Blog Post : Sigal's Reflection on Her Trip to Rwanda

Sigal's Reflection on Her Trip to Rwanda  | erica.frankel | Feb 28, 2013

"The journey began with a phone call from Rabbi Sarna asking if I was interested in joining a pilot program to send a group of Jewish students to Rwanda to learn about genocide. Truth be told, the group consisted of myself and one other participant, Gaby Clingman. Together we were led around by Jonathan Beloff, an NYU master’s alum who has done extensive research on Rwandan development and has travelled to Rwanda numerous times to visit as well as collect survivor testimony. I knew essentially nothing about Rwanda before embarking on this journey, but with Jonathan’s seemingly endless reservoir of the history and geopolitics of the region, I quickly learned a great deal. For two weeks we visited various genocide sites and met with wonderful people from different sectors of Rwandan society to get a feel for life in Rwanda. From the moment we landed in Rwanda, I understood that this visit would be the beginning of a continued relationship with the country and my new friends whose courage, determination, and sense of dignity, igiciro, so deeply inspire me. The trip served as an important and eye-opening experience for me, and I hope that I am able to share some of my experience and some of the information that I was privy to with you. While in Rwanda I compiled a diary and will share one representative day with you.

Day 8: We had an early start to get on the road for the long drive to Kibuye-- Lake Kivu. We stopped at a bridge off of which 80,000 people were thrown. The height is great enough that it wasn't necessary to kill people before throwing them over.

We finally arrived at our destination in Kibuye, a Belgian-colonial era church, St. Pierre, where almost 12,000 people were massacred. As with many other churches, people were encouraged to seek refuge in the church only to find no escape. The church is situated on a cliff-like peninsula. The hills down to Lake Kivu contained poisonous snakes. If some people were able to flee and tried to swim to Congo, the Rwandan army was instructed to shoot them. The priests at the church promised women further safety if they came up to their residences (second floor or church). Rather than refuge, the priests proceeded to rape the women and then send them to their deaths (or even participate). Because most of the Tutsi population in the area was decimated, there was little voice of opposition to the idea of reopening the church. The RPF permitted the community to reopen the church under the condition that they build a mass grave in the front of the church so the horrific history could not be hidden and pushed to the back. Otherwise the building would be bulldozed. At the entrance of the church now sits a memorial and mass grave, but the church is open for use.

Everywhere we drive we see people working to improve the streets. These are public works jobs created by the various districts to create jobs and to maintain the roads---some of the people working are barefoot and are there with dangerous looking tools, but people need jobs.

Freddy arranged for us to meet with a group of survivors. It falls under the umbrella group of IBUKA, the student and alumni survivor organization. Many of its members are active participants at the top levels of many sectors of society. The group started with a handful of university students needing more support when their families were killed and they faced great challenges. When they graduated, however, they wanted the system to continue, so they made a group for alumni. The groups are organized into artificial families with individuals assigned as the mother and father and the rest as children. Challenges that arise with school, dating, finding jobs, etc, are brought to the family structure. These family ties are so strong that they exist today wherever the survivors go. There are three groups in the USA and one that straddles the USA and Canada. The group members shared with us some of their challenges and concerns: it must be specified that it was the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide, and not just the Rwandan Genocide, as the latter lends itself to great ambiguity and room for manipulation. Rwandans are already experiencing fatigue of discussing the genocide. The genocide killed and the fifty-year preparation stunted the intellectual growth of Tutsis. They don't have anyone to write books yet. It takes time to be able to share your experiences in the genocide. And anyway, the inferiority has been so ingrained in many Tutsi that they think, 'why would anyone want me to share my history? I hold it within me, as we have always done (oral tradition).'"

This excerpt provides a glimpse into what was a two-week life altering experience. For more information, please feel free to contact me at sigalneustein@gmail.com.