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.

Murambi, site of massacres

Day 5

Today we visited Murambi, the site of some of the worst massacres of the genocide.

At Murambi, like so many other sites, rooms are filled, virtually floor to ceiling, with bodies. Men, women, children, infants. However, Murambi is different.

At Murambi, the bodies have been preserved in lime – permanently frozen for all to see. Facial expressions are forever cemented; the crushed skull of an infant is available for all eyes to take in. The smell permeates the rooms and all of the corridors.

Others in the group were sobbing as we walked among the rooms, and most were being comforted, strangely enough, by women whose families lay in the very rooms we were walking through.

IMG_8449.jpg 57-year-old Immanuel then told us his story. A tall, thin man, Immanuel’s pronounced facial features were clearly circumvented by a prominent sunken hole above his left brow. The hole – a bullet hole – is one of many physical reminders that thousands of Rwandans carry from the genocide.

A woman named Juliet then told us her story – how she lost her husband and two of her three children.

After visiting Murambi, my subconscious was obviously processing what I had seen. I was unable to eat – I skipped two meals that day – and slept virtually all of the afternoon and into the next morning. The marks made on me at Murambi might not be physical, but undoubtedly, they will last just as long.

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Bittersweet visit to the Urukundo home for children

Day 4

Today, to be frank, was bittersweet in every sense of the word.

IMG_8006.jpgWe visited the Urukundo Foundation/Hope Made Real. Arlene Brown, 77, (photo, right) runs the home for approximately 50 boys and girls whose parents were either killed in the genocide, died of HIV/AIDS or were unable to care for their children for some other reason.

Brown is charismatic, vivacious and full of boundless, unyielding love for the children under her care. Despite setbacks along the way – escaping to Goma, in the Congo, due to an erupting volcano, being scammed out of $100,000, having a contract on her life by a crooked pastor – Brown has created a very special place for children who have nowhere else to go.

IMG_8278.jpgAt Urukundo, we spent the day with the children, as well as helping with the construction of a new worship center for both Urukundo and the surrounding community (photo, left). Even our guides joined in to help us with the building! We were also lucky enough to have lunch with the children and watch them sing and play and go about their normal lives.

IMG_8109.jpgFor lunch, we each partnered with a child. My partner was 13-year-old Florentine (photo, right). When we first arrived at Urukundo, before I even met Florentine, Brown told us her story. Florentine arrived at the home four years ago and was extremely depressed. At the time, she spoke very little English, but upon talking to her through a translator, Brown discovered that Florentine had a baby sister who had been left behind.

When Florentine’s caretaker died, Florentine had promised that she would watch after her sister. Unfortunately, someone brought Florentine to Urukundo without considering the possibility that another small child was depending upon her.

Still determined, Brown searched for Florentine’s sister, who was 4 years old at the time.

IMG_8103.jpg One day, Brown introduced a new little girl to group. Upon her entering the room, Florentine jumped to her feet, yelled “Bellissee! Bellisee!” and ran and hugged her sister. Bellissee is now 7 years old (photo, left).

Florentine was fairly quiet, but during our day together, we talked about school, what she wants to be when she grows up, and what she likes to do in her spare time. Florentine is a talented singer and she sang for us before we ate our lunch with the children.

One of the day’s many bittersweet moments occurred during my time with Florentine.

After we were through eating, she looked at me and asked, “Do you have a mother?” I told her I do. She then asked “Do you have a father?” I said yes. Her face fell.

Internally, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. What are you supposed to say to that? Obviously, “I’m sorry” is a petty and vapid response, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be insensitive to this very, very sweet and very, very smart little girl.

So, I told her, “My parents would love to meet you.”

Then she asked, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

I said “no.”

She smiled and the mood suddenly changed. Then she said, “OK, then I will come visit you.”

Unfortunately, our day at Urukundo did have to come to an end. It was a tearful departure for almost every one, as we had all become enamored with the children, Mama Arlene and the natural beauty of the home.

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Shops and food in Rwanda

Day 3

Today was likely our quietest day of the whole trip. I was exhausted last night after such a busy day and went to sleep at 9:30 PM.

