Cambodia, Armenia, Bosnia, Sudan, Germany, and Rwanda. Each of these nations has one common thread, a deliberate and brutal similarity. Every one of these nations has been affected by mass slaughters of innocent people during the past hundred years. Genocide, an intentional killing of a large group of people often specific to a ethnic group, is a topic that most high school students learn about in class, but few get the chance to see the effects of a genocide on real people and communities.
For two weeks during the summer before my senior year, I had the opportunity to travel to East Africa, and found myself in the capital city of Kigali, Rwanda. Upon entering the Land of a Thousand Hills, I was taken back by the intense beauty the country held. Through the rolling hills, street markets, and smiling faces, I was in awe. Rarely do I see such pure beauty at first glance, but here, in Kigali, it existed.
In my education, it seemed as if every time Rwanda was mentioned, it was within the context of the genocide. I had preconceived ideas of a nation that was still rebuilding its economy. I imagined poor sanitation, slums, dangerous traffic, and other signs of modern poverty. These stereotypical images couldn’t be farther from the reality.
The streets of the capital are clean, traffic runs fairly smoothly, buildings are modernized, and the scenery is movie-esque. Through all this purity, all that ran through my head were images from the genocide that I saw through history classes and various research for the trip. I couldn’t take these grim thoughts and images out of my mind, and they appeared at every turn and stoplight.
With limited time in the area, our group visited the most popular sites. My journey started with the Kigali Genocide Memorial. With over 250,000 bodies interred there, this stop was emotionally demanding. Our hour long visit wasn’t long enough to read, understand, and observe the entire memorial, but each of us left speechless. Our next stop was the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Centre located in Kinazi, Rwanda. The memorial is located at a Catholic Church and is the site of one of the most brutal killings during the genocide where approximately 10,000 people were killed inside the church and an additional 35,000 murdered around the compound between April 10th and April 12th of 1994. A total of 50,000 people are buried at the church and it serves as a place for visitors to mourn and learn about the reality of the killings. The church visit held immense weight in all of our hearts and our eyes swelled with tears. We were instructed to let our emotional guard down, but we did not have to be told as everything we saw was so heartbreaking. The entire time at the church and the half hour ride back to our hotel was silent. We tried to comprehend and reflect as our history lessons turned into a field trip and into something that we could never forget.
As I reflected on the day’s events, the development levels of the city of Kigali surprised me again. Rwanda and its government, and more importantly its people changed and turned intense grief and guilt into improvement. This is something admirable and honorable; words never spoken in a class teaching about the genocide. While in Rwanda, I was confronted with questions I had never considered and emotions I had never confronted. Without control, my emotional guard had been pulled from underneath me and I learned more than I ever could in a classroom.
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