When two weeks in Africa changed my life

Study-abroad program shows MU students the effects of Rwanda genocide
Sunday, December 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 4:15 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 11, 2014
Kids crowd around MU convergence journalism senior Melissa Urscheler during her visit to Rwanda as she demonstrates how to use a camera.

COLUMBIA — In April of 1994 in the central African nation of Rwanda, an ethnic genocide had just begun. In only 100 days, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people would die at the hands of their neighbors, death squads and the military, with the rest of the population to be subjected to violence, rape, displacement and fear.

Simultaneously, halfway around the world in Columbia, Rangira Béa Gallimore, who was teaching in the department of romance languages and literatures at MU, was looking for a way inside Rwanda, the country of her birth. She was eager to reach family members caught in what would become known as one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

MU's Rwanda study-abroad program

The deadline for MU undergraduate and graduate students to apply for the summer 2010 study-abroad in Rwanda is Feb. 22, 2010.

Because the program is for course credit, the cost varies depending on whether students pay in-state or out-of-state tuition. Students are also responsible for airfare, food and hotel expenses.

This year students will stay in Rwanda for three weeks, from July 1 to 20. More information can be found on the Web site for MU's International Center.

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Gallimore eventually found a way in, but she was not able to find all of her family alive.

Haunted by the faces and stories of those she met during her visits to Rwanda and during her research, Gallimore was moved to do more for the survivors. In addition to helping form an organization to aid some of the thousands of women who were raped, widowed or contracted HIV throughout 1994, she ultimately wanted to educate others outside Rwanda on the anatomy of genocide. Her hope was that the international community would never again be able to use ignorance as an excuse for the complacency that allowed so many to die in Rwanda. So, during the summer of the 15th anniversary of the ethnic genocide, she began MU’s first study-abroad program to Rwanda.

That was how we met.

For two weekends in June, I studied under Gallimore alongside seven other MU students from various backgrounds and majors.

In July, we traveled to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to study at the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center, which was co-founded by Gallimore. We were joined by students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and, briefly, by students from the California Institute of the Arts.

During the two-week trip, we met with representatives from the government of Rwanda and the United States, military and nonprofit organizations and people whose families had been affected by the genocide of 1994. We also met people directly responsible for it.

Here are a few of my memories from the trip that changed my life:

Meeting Charles

On our second day in Rwanda, we traveled to Nyamata, a small town outside Kigali, to visit the Nyamata Church, a brick building surrounded by a white iron gate. The sound of singing from Sunday Mass being celebrated in a nearby building could he heard through an open door. As I looked through quarter-sized bullet holes in a patio cover overhead — a reminder of the massacres that took place there — I found it hard to fathom that such faith was still present.

A young man dressed in dark jeans and a black button-up shirt, whom I had not noticed on the porch when we arrived, quietly introduced himself in accented English as Charles Mugabe. Awkwardly apologizing for his poor grammar, Charles switched to Rwanda’s native language, Kinyarwanda, and, with help from a translator, started telling his account of survival in 1994.

Charles was 8 when the genocide began. He, along with his father, mother and two brothers, fled to Nyamata alongside thousands of their Tutsi neighbors. Together, they crammed into the Nyamata Church and the surrounding yard, unable to sit. Charles said that many died from starvation and dehydration even before the arrival of the Hutu rebels, the Interahamwe, which, in Kinyarwanda, translates to "those who attack together." The Interahamwe was responsible for much of the killing during the genocide.

As Charles led us inside the church, we passed under a purple-and-white banner that, translated, reads, "If you knew me, you wouldn’t have been able to kill me."

Piles of torn, dirty and bloodied clothes that once belonged to those murdered in and around Nyamata were stacked a few feet high on every wooden pew. On the altar lay a rusted machete. Overlooking the mounds of clothes, a Virgin Mary statue was positioned on the back wall. Bullet holes in the roof made the interior of the church appear bathed in sunlight.

In his soft voice, Charles recalled April 1994, when his family was massacred inside those brick walls. He remembered the armed Interahamwe rebels mobbing the church, as they sang and shouted, “We’re coming to kill the cockroaches, the snakes.”

Charles pointed at places around the church, recounting the crimes he'd seen. To the right of the entrance, the rebels had murdered the little children, grabbing them by their legs and bashing their skulls against the wall. In front of the altar, they carved the fetus out of a pregnant woman, yelling, "We have to kill the Tutsi inside of her." To the left of the altar, a woman was impaled, a spear shoved between her legs. It exited through her neck.

This was our first meeting in Rwanda with a genocide survivor. I felt numb and unsure how to respond, but perhaps the most disturbing story was still to come: how Charles survived.

He turned his attention back to the open closet door behind him and explained how he and his mother had hidden there with others. His mother had been killed after the Interahamwe forced open the door and started pulling people out, in some cases using machetes to cut off the arms of people and slicing off the heads of others, which were tossed into the crowded sanctuary.

Charles had escaped into the main area of the church where he was able to find his twin brother, the only member of his family still alive. Slashed across the neck with a machete, his brother told him to smear the blood across his own limbs in an attempt to fool the rebels into believing he had been injured as well. Charles told us he did as his brother told him and, accepting his own death, lay down and eventually fell asleep. Later, after the soldiers left, he escaped from the church and sought refuge in swamps a few miles outside of the village.