I slept extremely well and ended up waking up around 5:30 AM. It was nice to wake up and see the sunrise and listen to birds singing outside of my window.

After getting dressed and checking e-mail, I made my way down to breakfast. Breakfast at the hotel here is delicious – every morning brings fresh pastries, bacon, eggs, porridge, passionfruit juice, and Rwandan tea and coffee.

Arts and crafts

IMG_7815.jpg Our first stop of the day was an arts and crafts market (photos left and right). While the goods were all beautiful and unique, it was pretty obvious that the vendors cater mostly to the American and European crowd. Many of the vendors were polite, but extremely pushy.

IMG_7828.jpg I’m not a huge shopper and am very selective with what I buy, so I tried to seek out a few of the more unique things and then, after comparing prices at different vendors, I made my final selections. I was reluctant to haggle too much, as prices were still unbelievably cheap compared to comparable goods in the States, but in a few situations I negotiated a little lower if something was incredibly “expensive.”

Local market

IMG_7875.jpg After the crafts market, we visited a local Rwandan market (photos left and below right). Immediately, my senses were overwhelmed with the colors, smells, and sounds.

One of our guides, Paul, led us through the market, showing us all of the goods available for sale. This market offered almost everything – clothes, toys, fresh meats, fish and vegetables, electronics, fabrics, etc. – and was bustling with many people.

IMG_7863.jpgOur afternoon was free, so I spent some time walking around the main city center, where I visited a large mall that primarily caters to expatriates. The grocery store there had many American items, including English books, toiletries, candy and more.

Rwanda’s Starbucks

In the same market, there was a great coffee shop called Bourbon Coffee. I was especially excited about visiting Bourbon after reading an article about the shop and its owner in the Kenya Airways magazine. The Bourbon business model is virtually identical to Starbucks – even the decor was similar. I had the Rwandan version of a Frappuccino, which, while delicious, left me with a pounding heart for the next two hours as my body processed the extreme amount of caffeine.

We had dinner at an Indian restaurant close to our hotel. I know that sounds strange, but in reality, Rwanda is quite a hub for all sorts of different cuisine. I’ve seen signs for everything ranging from pizza parlors to Chinese restaurants.

Tomorrow, we drive from Kigali to Butare, in the southern part of the country, where we will be spending two nights. I am especially excited for tomorrow, as we will be visiting the Urukundo Home for Children, a safe refuge for orphans of genocide and HIV/AIDS, that is run by an American expatriate.

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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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Visiting Les Enfants, a home for boys

Day 1

First rule about traveling in Africa: things are slow.
Second rule about traveling in Africa: things are really slow.

Regardless, after nearly 36 hours of travel, we safely made it to Kigali.

Flying from Los Angeles to London was uneventful, as was the flight from London to Nairobi, bar a rough landing that caused the overhead oxygen masks appear, much to the delight of everyone on board.

The fun began upon our landing in Nairobi. Our flight to Kigali had been cancelled. We were able to catch the next flight, but said flight didn’t depart Nairobi until 1:15 A.M. This flight, which did end up actually leaving the airport, stopped in Bujumbura, in Burundi, before delivering us to our final destination at roughly 4:30 in the morning.

After we were delivered to our hotel, Hotel des Mille Collines, we settled in for a restful, but very brief, morning of sleep.

Day 1 1/2

IMG_7521.jpgWhile our departure from the hotel today was later than planned, due simply to our travel delays, we had a full day planned.

IMG_7529.jpg Our first stop of the day was at Les Enfants de Dieu, in Ndera, a Kigali suburbs. Les Enfants is a nonprofit home for street children. The project provides boys, ages 4 to 18 years old, with a place to live and further their education. Currently, Les Enfants is home to 126 boys. The campus (right) at Les Enfants includes a dormitory, classrooms, a kitchen (left) and a playground.

IMG_7519.jpgAs Rafiki Callixte (right), the project’s coordinator, explained, the program is unique in that it is, in large part, run by the children. Children elect ministers – their peers – who are responsible for overseeing various aspects of life at the center. The ministries range from administration to education to sports to health. Each minister is assisted by a secretary general, as well as two technicians.

