A Year Abroad

China, Uganda, and Rwanda

Coming Home

Despite still thinking I smell Murambi every now and then, even after being back in the United States, that isn’t the smell that I associate with Rwanda. To me, Rwanda smelled like tea plants, eucalyptus trees, and rainstorms. Uganda smelled like dust and sun-burnt sweet grass. Over the last four months I took hundreds of pictures, managed to capture some of what I saw, but there is no similar mechanism to capture what I smelled. Scent is a powerful link to memory, and I wonder what memories have settled to the back of my mind without the smells of Rwanda around me anymore.

My first month in Uganda I smelled like sweat, dust, bug-spray, suntan lotion, and hand sanitizer. We all did. Eventually we gave up on the hand sanitizer, suntan lotion, and bug-spray one after the other. All that remained was the smell of sweat and dust, and then just sweat when the rainy season started. While initially happy to once again be surrounded by fruity shampoo and sweet smelling lotions when I returned home, within a few days I was absurdly sad that I no longer smelled like bug-spray. It was as if that little change back to normalcy, to who I was before I left, foretold a more dramatic and significant return.

Despite all the writing I did this semester, both for this blog and for myself, I still feel at a loss how to tell others about my experience and what I’ve learned. Since I’ve been home I’ve gotten the questions “how was Uganda/Rwanda?” and “what was your favorite part?” a lot. I normally respond “beautiful” or “phenomenal” to the first question and “the people I met” to the second. While my standard answers are true, they also fall short of expressing the magnitude of the last four months or my desire to share what I learned. But the questions are so big, the answers even bigger, and I don’t know what else to say. I mean, it’s a little harder to drop into conversation “the genocide in Rwanda lasted 103 days, I was in East Africa for just over that amount of time,” which makes no sense to mention, but somehow seems significant to me. I haven’t figured out how to talk about the memorials in a short conversation. I feel like I either end up glossing over the difficult parts in order to deliver my conclusion, that memorials are somehow beautiful, or making it sound like all we did was go to memorial after memorial and saw skulls, after bodies, after more bones. It feels wrong to have any conversation about Rwanda and not talk about the memorials, like the tourists who go to Rwanda for gorilla trekking but don’t want to bother with the “depressing stuff”.

I miss Rwanda, which isn’t exactly what people want to hear when they ask “how does it feel to be back?” I am happy to be home. I’m even happier that I now have the opportunity to share this experience with the people who matter most to me in the world.

I guess this is where this blog ends. There are still things I need to process, parts of re-entry that don’t make sense. It isn’t so much that being back is hard, but that the things that were difficult to process or took time to deal with in Rwanda now need to be re-processed again now that I’m no longer in Rwanda. But I’m home now, which means that all be having these conversations in person, rather than via blog. I started this blog as a way to keep in touch with people, to let them know what I was doing half the world away. It ended up meaning a lot more to me than that. Just knowing that I was going to be writing about experiences later made me frame things differently in the moment. I think I had a better experience abroad because I always had the thought in the back of my mind, “how am I going to share this, what story am I going to tell?” It forced me to think through each experience I had, not just the ones that eventually became full posts. For every post, for every story, there were so many more that didn’t make it into this blog. Unfortunately, more often than not, the happy stories got the short end of the stick.

This is also where I say ‘thank you’. Thank you to everyone for their support, for only thinking I was mildly insane for embarking on this year of international adventures. Thank you for taking the time to read about my year, for giving me a space to ramble, and for your feedback.

Who knows, maybe this blog will get a second life sometime in the future. There is so much of the world left to see…


Letter to Self

One of the first things we did during orientation was write a letter to ourselves. I pretty much forgot about mine and when the envelope ended up back in my possession four months later I couldn’t remember what I’d written for the life of me. This was my letter to myself.

“OK Self-here’s the deal,

You did it. You had a lot of fears going into this, but if you’re reading this, you made it. So no matter how the program goes, feel good about that. You were worried about what you could handle, worried that you would let people down if it wasn’t the super awesome adventure you thought it would be, you were worried about what it would say about you if you couldn’t get past yourself and you made this a purely selfish experience. I hope you had a good time, learned a lot, made wonderful friends, and maybe even found a new part of yourself. If not, that’s OK. A really smart lady once told you that just because you couldn’t do something didn’t make it a failure. So be proud of what you did do, and if you’re disappointed by how anything turned out, just keep trying. As your roommate would say, ‘think positive!’”

It’s hard to remember that I had so many fears at the start of the program, fears that I didn’t voice, for the most part. I’ve been back for a week and already the lack of warm showers and the often dubious bathrooms have faded away and the good memories push to the forefront of my brain. My experience in Uganda and Rwanda was so overwhelmingly positive that all the uncertainty of the first few days seems to have melted out of existence. Even though I’m back home, I still have so many things left to say, so many stories I didn’t share. Even though this is technically the end of my year abroad, I’ll probably do a few more updates once I’ve gained a little distance from the experience. But for now, I’ll end this post with one more little story. Two weeks before I left I got back in touch with my Ugandan host family. I’d been out of touch since I left them, for various reasons, but I wanted to make sure I got a chance to talk to them before I went home. I learned that my host mother, who had been seven months pregnant at the time I was living with them, had given birth to a baby girl. They named her Liliana.