Charles did not tell any more of his story. Instead, he stepped aside while we walked around the church, which is now a memorial site. Outside again, he led us down to a cramped underground space and stood next to shelves full of the skulls of those who had been killed during the genocide. On other shelves, simply made coffins covered in cloth contained more bones of the dead. As we made our way down the steep stairs, the air increasingly stale, Charles pointed to one he said held the remains of his family.

When it was time to leave, we shook Charles Mugabe's hand. Overwhelmed and reflective, we thanked him and shuffled back onto the bus. I took a seat in the back where I was able to look through the fence at the church. Charles still stood on the porch, smiling and shaking hands with other visitors.

Forgiveness and peanuts

The man who we traveled to see lived outside Kigali in a small village on the way to Nyamata. We had driven up a long, dusty, rugged trail to the top of a small hill, and Mucyez A., who asked that he not be fully identified, met us when we stepped off the bus. I shook his hand, taking in his green-striped shirt and baseball hat before moving down the line and greeting the group of men, women and children who surrounded him.

When I reached the end, I waited for everyone to follow, taking time to look around at the property on which we found ourselves. A square hut was the same dusty brown as the earth. A cow was roped to a makeshift pen on the left, and benches outlined a small courtyard in front. Except for a patch of crops, wild green vegetation enshrouded the rest of the property.

We nervously crammed together on the long wooden benches. Although we didn't know it yet, we had come to this house with Faith Victory Association, an organization helping with the post-genocide reconciliation process in Rwanda. Two men from the organization took turns introducing us to their goals, purpose and methods. They then called the man in the striped shirt to join them and asked him to tell his story.

Considering the number of people who were killed in Rwanda and the number convicted of rape, murder or brutality stemming from the genocide, I should not have been surprised to eventually meet someone like Mucyez on the trip. Maybe I had been expecting someone different, someone not so quiet or slight — he was a lean 5-foot-6 — and someone who didn’t make every effort to greet us and thank us for coming when we arrived.

The encounter with Mucyez, however, was my first with someone who openly talked about being a génocidaire, a French adjective used by Rwandans as a noun to describe someone who killed during the genocide.

Mucyez took off his hat and began by saying he had been convicted of killing during the genocide, had served his time and was now living in this small community filled with other convicted murderers. That was all he offered about his past.   

Instead, he focused on how life is vastly different for him 15 years later. Since the 1994 genocide and his release from prison, he has worked with Faith Victory Association to educate others on the dangers of hate and even tries to make amends by working with a neighbor whose family he admits to murdering. He made every effort to convey that he was no longer a génocidaire but a changed and wholesome man.

A woman from the organization spoke on behalf of the surviving neighbor, who wasn't there, relaying his story of sorrow and forgiveness.

Mucyez ended by inviting us to come back and help farm peanuts with him.

Afterward, the men, women and children who had joined us began to shift and reorganize. Some left to go inside the house, returning a short time later with trays of small brown bags, which they offered to each of us. Hesitantly, I reached for one and found it full of peanuts.

We knew we were learning about the genocide, but this level of intimacy with one of its perpetrators was far from what I expected. At the start of this trip, I never thought I'd be sitting with a convicted murderer and his community eating peanuts, but there I was, brown bag in hand, sharing peanuts with the half-dozen children now running around the yard.

We said our goodbyes and made our way back to the bus. The people followed — singing, dancing and waving goodbye.

I have nothing in my life to compare to the experiences of these people, to Mucyez. I don't know what it is like to be ruled by hate for one’s neighbor to the point of murder. I don't know what it is like to suffer like the people in Rwanda have, and I cannot fathom the forgiveness and strength it must take for those who have been wronged.

But I do know that while I listened to a convicted killer tell his story, my new Rwandan friends — our student guides and our professors — whose families had been exterminated or devastated, sat next to me and listened with respect and without interruption.

Nights at the hotel

Our hotel in Kigali had an outside restaurant, and following a long day of classes and field trips, a group of us usually met downstairs after we returned home from dinner. We grabbed a few tables on the back lawn, ordered food or drinks and talked for a few hours before bed.

We gathered under those bright stars as a way to keep our minds off the emotional roller coaster we were on during the day, and it soon became an important reason why we grew so close as friends. Most of the time, we didn't talk about what we had seen and heard during the day. But when we did, we spoke freely, without fear that our naivete would offend our guides and teachers.

Before we left for Rwanda, our professor told us that what we were about to experience would create a firm bond between us. Gallimore shared a story from a few weeks earlier, when she had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She was attending a seminar with a group of other professors, and their interaction had been limited. But that had changed after there was a shooting in the same building. Going through such a traumatic event, Gallimore told us, caused them to become closer.

At that point, looking around the classroom at the eight strangers going on the trip, I found that hard to believe. But late in the evening, in the restaurant outside the hotel, we began to understand and to form the type of bond Gallimore thought we would.

