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WHS students share their life-changing visit to Rwanda

March 17, 2012

Members of Woonsocket High School's Globe Citizenship program wear the colors of Africa after returning home last weekend from a life-altering trip to Rwanda. From left are Melinda Rice, Michaela Bartholomy, Kory Nordby, Nicole Coutu and Justyna Pietrus.


WOONSOCKET — They had heard the stories about the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and had even met a survivor who visited their school a year ago.
But a group of seniors from the high school now knows just reading about a defining moment in history, or researching media coverage about it, isn't enough to give true understanding of the impact it had on those experiencing it.
The students, all members of the high school Interact Club and Global Citizenship Program, put their feet on the ground of Rwanda's killing places to learn first-hand how such tragedies continue to cry out long after they have ended.
Back at school on Tuesday after a long flight from Central Africa over the weekend, the five international travelers tried their best to explain how their two-week-long stay in the once-wartorn nation has changed their outlook on the world around them.
They visited schools where young Rwandan children are working hard to gain an education against the backdrop of a fading civil war, met adults who survived the killings, and joined weekly community gatherings where Rwandans seek to give themselves a new sense of national spirit, cooperation and hope.
At same time, however, the Villa Novans probed deeply into the flaws of human nature that can combine in a mix of unyielding hatred against another human being and flame a killing rage that only more killing can stop.
It was a much bigger challenge to understand and resolve than any of the teenagers had anticipated as they prepared to leave their home city for their guided excursion in a foreign land. Melinda Rice, Michaela Bartholomy, Kory Nordby, Nicole Coutu, and Justyna Pietrus would also find the trip to be life-changing in ways they could not have understood beforehand.
After boarding a bus at the high school at 4 a.m. for the trip to Logan Airport in Boston, Rice wasn't sure what she’d find in Rwanda. The students flew first to Washington, D.C., where their trip studies began with a visit to the Holocaust Museum in the nation's capital. The Holocaust Museum not only teaches the inhumanity of the Nazi persecution of European Jews and other victims, but also provides its visitors with a wealth of information about the many genocides suffered by the world. The museum's resources also cover the events in Rwanda breaking out in April of 1994 after the nation's president died in a suspicious plane crash.
The Rwandan genocide was a final outcome of a period of ethnic hatred dating back to the nation's past role as a Belgian colony and its contrived caste system of countryside laborers and a selected elite of colonial civil servants in the colony's major cities.
The Hutu, the larger of the two groups, developed a dislike for the favored minority Tutsi ethnic group because of their affiliation with the European-based government.
When independence came in the 1950s, the differences between the groups only became more pronounced.
The political aspirations of a Hutu extremist group in the early 1990s prompted a growing persecution of Tutsi civilians as supporters of a Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front rebel group. The persecution erupted into an organized genocide on April 6, 1994, after Hutu President Habyarimana's plane was believed shot down by Tutsis, and the Hutu extremists began rounding up the minority Rwandans through roadblocks and searches into their ethnic communities.
The killings that followed in the ensuing days and weeks claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsi men, women and children as an estimated 200,000 Hutu rampaged in machete and clubbing murders and shootings. Hutus who had the power to intervene in the genocide were also killed, many early on in the violence, and some foreign residents and members of religious groups trying to help also lost their lives.
The international community would be criticized for its failure to act in a timely manner to stop the killing; the genocide only ended when the Patriotic Front scored battle victories forcing the extremist Hutu to flee to nearby countries.
In the years since, Rwanda, under former rebel leader and President Paul Kagame, has worked hard to restore its international reputation and put the events of 1994 behind it.
The high school's travelers found out quickly during their stay that the nation's efforts at building a new Rwanda have been hard fought and are ongoing. Hutu who fled are now being permitted to return with a period of re-education in the new ways of living together. The country is also enjoying the economic dividends and international praise associated with world recognition of the changes occurring in Rwanda since it civil strife ended.
After departing Dulles Airport on the 24-hour flight to Europe and then flying to Africa, the students found themselves in Kigali — Rwanda's capital. The weather was warm but not uncomfortable and the first Rwandans they met at the airport proved to be pleasant and welcoming as they filled out the forms allowing the group entry into the country.
The students then traveled by bus to Tubeho, a community created for orphans of genocide by a religious order that also hosts foreign students.
The visit to Rwanda was put together with the help of Steve Rand, a teacher at Hardwood Union High School in Vermont, and the students had two hosts for the tour, Gysline and Alexi, who would accompany them in their travels. The students were also joined by three of their teachers, Jason Marzini, Anthony Cosentino, and Caroline Doherty, along with Kristen Allen, president of the Woonsocket Rotary Club, which had helped raise almost $9,000 for the trip.
Pietrus said she had been nervous when she first arrived in Rwanda while believing her visit represented the beginning of something important in her life. She also struggled with the paradox of meeting such pleasant Rwandans upon her arrival but also knowing that many of the people she met must have experienced the tragedies of the genocide.
