Slaughter of innocents in Rwanda

ROBERT Halfon, the Conservative prospective Parliamentary candidate for Harlow, writes about his two-week trip to Rwanda as part of a volunteer project to help a country emerging from the devastation of a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.

GENERAL Dallaire, the former head of the United Nations' peacekeeping force in Rwanda, once said that he believed in God, because in Rwanda he had shaken hands with the devil.

Lifestyle - Robert Halfon in RwandaHe was describing a meeting he had with the Interahamwe (the Hutu extremist militia) that actively participated in the murder and genocide of close to one million Tutsi inhabitants in just 100 days back in 1994.

This was the backdrop to the country I visited for two weeks as part of Project Umabano (Friendship), organised by the Conservative Party. I was one of more than 100 volunteers going to Rwanda to undertake a host of voluntary aid work.

My task was to teach English to English teachers. The Rwandan Education Ministry had arranged for 1,500 teachers from all over the country to go to various schools to be taught by the volunteers.

As I and seven other volunteers arrived at the Fawe boarding school we were all filled with a sense of trepidation. Only one of the volunteers had taught before and we were all worried about our lack of experience and our ability to teach for six solid hours a day. Most of us were revising lesson plans the night before until well after midnight.

Lifestyle - Rwandan bonesDay one began with introductions to our classes. Despite severe nerves we all passed the day relatively successfully. Our teachers were enthusiastic and hungry to learn. Each day started at 8am with a short break at 10am and then teaching until 4pm with some lunch in between. Every day we drilled the teachers with vocabulary, pronunciation and gave them topics to discuss.

For the most part their grammar was excellent and their technical knowledge puts many of us to shame. One of the most moving moments for us came on the first day when we handed every student an English dictionary.

Donated by Longmans, hundreds of dictionaries were flown from Gatwick to Kigali. English dictionaries are rare in Kigali and were treasured by the Rwandan teachers who were quick to write their names on every copy.

Some of us had an assistant teacher, a trainee who was there to learn from our techniques (or lack of them) and to help us in the classroom. My assistant teacher was a remarkable chap called Tom.

A good and wise man, Tom's story epitomised the old and new Rwanda. In 1994, when the genocide began, he was just 12 years old. He and his family fled from the north to a kind of refugee camp in Kigali, thinking it would be safer. One day as the Interahamwe closed in on the camp, Tom fled.

He ran so far that he eventually reached the Rwandan border, crossing over to the Congo where he stayed until the genocide was stopped. To get to the Congo from Kigali is at least a four-five hour car journey so Tom's marathon run was truly heroic. No doubt hiding from the Interahamwe on the way and passing through scenes of the utmost tragedy, he fed himself on the odd piece of fruit or from food given by passers-by.

After the genocide Tom was reunited with his mother and a brother who also had managed to survive. He never saw his father again and to this day has not found out what had happened to him.

Meeting Tom, now 27, you would have never known about his early childhood. His countenance was as cheery as it was determined. He was training to be an English teacher and had been appointed to help me guide my class to better English. He left the training course a day early in order to attend his own wedding.

Lifestyle - Robert Halfon in RwandaHe told me that our class had been regularly punctuated by calls from his anxious bride-to-be and family asking when he was coming home to help prepare for the wedding!

Tom was a true hero, as were many of the Rwandans I met and taught. Given that the genocide happened just 14 years ago, it was incredible to see how forward-looking and progressive so many of them are.

Rwanda has a vision that by 2020 it will be more developed and have a flourishing economy underpinned by the rule of law. Given the way things are going, they might actually achieve these aims.

I was more sure of this after one afternoon when we had a debate on how to stop the genocide from ever happening in Rwanda again. I was nervous about having such a discussion and concerned as to whether it would have a traumatic effect on some of the students. I asked Tom to speak to the class when I was out of the room to check whether they would be happy to debate and work on such a topic. To my surprise all were up for it.

This discussion, even in broken English, proved to be a fascinating one. The student teachers reached a number of conclusions such as urging that commemorative and memorial sites were frequently visited, a respect for human rights and the rule of law. All in all, they showed a huge desire to move positively away from the past.

By the end of the two weeks my teachers had all made some real progress. I had even been inspected by a lady from the Rwandan version of Ofsted. Luckily my teaching skills just about passed her roving eye, especially as she sat in my class taking notes for 40 minutes.