This ministry system is vital to the success of Les Enfants. The children at the project are empowered – they are the ones who are in control of their everyday life. In addition, the system allows children to earn respect from not only their peers, but from their elders, such as Rafiki.

Rafiki told us how all purchases must be overseen and approved by the ministers. He regaled us with a story of wanting to purchase a new computer for his office, but being denied by his administration minister, Omar. When he met with Omar, Omar denied his request due to the fact that there was a food shortage and he was more concerned with making sure that his peers were going to remain fed. It is this sort of empowerment that allows Les Enfants to groom these young men for success later on in life.

After Rafiki gave us a tour of the center, we sat down with the children to a lunch of goat and rabbit, both part of the center’s sustainable agriculture, beans, rice and potatoes.

One young boy I met, Shadrick, 15, told me that his parents were murdered in the 1994 genocide. Prior to coming to Les Enfants, Shadrick had lived in eight different group homes. We talked about his upcoming Physics examinations and how he hopes to be a salesman one day. He also requested my e-mail address, as he will be getting an e-mail address soon and wanted to be sure that he could contact me.

IMG_7549.jpgLike Shadrick, the rest of the children were also talkative, articulate and a joy to be around. Rafiki told us that it is very special for these children to have us come visit, mostly due to the fact that in their prior lives they were outcasts and were shooed away, rather than having visitors come just for them.

After a sad departure from the center – none of the children wanted us to go and I think very few of us wanted to either – we drove back into Kigali proper and visited the Kigali Memorial Centre.

The beautiful center features a museum, gardens, as well as numerous mass graves, holding a total of 2,000 bodies.

The experience at the center was particularly moving after having the opportunity to meet with children who have been affected directly by the genocide. One sculpture in the center featured a mother and child and was captioned with “I Wasn’t Born to a Be An Orphan.”

After our experience this morning, this title so perfectly encapsulated our day.

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Countdown to Rwanda

Here I am: one day before my long-awaited trip to Rwanda.

This is a trip that I have wanted to take ever since I wrote the paper that precedes this entry. About a year and a half ago, when I found out that Dr. Halperin actually was leading a group on a trip to Rwanda, I knew that I had to go. I waited for the trip with extreme enthusiasm – harassing Dr. Halperin for the release of our itinerary, frequently pestering our great travel agent, Lewis Gibbons, with question after question – and now I’m here.

This past week has gone by so incredibly fast. Amid packing, frantic trips to R.E.I. and working my way through our lengthy list of recommended readings, I did manage to meet up with Peter Nelson and his wife, Jane, for lunch. Peter and his wife are involved in a group called The Halftime Group. This group serves individuals, primarily established executives, who are seeking something more significant in their lives.

Back in March, Jane organized a Halftime Group on a mission trip to Rwanda. While in Rwanda, Jane, Peter and their group partnered with Bishop John Rucyahana of the Sonrise School to assist in processing children so that they may enter the school. Jane created a video documenting her trip.

Jane and Peter have been to Africa a combined total of nine times and were a wealth of knowledge. Like most others I have talked to who have traveled to Rwanda, they spoke of the country and the people most highly. As my aunt, who has also visited, said in a recent e-mail to me, “it is a beautiful country where terrible things happened.”

In less than ten hours, I’ll be aboard my first flight – a ten-hour jaunt from Los Angeles to London. My boyfriend and I will meet up with Dr. Halperin and most of the rest of the group there before we fly to Nairobi and then, finally, Kigali.

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Examining the media’s role in the Rwanda genocide

I first became aware of the Rwanda genocide during my sophomore year at SMU, in J. Richard Stevens’ Media Effects class.

It was this particular class that ultimately sparked my interest in human rights in general and, more specifically, genocide studies. Since then, I have applied these interests throughout my course of study at SMU – ranging from my photographic work to journalism pieces to art history papers.

While in Rick’s class, I wrote an extensive mid-term paper detailing the role the media played throughout the April 1994 genocide in Rwanda – a genocide in a country smaller than the state of Maryland. Here’s my paper:


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