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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Struggling to understand: Rwanda 2012

SMU Embrey Human Rights students, staff and faculty at Urukundo Village and Learning Center

An update from Dr. Vicki L. Hill, Assistant Dean for the University Curriculum:

I’m going to be struggling with what I learned and thought about in Rwanda for a long, long time. I saw what I hope is the most horrible thing I will ever see in my entire life, and I experienced moments of pure joy and affirmation.

History’s most efficient genocide occurred just over 18 years ago, with as many as 1 million people systematically murdered in less than 100 days.  Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, says starkly and simply: “Every adult with whom we interact in Rwanda is either a survivor, a perpetrator, or an enabler.” The ongoing project of reconciliation, of reuniting the country and moving forward feels very inspiring, but equally fragile, especially with the ever-present, heavily armed military standing alert on every corner and down every alley. Our driver explains, “Some countries call in the Army when there’s a problem. Ours is always here so there aren’t any problems.”

By government design, there is a genocide memorial in every sector of the country, insistent reminders that genocide happened here, and here, and here.

As with the Holocaust, Rwanda has its genocide deniers; it didn’t happen, or it happened but the numbers were much smaller than you have been told, or the one unique to this atrocity: there were two genocides.

Many of these memorials are the actual sites of mass murders, schools and more often churches where thousands and thousands of desperate, terrified Tutsis were promised sanctuary and safety. The memorials convey their final hours.  We see bullet holes in ceilings, doors forced open by grenades, and walls darkened by the residue of bloodstains.

In the huge sanctuary at Nyamata, the pews — row after row of them — are piled high with the clothing the victims were wearing at the time of their death.

In Ntarama, there is a wall with the names of only 260 of the more than 10,000 who died here.  The names of the others may be lost forever because no one survived to remember them.

On top of the coffins at Kamonyi are approximately 100 pictures representing a few of the more than 4,500 people murdered in this region.  Our guide shows us a picture of her husband, as well as those of her neighbors. She works here to be near them.  At least she knows where those whom she loved died. Many survivors do not have even that small comfort, since knowing depends upon the killers being willing to tell the truth — whom they killed, where they killed them, and how they disposed of the bodies.  We learn of perpetrators killing survivors so that they do not have to confess to all of their crimes. If no one survives to denounce you, you can omit that part of your story.

We learn that every April during the time of Remembrance, the survivors gather, share names and memories, and try to piece together what may have happened to family members. Telling others what happened is essential. Many of us listen to our driver, J.D., recount the harrowing story of his own survival: he hid for a few days in the forest near what had been his home and then for many weeks in the dank water of the marshes, where the dogs are unable to trace human scent, emerging each night only after the roving bands of Interahamwe militia have gone home, and surviving on raw sweet potatoes and brackish water.  “To speak, to tell my story,” J.D. says, “is to fight the trauma.” The trauma is an expression that I hear more and more often.

In most of these genocide memorials, we see the dead themselves, room after room of skulls, hipbones, and femurs, many bearing the mutilating marks of deadly machetes. On our second day in Kigali, we visit with a representative from the CNLG (National Commission Against Genocide) because we seek permission to photograph the human remains that are so prominently displayed.  This man — who lost his mother, his father, two sisters, and two brothers in the genocide — asks us, “Why should you take pictures of my dead father’s bones?”

Most in our group are teachers and students of Human Rights; they will use these photos in their classes and in their work.  I debate with myself whether to take any pictures, and at first I am sure that I will not. Finally, however, I decide it would be dishonest to take pictures only of beautiful landscapes, or mothers with babies strapped to their backs, or people walking up and down incredibly steep hills balancing what seem to be entire households on their heads.

The most horrible pictures are from Murambi, site of a secondary school perched on a hill overlooking a lush, verdant valley.  On April 21, 1994, some 40,000 were murdered here, their bodies tossed into huge open pit graves and doused with lime in an attempt to cover up the atrocity.  Only days later, French soldiers will play volleyball on this very site, the French having arrived not to save the Tutsis but to assist the Hutu, whom they had trained and armed in the first place. In Murambi we walk past room after room filled with the preserved skeletons of hundreds and hundreds of those who were murdered here. Their twisted shapes speak to the agonies of their final minutes. In one room my eyes are riveted to a corpse with a single upstretched arm; in another, a small child.

Vicki Hill with Peter and Felix at Les Enfants de Dieu

But my memories would be incomplete without mention of places of incredible hope and affirmation.  I smile when I look at a picture of myself with Peter and Felix, the two boys who were my enthusiastic and talkative guides at Les Enfants de Dieu, home to hundreds of Kigali’s street children.  I am so grateful to the many Dallas friends who contributed some of the books and school supplies that we were able to donate to Mama Arlene’s amazing Urukundo Village and Learning Center. And I’m glad I spent more money than I intended purchasing baskets and jewelry from the women learning crafts and achieving economic self-sufficiency through the fine work being done both at Women for Women and at Gahaya Gifted Hands, where we learn the story of a Hutu woman who, after working beside Tutsi women who survived the genocide, asks for forgiveness on behalf of her husband.

Perhaps the experience that best reflects my nine days in Rwanda is our visit to the Nelson Mandela settlement, home to some 75 women, most of them HIV positive, who were raped by the same Interahamwe who murdered their husbands and children. Through interpreters, we hear their stories, we gasp as one holds up what remains of her machete-chopped arm, and we cry as they speak of losing their faith, everything they knew and everyone they loved destroyed. And they ask us questions that we try to answer, and soon almost everyone is crying, they on their side of the room and we on ours. Then, finally, we are all standing, intermingling, hugging each other, and these strong women in halting French are telling me not to cry.  We take lots and lots of pictures. Smiles are more plentiful than tears. Afterward, driving away, I confess to Amon, our guide, that I worry our presence may have added to their pain, and he says to me, “Oh no, Vicki, not at all. You brought them joy.  Now people will know they are here.”

There is no such thing as a lesser person.

Now people will know they are here.

The women of the Nelson Mandela settlement

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    2 Responses to Struggling to understand: Rwanda 2012

    1. Kathy Rowe says:

      Vicki-

      Powerful. Thank you for sharing this. That English background of yours allows me, as reader, to not only hear but to feel.

      How could there be lesser people with these survivors having such strength?

    2. Beth Newman says:

      Vicki,
      Thank you for this eloquent account of the trip.

      I had forgotten that eighteen whole years have elapsed since the Rwandan genocide. But your blog also reminds us that it’s only eighteen years.

      Beth

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