It was a good feeling that, by the end of the two weeks, my students had learned the alphabet, had improved their pronunciation and had a much wider vocabulary. And yet, despite the teaching, which was hard but so enjoyable, I had two of the most harrowing days of my life in Rwanda.

The first was when we visited the memorial museum in Kigali that sets out the story of the genocide, how it was planned and how it happened. The similarities with Nazi Germany are chilling. The Tutsis were first demonised, then marginalised and finally mass murdered.

The museum has hundreds of pictures of the victims and special tombstones for the children. The tombstones describe the children's friends and favourite food and end with cause of death, usually hacked to pieces by machete. But it was the visit to the Marumbi Memorial Centre that really was a place where the devil had visited.

Murambi Memorial is a former school in which the most hideous tragedy occurred at the height of the Rwandan genocide. On April 21-22, 1994, around 50,000 Tutsis were massacred by the Rwandan army, having been baited and attacked by the Interahamwe in the days before. Thousands of Tutsis had gathered in the grounds of the school in the hope of avoiding being slaughtered by the Interahamwe.

For days they lived in terrifying conditions as the water and electricity had been turned off. Many were left drinking the blood of animals in order to try and survive. On April 21 the order was given for an organised and systematic massacre and the army were given licence to kill all the 50,000 Tutsis in just over 48 hours.

We were met by the curator and two survivors of the massacre. Slowly we were led to the back of the school and taken to a row of large huts which had a number of small rooms containing wooden beds on which were large numbers of human skeletons.

In the first room there were adult skeletons, in the second those of babies. Some rooms were just mixed; one contained just skulls and separate bones. The skeletons were all preserved with lime, but even so there was a distinct smell of decay.

As we went into the rooms, one of the survivors stood outside with two rolls of toilet paper in case anyone was sick or reduced to tears.
Another hut was even more harrowing. As the Tutsis were being murdered their clothes were taken away. A large hut with bullet holes in the ceiling contained open shelves full of the clothes of thousands of the victims. It was as if Bergen Belsen had come to the hills of Rwanda.

Having walked through the huts we then saw the mass graves and re-emerged at the front of the memorial to hear two miraculous tales from survivors, both of whom had lost all their family in the massacres. We heard of Interahamwe militia and army personnel drinking banana beer and making goat kebabs close by the school both before and after carrying out the massacres.

The militia saw murdering the Tutsis as a day's work, something to do instead of going to harvest the field for crops. As one commentator has described, in some ways this was an agricultural genocide as the Hutus believed that they could purify the land by ridding
it of Tutsis.

As we left in the bus I thought of man's continued inhumanity to man but also began to think of the survivors, the beautiful rolling hills and the new Rwanda that has emerged from the genocide. I tried to find some optimism in my heart. Everyone knows Rwanda because of the genocide, yet this is a country that is determined to learn from the past rather than live there.

The genocide memorials are places of sensitivity rather than vengeance, designed to inform rather than propagandise. Across the country people are passionate about becoming educated and transforming Rwandan society. The government's own objectives are education, education, education - to unify the country from ethnic division, build a stable and free economy and create some kind of social cohesion.

Added to this is a huge concern for the environment; plastic bags are banned in Rwanda and litter is rare. Where possible glass bottles and other items are recycled. Moreover - and unexpectedly - crime is relatively low. I had no qualms about jumping in a taxi here or even walking main streets at night.

Rwanda is not a country you just visit. It is a place that you can't help be captivated by. Bit by bit you get drawn in to the history, the culture and the people. It is not hard to find beauty yet it is incredible to conceive that a country that has suffered such tragedy so recently has made such strides to transform life for its citizens. In making such progress the Rwandans are determined to show that genocide and ethnic hatred can be defeated, not just in Rwanda but across the world.

It was a remarkable two weeks, both illuminating and tragic as we learnt of the true nature of the genocide. But there is something about Rwanda that gets into your system and the warm smiles and optimism of the people are infectious.
I hope that I helped my English teachers speak the language better, even if only a little. I know that I will return to Rwanda sometime soon, if only to see Tom teach his own schoolchildren perfect English.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
Procurement Consultant
Gsm: +250-08470205
Home: +250-55104140
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East Africa
Blog: http://www.cepgl.blogspot.com
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