Well I have returned from the greatest experience I have ever had in my life. Three weeks ago I set off with 20 other students from Long Island University, to travel to Rwanda in Africa. Rwanda was to give us the experience to learn about the 1994 genocide, meet students of the Kigali Mental Health Institute and also travel a few hours away from Kigali to visit the Gakoni orphanage which housed 75 children. I was well prepared to travel to this country; however I wasn’t prepared emotionally for everything I was about to experience on this incredible journey.
As someone who served in the Armed Forces, I knew I would possibly have to go to war and be faced with the evil images of war. Though that time never came while I served, and it wasn’t until I came home and began getting involved helping others veterans that I began to hear the stories and see footage of the tragedy war has to offer. While reading up and learning more about the 1994 genocide that took place in Rwanda before my big trip, I began to realize that not only did these people deal with war face to face, but they saw tragedy that maybe not even a soldier sees on the battlefield (not to take away from what a soldier sees on the modern day battlefield).
These thoughts all hit me when I attended the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. After seeing images and watching very few minutes of video (too gruesome to watch), I realized genocide was on a whole other level.
Genocide is defined as the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group. The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda was like no other modern war, because the acts of murder by the Hutu were deliberate to wipe out the Tutsi race. Over 800,000 Tutsi lost their lives during the genocide that lasted for about 100 days, and unfortunately it took the lives of not only adult men and women, but thousands were children, ranging from infant all the way up through teenage years. Not only were these people slaughtered, but they were also raped, hacked to death by machetes and many were even buried alive. Videos at the Kigali Genocide Memorial showed all of this, and images helped to put a face on those men, women and children who were brutally murdered.
Scriptures at the memorial spoke about these inhumane killings, as infants were thrown at brick walls, stomped on, and also hacked up by machetes. A room at the memorial was dedicated to the thousands of children who were mutilated during the genocide. I happen to actually miss this room, but was told about it by the other students after I had existed the building. I did not however miss the room that showcased the numerous skulls and bones of Tutsi men women and children that had lost their lives. I walked in and froze, as I looked at the bones of so many innocent people.
It was mass murder throughout the country, neighbors killing neighbors, and even family members killing family members, all because of their race. Streets were covered with blood and dead bodies were piled up everywhere, and even a church in Murambi that I visited was also a place where mass murder took place.
Radio and Newspapers put out messages calling Tutsi to rally at the Murambi church for safety. Worst of all, the priest of the church was in on rallying Tutsi to the church, knowing and prepared to help in murdering the thousands that came seeking safety. 50,000 Tutsi lost their lives at this church and its surrounding hills, this I learned about by a guest speaker we had named Emanuel.
Emanuel was 1 of the 4 survivors on this hill where that same church still stands in ruins (photo below). Emanuel spoke about watching his own children die before his eyes, hearing their screams choked up Emanuel as he fought to press on and finish his story with all of us students listening. Emanuel’s last words to us after his story were “Thank you, and I’m grateful for Americans always coming out to this memorial to learn about the tragedies”. Emanuel still makes this area his home, because he feels comfortable because his whole family is buried here in Murambi.
This was an experience I will never forget, from the children of the orphanage where no running water existed, to learning firsthand about the atrocious acts of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, this was a journey that showed me the worst side of mankind. This was also a journey that showed me just how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder cannot only affect the American soldier who has been to the battlefield, but how others throughout the world are also faced with trying to conquer the symptoms of PTSD after being through other types of trauma, such as genocide.
I also learned about myself, understanding that what I have in this lifetime (growing up in America) is something I cannot take for granted. I’m thankful for living in this country, being an American and having the freedoms I have. When I asked the professor (who taught at Kigali Mental Health institute and was our guide while in Rwanda) “who’s to say that genocide won’t happen again in Rwanda in the coming years”? His response with a very serious voice was “If they get the chance, they will use genocide again”. Imagine living in their shoes, wondering when the next genocide will be.
Special Thanks to Dr. June Smith and Long Island University for putting this amazing journey together and I’m also very honored to have been part of an amazing group of students who worked together to make this a memorable experience that have left us all hoping to someday return to Rwanda.