The lesson already being taught was that a group of people can hate another group of people so much they only see killing as the next step forward.
The students were soon spending their morning hours in schools with the children of Rwanda and passing on their gifts of books and then taking tours in the afternoon at the preserved sites where major massacres of Tutsis occurred in 1994.
In their commitment to prevent such events in the future, the Rwandans have left some of these sites exactly as they were found when the killing ended. They may churches where the Tutsi gathered in the hopes of being spared or schools, or grassy clearings.
At some locations, the long-ago decomposed bodies of the genocide's killing lie exactly where they fell. Other locations have the victims gathered in memorials where their individual stories can be told by those preserving their memory.
Some of the sites are beautiful and garden-like today where visitors can sit and reflect. But they also carry a strong sense of the horror that occurred on their grounds, the bones pocked and shattered with machete blows or fragmented by clubs and bullets.
The smell of death still waifed in the air at some of the memorials, according to the students.
Even though they were able to visit the actual sites where genocide occurred, Bartholomy said, it remained difficult for the students to actually understand all that transpired there.
“Trying to imagine what really happened is so difficult I don't think any of us can do it,” she said.
“The strongest desire I have now is just to educate other people so something like that can't happen again,” she said.
Pietrus learned a difficult-to-accept lesson that hatred can be a very powerful thing and as a result “we shouldn't try to divide ourselves from each other,” he said.
The students saw piles of human skulls at the memorials but were taught by their hosts to think of them individually, as one complete person, one life that had been lost a thousand times over.
“It was the most difficult thing I had ever set my eyes upon,” Pietrus said of the places of remembrance.
Marzini, who worked to organize the Harwood Union visit to Woonsocket with members of the school' s Interact Club, said it was clear during the group's stay in Rwanda that everyone they met “had been affected in some way by the genocide.” If they were survivors, they would have lost parents, or aunts and uncles, or their own children, he explained.
Some of the people they encountered had lost limbs in the violence or still carried bullets and pieces of shrapnel in their bodies, he said.
But they are also happy to be alive and desire to live in a better country than they did in the past, according to Marzini.
“There is hope in Rwanda,” he said. “There definitely is hope for the future.”
Norby said he was amazed at the commitment to education young Rwandans make in their country even though they all have to pay for their schooling and the quality of their schools is determined by how much they can pay.
“Some people there graduate from high school when they are 24 because they have to leave school to go to work and earn money to pay for it,” he said.
The challenges make them appreciate school more and pay attention when they attend, he said. “The students here should appreciate that they can receive a public education and not have to pay for that education,” Norby said.
Although the students had much to learn about the costs of genocide during their travels in Rwanda, they also learned how to reach out to other people, even with a language barrier, and find common ground and understanding, said Cosentino, a high school history teacher.
“The people of Rwanda embraced us, and we embraced their culture,” Cosentino said.
Norby recalled getting off the plane in Kigali and helping an elderly woman depart behind him. “I held her hand in mine and although she didn't speak English, the look she had in her eyes was that she wanted to say thank you.”
At the community gatherings they attended, the group's members were often asked about the music they liked back home and encouraged to sing songs and dance.
The students and chaperons bought Rwandan clothes and raised laughter among their hosts while performing Woonsocket favorites, the “Chicken Dance” and the “Hokey Pokey” on stage.
Pietrus experienced a personal highlight on the trip when she was able to visit her uncle, Stanislaw Urbnak, a missionary priest who had been in Rwanda in 1994 and attempted to shelter about 500 people in his church in Ruhango.
“He definitely was the holiest feeling person I have ever met,” she said.
Coutu said she found her moment in Rwanda at Teddy's, a primary school where the visitors spent a lot of time with young Rwandans. They worked on coloring books together and drew pictures, she remembered. “They just kept grabbing my hand and wanted my attention all the time,” she said.
Bartholomy said she, too, was touched by the experience of meeting the children at Teddy's and came away thinking that she would like to pursue such work abroard when she leaves high school.
Rice said she gained an understanding of what the trip to Rwanda would mean in the rest of her life as she worked on a video recording at the Les Enfants School for homeless boys during another of the students' stops. One youth had a difficult story to tell about the experiences of his life and Rice said she felt she must stop recording and just listen.
“I just listened to him and he had the most amazing things to say,” she said.
Although just back, Marzini said, the students have already begun work on assembling media information and writings on their trip and plan to put on a program for their fellow students in the coming weeks. When their project is complete, they hope to take it on the road, so to speak, and work to encourage other students in Rhode Island to think on a global basis.
“They were exceptional students before this trip but their experiences have made them even more exceptional,” Marzini said.

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