By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
WOONSOCKET - Nick Bousquet knew he wanted to make a visit to Rwanda long before he ever became a senior and actually made such a trip with seven of his classmates.
It was back in the eighth grade at the Good Shepherd Catholic School, where he spent his middle school years, that Bousquet and few other soon to be Woonsocket high students studied Rwanda and the genocide that swept the central Africa national in April of 1994. The Rwandan Genocide claimed the lives of between 500,000 to 1 million people over the course of its 100 days of killings and left Rwanda devastated and isolated from the world. The fact Rwanda was able to find its way out of those horrible days and set a new course as an example to other nations has brought an increasing number of students to the highlands and savannah nation for study of its lessons.
Bousquet’s interest in one day visiting the new Rwanda was sparked when he went to an assembly during his sophomore year at the high school and heard Rwandan Genocide survivor Valentina Irabagiza tell her story.
Valentina, who likes to call herself Valentine, suffered devastating injuries to her hand and arm while fending-off a machete attack during the genocide. She eventually made her way to the United States and has worked with different groups to call attention to the ever present threat of genocide among troubled peoples.
Irabagiza was brought to the high school by its Interact Club, a student organization sponsored by the Rotary Club and of which all its travelers to Rwanda have been members.
“Meeting her was our first physical connection to what had happened in Rwanda,” Bousquet said of Irabagiza. Bousquet said he decided then that he wanted to visit the country, as students from a Vermont school along with Irabagiza had done.
Now as he heads toward graduation, Bousquet and his fellow Villa Novan travelers are spending their free time telling others what they learned during that three-week-long trip halfway around the world in April.
Each one, Bousquet, Brianna Tavares, Andrea Moyen, Samantha Tondreau, Christine Thompson, Camelia Niles, Troy Witter, and Matt Brennan, learned something during their tour of Rwanda and its many memorials that made them want to give back to their community.
They have been speaking before assemblies at their own school and at others such as North Smithfield High School and the North Cumberland Middle School, and have also put together video presentations and photographic and cultural displays that were shown in the upstairs gallery at the Museum of Work & Culture at Market Square.
The experience of Rwanda is an experience of learning about great tragedy and the inhumanity of hatred. It is an experience also tempered by the country’s new-found willingness to find change and a healing path of hope, as the students can now profess.
The country had been divided by ethnic hatred and violence since its independence from colonial rule in the late 1950s and the longstanding divisions boiled over as ethnic Hutu killing of the remaining Tutsi ethnic minority in early April, 1994, shortly after President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. Hutu leaders blamed his death on the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front forces outside the country and used it to put a horrifying plan into action.
The Rwandan Genocide was carried out by militia killing not only the Tutsi families gathered together in churches and schools where they thought they might find sanctuary but also moderate Hutus who had sought to help their Tutsi friends and relatives.
The Villa Novans learned how the ensuing 100 days of killings still affect Rwandans 19 years later when they participated in the Genocide Memorial Day parade and commemoration in a soccer stadium in Kigali, the capital city, shortly after their arrival in Rwanda.
Bousquet said people wearing neon safety vests could be seen moving in the crowd and helping people who would become suddenly distraught and overwhelmed while recalling the horrors.
Some were even helped away to ambulances to be taken the hospital, he said.
His own watershed moment came at the church compound at Ntarama, where thousands of Tutsi and supportive Hutu were killed over a period of days. The victims had initially turned back the militia forces shooting into the compound by throwing rocks but the militia returned later and conducted systematic killings of all the people taking shelter there.
Bousquet said he found the acts that occurred in the compound’s Sunday School to be most incomprehensible. “They took the children and threw them against the walls,” he said. The killings left bloodstains on the walls that are still visible at the now preserved memorial to the victims of the Genocide. The fact it occurred in a Sunday School made him think of the young people he knows, he said. “How could anyone want to do something like that,” Bousquet said.
It was the scenes the students encountered at the memorials, scenes of the remains of the murdered still resting where they fell 19 years ago now, that made a permanent change in the way the travelers viewed their own roles in life, according to Samantha Tondreau and her friends.
“We all bring back everything we learned and we bring that back to our community and our country and will try to teach everyone we can about it,” she said.
Troy Witter said he also thinks a lot about the connections he made to the people he met in Rwanda, those he and his fellow students stayed with and those who sought to teach them about the past and the present. “This was a culture that we had never experienced and yet we made connections there,” Witter said.
The mother of the family he and Matt Brennan stayed with could not speak English very well, but still found a way to understand her visitors’ needs and to take care of them, Witter said. “She spoke the language of love and that stays with me today,” he said.
Matt Brennan said he was glad he was able to learn about the Rwandans’ culture but also about everything they have done to make “forgiveness” a key theme in their lives. “It was nice to learn from them and they taught us more that we taught them,” he said.
Just deciding to go to Rwanda and getting the parental support and financial backing to make the trip was a learning experience that expanded the traveler’s view of their roles in life.
Briana Tavares said she had been uncertain about going initially and then realized “that going on the trip would be better for me in the end and help me learn things I did not know.”
The next step was convincing their parents to share the same attitude then to work with student supporters like Robert Brouillard to conduct a list of fundraisers aimed at lessening the trip’s $2,500 per traveler cost.
Andrea Moyen said she had wanted to go on the trip last year when the Interact Club put together its first group of students to visit Rwanda, but couldn’t make that one. “When I found out they were going again I got so excited. I basically wanted to go on this trip because I wanted to learn about their forgiveness and how they were able to forgive the people who killed their families,” she said.
She wanted to go on the trip so much; she actually exceeded the average for fundraising and through a letter writing campaign received all but $500 in support of her travel cost. “I am so very thankful for their help,” she said of her supporters.
Christine Thompson said although she also wanted to go the first year, her mother, Laura, did not think traveling to Rwanda would be good idea with all of the unrest that had occurred there.
But when the first group of Villa Novans came back last year and told of their experiences, Thompson said her mother had a change of heart. “She heard about it and learned it was a great trip and that the people who went learned a lot from it,” she said.
When the opportunity came up for Thompson to go this year, she said her mother was all for it. “She really wanted me to go.”
Camelia Niles said she had learned enough about Rwanda from Career Center media teacher Jason Marzini, one of the group’s advisers, to know what she would face when she arrived in Rwanda but when she actually set foot in the country with her fellow Interact Club members, she was still overcome by the many lessons to be found there.
“It was still a shocking experience to see what happened and to see how these people live on,” Niles said. “They have been to hell and back and they are still carrying on with their lives,” she said.
After living with host families in their own homes, the students then went to visit schools where Rwanda’s children learn their new lessons in life today. They bonded with many, many Rwandans and found them to be open in ways they do not experience in their own country.
“You wouldn’t think that they would be much more friendly than Americans but they are,” Samantha Tondreau said. “They are extremely open and welcoming.”