, faculty and staff are in Rwanda in August 2012 with SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program. After the African country’s 1994 civil war, in which as many as a million people were killed in 100 days, “history lives on,” says group leader and program director Rick Halperin. The SMU group are helping in the healing process by sharing donated books and classroom and medical supplies with schools and orphanages. They also are visiting genocide sites and meeting with survivors.

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Learning the stories of victims and survivors

An update from Jared, a junior real estate finance major in the Cox School of Business and economics major in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences:

Today was quite an adventure. To start with, I woke up at 2 a.m.; I’m not sure why. Luckily I was able to fall back asleep until around 7 am. I went up to the fourth-floor restaurant with a great view over Kigali to have breakfast, where I met some members of our group. It was an interesting breakfast – I wasn’t sure what a lot of the food was –  but I ended up finding bacon, pineapple, croissants, and doughnuts. An interesting combination, but it was filling.

At 10, we headed for the Kigali Genocide Memorial, about a 10-minute drive from the hotel. I rode in the Land Rover with Sarah and Mary Evelyn. We arrived at the memorial and were met by “guards” at the entrance who checked our bags and waved metal detectors over us.  As in much of Africa, security is just for show and really has no effectiveness. Completely off subject, but it reminds me of a time at the Nairobi airport, when the woman working the metal detector was asleep.

After a short briefing from a woman working at the Genocide Memorial, we were left to tour on our own. They museum had only eight audio guides available, so we didn’t all get one, and we all had to pay $10 to use our cameras in the museum.

The museum was very powerful. It started with just a general history of the genocide, events leading up to it and such. It then proceeded into events that happened during the genocide. I took a lot of pictures of the entire exhibit. A very amazing part was a room with walls and walls of photographs of victims that had been placed there by their families or friends in memoriam of those they had lost in 1994.

What really had an impact on me was a room with skulls and bones of victims. It just amazed me that all of those bones had belonged to people, and that these people had unwillingly lost their lives, most in very gruesome ways. One girl in the group told us that the skulls with a “y” shape were the developing skulls of children. These were children who were innocent and had done nothing wrong. We then went into a room where clothes of victims were hanging.

I continued on upstairs, where there was a general exhibit of genocides around the world. Next was a room called the children’s room, where photos of children hung. Each had a plaque that described their favorite food, activity, best friend, and how they were killed. Just think that these children, some as young as 2 years old, were hacked by machetes or thrown up against walls just because of their ethnic designation.

Next, I went outside where there was a peaceful garden followed by the mass graves. The graves were covered with concrete slabs, each of which said, “Please do not sit or stand on the graves.” There were two levels of mass graves, probably about 10 giant slabs of concrete in total. They all had flowers on them. I didn’t really comprehend how many bodies were in the graves until I went up the stairs and saw a sign that there were approximately 259,000 bodies. I was in shock that there were so many bodies crammed in such a small place. But these people at least had been buried; there are many Rwandans all over the country who were not properly put to rest.

Halperin told us the story of the girl at the front desk, who had lost many members of her family, including her father and siblings. She had witnessed them being chopped by machetes. She now works at the museum and sends money back to Eastern Rwanda to support her family who are unable to get jobs.

We heard a lecture from an employee at the Memorial, but I won’t go into details because much of what he said was not truthful. Government employees here basically stick to the party line that the nation has healed and that human rights are valued, but that isn’t always the case.

Next we traveled to lunch at a place called Chez Jon. We had good food, I’m not exactly sure what everything was, but I know I had coke, pineapple, some sort of beef, and beans.

On the way to the restaurant, Sara and I were the only ones in our car, and JD, our driver, began to share his story with us. This was really the first moment where I had very strong emotions. JD’s father was killed, along with many of his siblings. He hid in the bush for two months, staying in the water during the day, where the Interahamwe’s dogs could not sniff him out. He said that he would come out during the night to look for food.

I cannot imagine living in a swamp-like area, hiding for my life for two months. It gave me chills to hear his story. It amazes me how open all of the survivors are to tell their stories. I know that it would be difficult for me to tell stories like theirs.

We then left the restaurant and headed to Les Enfants, a rehabilitation center for street boys. This was a very uplifting place. The organization works to rehabilitate boys who come in off the streets looking for a better way of life. They all come in voluntarily; it is their own decision. There are eight “governors” of different ministries who are all children; it was amazing how these children were being empowered.

We had time to hang out with all of the guys, and one in particular, I can’t recall his name for the life of me, hung around me the whole time. He gave me a tour of the entire compound and showed me the rabbits they were raising to sell and make some money. He gave me his email address and wants me to look him up on Facebook. Roza got a group of guys, “Empire State,” to rap for us, which was quite interesting. I took a video of them, so that will be fun to watch later on.

We then came back to the hotel and had a debriefing session of the day’s events, and then went to dinner down by the pool. Some went into town for dinner, but I was way too tired.

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