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Travel Spotlight

A professor discusses her experience in Rwanda

by Alison Fletcher


Over spring break, I traveled for ten days to Rwanda, accompanied by Celia Cook-Huffman, who is a professor in Peace and Conflict Studies, and Lily Kruglak, who graduated from Juniata last year. We were exploring the feasibility of starting a 3-week summer study-abroad program beginning in 2013, and then later possibly a full-semester study-abroad program. When I came to Juniata five years ago, the department asked me to develop classes on African history. Students can now study southern Africa and women in sub-Saharan Africa.  I have also an interest in developing genocide studies on the campus.  Importantly, Lily had spent a semester in Rwanda in the spring of 2010. It was her knowledge of the country and her contacts on the ground that made the visit possible.

Rwanda, a small country in the Central Lakes region of sub-Saharan Africa, was devastated in the early 1990s by civil war and by genocide, which was one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. Beginning in April 1994, an interim government orchestrated the systematic massacre of up to a million Rwandans, both Tutsis and politically moderate Hutu, in an attempt to hold onto political power. Recent studies of the Rwandan genocide have argued that it was not caused by “ancient” hatreds between the two ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu. Rather, these groups shared the same culture and language (Kinyarwanda), they intermarried, and they acknowledged the rule of a single sacred king. In the 1930s, the colonial power Belgium introduced identity cards that differentiated between the two ethnic groups, and policies that socially and economically favored the Tutsi. Over time this led to Hutu resentment, and in 1959 more than 20,000 Tutsi were killed.  In 1962, Rwanda became an independent nation under a Hutu-led government, and many Tutsis fled into exile to neighboring countries. There, they formed a political military organization called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—with the aim of eventually securing the right to return home.

For 21 years from 1973 until 1994, the president of Rwanda was a Hutu called Juvenal Habyarimana. Initially he was very popular, but by the 1990s the country was struggling economically and the FPR led by Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda, began to invade northern Rwanda. The civil war destabilized the country and led to the creation of a militia known as the interhamwe.  In August 1993, after months of negotiation, a peace accord was signed between Habyarimana and the RPF—but it did little to stop the continuing unrest. The spark that set Rwanda ablaze occurred at the beginning of April 1994, when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and Hutu political elites in the capital Kigali mobilized the interhamwe to begin the genocide.

In the last 17 years, Rwanda has made significant progress in many ways. We found the country incredible safe and easy to navigate.  While we were in Rwanda, we met with the leaders of a number of organizations including the Center for Conflict Management, which provides a bridge between scholarly research and policy initiatives in the Great Lakes region; Never Again, a youth-focused human rights and peace-building organization; and Rwandan representatives of the School for International Training (SIT), a Vermont based educational program with extensive experience in Rwanda. We had several very interesting meetings with Dr. Manasse Mbyonye, the new Vice-Rector of Academic Programs at the National University in Butare. He is a physicist who has just returned to the country after years of teaching in the U.S. We found him very interested in establishing exchange relationships and in helping us develop programs in Rwanda. We talked to Rwandan students, visited memorials, talked with survivors of the genocide, and generally tried to get a feel for the country and the people.  We ended the trip by spending a day on safari, something that we felt students would enjoy and therefore we felt we needed to test the experience for ourselves!

Visiting Rwanda will provide students with a range of opportunities to explore a variety of issues, including: the causes and consequences of genocide, gender and peacebuilding, transitional justice, healing and reconciliation, media and violence, the role of imperialism, and the ethics and efficacy of local vs. international peace efforts. In 2010, when Lily returned to Juniata after spending four months in Rwanda, she was determined to raise awareness on the campus about genocide. On her own initiative, Lily ran a week-long program of events, speakers, and activities that has provided a model for the college community to follow. This year, the chair of the Genocide Awareness and Action week is Jennifer Ruglio, and the highlight of the week is a public lecture by Eugenie Mukeshimana, who is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Eugenie has a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, and she created the Genocide Survivors Support Network (GSSN) to support genocide survivors and to help them rebuild their lives.