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Rwanda Journal: The Painful Past

Ed. note: The Rwanda Project USVI enables local high school students to travel to the Central African nation of Rwanda to learn, engage in community service projects and promote cultural and educational ties with the people of Rwanda. VI Source Publisher Shaun Pennington, a co-founder of the project, is accompanying students this year for the second time.

(KIGALI, Rwanda) — On July 30 a group of eager but sleep-deprived Virgin Islanders arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and proceeded to the city’s Genocide Memorial to learn of the terrible events that had taken place in the country in 1994.

Walking through the first section of the museum, which opened in 2002, holding headsets to our ears, we got a brief synopsis of a very long and complicated story.

Rwanda had once been a strong and noble country in which the three tribes of Hutus, Tutsis and Twas lived side by side in peace, according to the story laid out in historical pictures, captions and video. However, colonization by Germany and later Belgium changed the harmonious state to one in which Hutus and Tutsis lived separately based upon mythical physical, social and economic differences promoted by the Europeans.

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This deliberate divisiveness set in place the social structure that would lead to the brutal events of 1994, when nearly one million people were slaughtered in a short three months.

In the narrow, darkened brick-walled rooms of the Kigali Memorial television screens flash images of the horror; an elderly woman with unimaginable pain painted thick on her face, looking directly at the camera, delicately places her hands on the pink, damp bandages around her skull. We see the back of a man carrying a gun in one hand and a machete in the other as he steps over bloodied, lifeless “obstacles” in the body-strewn street; a deep, long bloody gash in the side of small mahogany-toned head which also hosts a pair of young, wide, upward turned eyes full of sweetness and sorrow. This child could not have understood why or how this thing had happened to her, she could only have known that it happened and no one had done anything to stop it.

The day after our visit to the memorial — which houses a particularly ghastly children’s section where we learn the child’s favorite food along with how he or she died — we have questions.

“What if something like this had somehow happened between St. Thomians and Crucians,” asks fellow traveler Landon Bunn. We are not inherently different from Africans, the difference is circumstance. We did not experience the disastrous effects of colonization as recently or in the same way that Rwandans did. “If such a hate had occurred” he went on to say, “would we have been able to recover from it in the remarkable way that Rwanda has?”

One of the things that shocked me the most when I was first learning about this is the response of the international community to this genocide. Landon seems to have had the same reaction.

“The whole world knew what was going on. How could such an atrocity be ignored by almost everyone?” Was it because the world did not know how to answer the problem? Did no one nation want to take over? Or was it simply that no one cared about Africa? These were some of the questions that ran through my mind as I walked through the genocide memorial in Kigali.

Standing over a mass grave of 250,000 men, women, and children who were beaten, raped, murdered, and massacred, I was emotionally as well as physically drained. The world had banded together to stop the tyranny of Adolf Hitler and his “Final Solution.” What had gone wrong here?”

Rwanda is a small country with a large place in modern world history, a fascinating and horrifying past, a remarkable recovery, and yet, it seems to be largely overlooked by the rest of the world. Perhaps it is because the rest of the world has difficulty facing what they did not do. “The international community is guilty of sins of omission,” said Kofi Annan, then-U.N. General Secretary, of the Rwandan Genocide.

Walking through a room filled with snapshots of people– mothers, fathers, children, lovers– placed there by their lost and broken-hearted family members, was the hardest. Taken before they were victims, there was no evidence of ethnicity. I could not see Hutu or Tutsi in these pictures, only people, like any of us. A mother and daughter sitting in the garden, a group of children at church, a young couple leaning against a tree with arms around each other, a teenage girl posing for a picture, a young father, beaming at the small boy he held in his arms.

In the next room articles of clothing from genocide victims hang on three of the walls. On the fourth, a monitor beams out the faces of a few survivors stoically telling their stories. One young man talks about his mother, how every time she got her pay check she would buy him milk and cake, how, before she died she told him and his sister that if they survived, they must be strong.

After he told his personal story he listed the things that he thought the international community must know. That the genocide really happened, how it happened, that there are still people in this country struggling to cope. That the international community must respect what happened.

.Stepping outside in to the cool, dry, bright afternoon, three of us made our way down the brick stairs into the garden, where we found flowers and pale green plants delicately arranged around the mass graves of a quarter million Rwandans. At the front of the garden a huge cactus stretched its arms up towards the sky.

The young man who had shared his story and his thoughts had verbalized just why our journey here is so important. The world needs to know what happened in Rwanda, and Rwanda deserves an enormous amount of respect, for its victims and for its recovery. While this trip has elements of both a service project and an exhilarating exploration, it is much more than both of those things. We have the very important task of learning, and sharing our knowledge with people at home in the Virgin Islands and beyond. I stood overlooking the bustling red brick city, with an orange orb at my back, hanging low and fiery in the sky.

In my mind I held a tiny shred of Rwanda and her story. I am ready for more.

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