April 18, 2017
Betty Gilmore is the director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management at Southern Methodist University. On March 25, she departed for a six-day trip to Rwanda where she helped train Rwandan security forces in dispute resolution. Five SMU students joined her on the trip and spent their time volunteering at boys’ or girls’ schools and visiting memorials to the nation’s 1994 genocide.
Flying over the land of a thousand hills, we were taken aback by the beauty of Rwanda. It was hard to imagine that only 23 years ago, over 800,000 minority Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered in a genocide that would last 100 days. Driving to our hotel, we thought of the terror that took place on these very roads.
The silent memories that existed in the backdrop of astounding scenery were one of the paradoxes that we would experience. It was the beginning of our team’s collective experience with the Rwandan people that would forever change us.
Our first day, we visited a church in Nyamata, the site of a massacre and where 50,000 people were buried. Although we thought we were prepared for what we were about to see, we were wrong.
We saw clothes and belongings of the victims. Most striking to me was a tiny lone shoe from a toddler nestled among the piles. In another part of the church, stains marked the spots where infants were murdered. Our guide's pain in telling the story was palpable.
We saw two memorials that detailed the genocide’s atrocities in graphic detail. I was disheartened as we walked through these memorials to know that atrocities like what had befallen Rwanda continue to plague the world. Will we forever be building memorials and visiting them? Or will we find ways to prevent these conflicts, work through our apathy and do the right thing by our global community?
Inaction is action. Standing by and allowing human suffering, we allow history to be repeated and deny our humanity. When will we learn? I left some of the hope I had for a loving world in these memorials.
If our first day was about tragedy, our first night was about hope.
Map courtesy of CIA Factbook
Rwanda has established several forgiveness and reconciliation villages that mirror the restorative approach the country has adopted to rebuild unity in the community. Survivors and transgressors live together in a spirit of forgiveness and restoration. When we pulled into one of these villages, we were immediately greeted by children who were beyond happy to see us. They had very few material belongings, but one of the characteristics that stood out was the joy that emanated from them. What an incredible contrast from the sites we had visited!
We heard the testimonies of people from both sides of the conflict. Survivors told of how they learned to forgive. And those who participated in the murders, most who have served time in prison for their crimes, spoke of making a living amends. Humility was a common theme in their stories.
One woman sat silently in her tears while we were having these conversations. Another survivor talked about how hard it is, on a daily basis, to forgive those who harmed her family members. Trauma and unity bind together. Although we left with heavy hearts, we were both astounded and inspired by the resiliency, hope and unfathomable strength that we were seeing in the Rwandan people.
The following day, our team members went their separate ways on their respective missions. We held on to the hope, inspiration and amazement that was passed to us the day before.
I felt incredibly privileged to train the Security Forces with my colleagues Dr. Ben Voth, from SMU, and Lori Anne Shaw, from ACU. Our mission, over three days, was to provide training in leadership, conflict resolution, and communication.
We built on the existing skills of these officers, enabling them to use their words instead of weapons to exert leadership in their communities, encourage unity, and transform conflicts. The participants, who have all been impacted by the genocide on various levels, demonstrated joy and strength. There was singing, laughter, pride, hard work and dedication. They shared traumatic experiences through difficult conversations. Their stories echoed the spirit of unity and reconciliation that is the pride of Rwanda.
Memories paralyze many survivors in Rwanda, and they remain silent. For some, forgiveness is not within their reach. There is still so much pain and so much need for trauma healing. However, all have found ways to move forward or to merely exist, despite it.
I believe that we learned more from the Rwandan people than they learned from us. Despite unthinkable adversity, there are many areas in which the country is thriving. The entire nation has committed to sustainable peace.
What touched me most was the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of people who have caused such harm to each other to come together to rebuild a nation. I hope that we can all learn from the gift they have given us with their example. If a country learning to forgive under such extreme conditions can heal, why can’t we? We must put aside our differences, look for the things that unite us, and realize that we are better together.
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