All 20 of us — the group from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the group from MU — grew together in so many ways. We taught each other a lot: about other countries we had visited and other languages we knew, about sports, music and art. The nights at the hotel were a way for us to get together and relax, to share and be ourselves.

We built friendships with the young wait staff at the hotel and our student tour guides from Rwanda. We played UNO, staged silly competitions like who could do the best impressions, quizzed each other on our Kinyarwanda and laughed until we were told the restaurant was closing. Usually, we helped pack up the plastic lawn chairs before calling it a night.

Standing out at a prison

In our second and final week in Rwanda, we traveled about 20 miles to Gitarama Prison. The Rwandan minister of justice, whom we had met earlier in our trip, told us we would be granted access to meet and interview prisoners as part of our research on the genocide.

When our small bus pulled up to the entrance, groups of women and children were walking in and out of the gate. They carried buckets and containers of food for those inside. At first glance, the prison seemed more like an open market than a place responsible for housing almost 7,000 men, women and teenagers. We crowded together before nervously moving inside the prison gate, where we were greeted by one of the young guards.

Visiting friends and family members were lined up on our left, and the prisoners sat quietly on wooden benches to our right. They were dressed in orange or pink jumpsuits; the pink is for those guilty of acts of genocide. The guard told Gallimore we had come during the weekly family visits.

No matter how hard we all tried during the trip, it was difficult not to stick out as a foreigner in Rwanda, and at that moment I felt more alien than I had at any other time. I was walking between these two groups of people, cutting through the middle of a world to which I will never relate.

These families probably lived in small, earthen houses and most likely grew much of their own food; we traveled around in a private bus and returned to Kigali every night to a hotel with Internet, electricity and running water. They have probably never traveled outside of the country; we flew from North America. We carried backpacks with cameras and computers; they had groceries and young children swaddled against their backs. 

The guard rushed us inside an office in a building at the end of the courtyard. Everyone from our group crowded inside while Gallimore and other members of our Rwandan team spoke with the guards in French and Kinyarwanda. I took a seat in a small woven chair in the far corner. Behind me, a blackboard showed a handwritten breakdown in neon chalk of those incarcerated in Gitarama — more than 70 percent for offenses connected to the genocide.

We weren't allowed to meet or interview the Gitarama prisoners, but it was enough for us to be able to walk through a prison courtyard and put faces to people we had been studying for more than a month.

Coming home a changed person

It’s been almost five months since I have returned home from Rwanda, and I still find myself thinking or speaking about my experience any chance I get.

In those two weeks, I established friendships I hope to maintain for many years. Our student guides from Rwanda shared their stories, supported each of us in our exploration of their country and culture. They showed us that this small but populous African country — it's about the size of Maryland and home to 10.5 million people — is defined by much more than genocide. I became close to the other students and professors from MU and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I found a mentor in Rangira Béa Gallimore.

Most of us from MU have tried to stay in close contact despite our busy schedules. We send each other news stories and other interesting articles or Web sites we find relating to Rwanda and our studies from the summer. The eight of us are permanently bound by our once-in-a-lifetime discovery of Rwanda. And we will forever be thankful for Professor Gallimore and her ambition to bring two disparate worlds together.

With her continuing help, a few of us will be returning to Rwanda to work with various organizations — with our own aspirations — to help Rwanda continue to flourish.

Melissa Urscheler is an MU senior studying convergence journalism with a minor in history from O'Fallon, Ill.

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Panama Red December 13, 2009 | 11:36 a.m.

Thank you for sharing...

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Matt Pearce December 13, 2009 | 10:49 p.m.

Good article. Hope the experience also talked about how the press and international community really fell down in allowing the crisis to happen in the first place, because we should still be hanging our heads in shame. Glad you mentioned the Holocaust Museum in D.C.; in 1993, at the museum's dedication, Clinton gave a speech in which he said "this museum is not for the dead alone, nor even for the survivors who have been so beautifully represented; it is perhaps most of all for those of us who were not there at all. To learn the lessons, to deepen our memories and our humanity, and to transmit these lessons from generation to generation." And a year later, he (along with the lot of us) stood with our hands in our pockets as the génocidaires did their work. No room for pride, here. Our work is never done.

Minor quibble, re: when you said the families at the prison "have probably never traveled outside of the country." This might not be totally accurate. The decades of political tension and killings leading up to 1994 had already resulted in a pretty sizable Tutsi diaspora; perhaps more significantly, after the genocide, factor in the exodus of literally hundreds of thousands of Hutus who lived in international refugee camps and destabilized central Africa as a rump political state — all of this being my long-winded way of saying that for a very small country, it's remarkable how exceptionally well-traveled Rwanda's problems were (and still are).

(Report Comment)
michael beahon December 15, 2009 | 12:43 p.m.

Excellent job Melissa. I was in Rwanda for two weeks last June doing volunteer work with Humanity for Children, an organization that has raises $100,000 in Fulton & Callaway County for women's and childrens medical clinics. I have been to Nyamata and will be taking my wife and another volunteer there in May. You described it beautifully; it was the only time in my life that I was speechless for 30 minutes.
Mike Beahon
Fulton, MO

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