Leaving Rwanda

My last week in Rwanda involved an exorbitant amount of driving on top of an already heavy driving week the week before. The nine of us that had done our ISP in Rwanda, or The Fellowship as I’d come to call us, if only in my mind, drove the longer way from Kigali to Kampala with Stephanie and Lee. We stopped to spend a day in Queen Elizabeth Park to see an assortment of animals and have sessions about re-entry shock before resuming our arduous drive.IMG_5412

As the mountains of Rwanda flattened into the grasslands of Uganda, we could see for miles on end until the ever more distant mountains blocked our view. Even though I knew I’d be returning to Rwanda in just a few days, it still felt like goodbye. For most of my fellow students, it was goodbye. A few days later, when nearly everyone was either already home or on a flight, I began my trip back to Rwanda, this time with my dad in tow. We rode back with Stephanie and Lee, taking the shorter 10-hour drive to Kigali rather than the three-day trip that brought us up to Kampala. I’d managed to put off goodbye for a little longer.

Although a small country, there was no way to see all of Rwanda in just one week. My dad and I made the decision early on to skip Volcanoes National Park and gorilla trekking, saying ‘next time’ in the hope that we would one day soon return to Rwanda. We started in Kigali, going to the memorial center before catching our first bus. We traveled west for six hours, eventually reaching Nyungwe Forest National Park, where we saw black colobus monkeys and hiked to a somewhat nearby waterfall. We easily could have spent the entire week there, hiking and enjoying the serene beauty of the forest, but we caught our scheduled bus back to Kigali the next day. IMG_0116I’d slept for most of the way to Nyungwe, but on the return trip I managed to keep my eyes open for the better part of three hours. During that time we passed by nearly ten memorials, and that was just counting those visible from the road and those on my side of the bus. I know of two others we passed, Murambi and the memorial at the National University, both just out of sight from the road we were on. I can’t imagine how many memorials we passed without even realizing what we were driving by.

The next day we met up with Lee, his wife, and their two ridiculously cute kids for a game drive in Akagera National Park in Eastern Rwanda, just at the border with Tanzania. The zebras and giraffes came startlingly near to the car, and although the animals remained completely unfazed, we humans were completely giddy at the close proximity. I’d seen elephants and hippos up close and even one lion way off in the distance at Queen Elizabeth Park, but seeing the zebras was the most exciting part, if only so I could take a picture of my grandmother’s favorite animal for her. IMG_0166

I went back to Murambi, this time with my dad, at Lee’s suggestion. I think you need to be a certain kind of crazy to go back to that place. The most upsetting part on the return might have been that it wasn’t all that upsetting the second time around. For the last two months, sometime after the images from Murambi began to lose their sharpness, I’d catch a phantom whiff of the terrible smell of decay that would take me back to standing in those rooms. At times, it was nearly panic inducing. Being back in Murambi, the images were still gruesome, the actuality of what happened even more gruesome, but physically standing in those rooms again I found an odd kind of peace. At the same time, I also didn’t dare breathe. My dad had been to Cambodia, seen the school-turned-torture center, and handled Murambi with far more grace than I think most people would.

Then we got on yet another bus and traveled to Kibuye, to Lake Kivu. The weather wasn’t wonderful, but the lake was beautiful as always. Ever since driving up to Kibuye during Commemoration Week I’d wanted to visit the memorial in the church. It didn’t feel right going during Commemoration Week, when those who had survived but lost loved ones in that church would be mourning there, but before my dad and I caught the bus back the Kigali we stopped by. It was a beautiful church, still holding services as well as acting as a memorial.

IMG_0427One of the things I wasn’t expecting out of this program was to ever find the memorials in Rwanda comforting, especially after how difficult the three weeks we spent visiting memorials were. I found in my last week in Rwanda I wanted to visit as many memorials as possible. Back at the start of the Rwanda program, I thought Lee was crazy when he told me he finds some measure of comfort in memorials when they only seemed like they’d be re-traumatizing, but I think I get it a little better now. I’ve come to enjoy going to memorials, not because it is a pleasant topic, but because it is an honor to stand there and remember. After seeing how the international community so spectacularly failed Rwanda, I felt an obligation to see as much as possible and learn as much as possible so I could take it back with me. I forced myself through Murambi, then through the next memorial, but somewhere along the way my perception of going to memorials and being in Rwanda shifted from an obligation to a privilege. I thought that all the talk we did of ‘bearing witness’ was just a way to make ourselves feel a little better about the fact that we couldn’t really do much while we were here learning, but there is a power to being present. There is also power in action, which I hope will be the next step when I come home.

IMG_0429The day we left Rwanda we first went to Nyanza Hill. It was out of the way, not really in the city center, and one of the few places in Kigali I didn’t know how to get to by bus. I could’ve asked Lee, but I didn’t. As much as I was going to the memorial for Lee as well as for me, I didn’t need him to know that. So I went to the Nyanza Memorial with my dad and stood on the hill where Lee’s family had been killed. Although very open and willing to answer questions, I hardly asked Lee about his experience in the genocide or his family. There is an odd kind of hope that he doesn’t think about it every moment of every day, and I never wanted to be the one to bring it up. So I thought about the little he had said, about the kind of person he is, and imagined who his family might have been. The absolute waste of it all is the resounding answer I always come back to in all the empty space left behind.

By the end of the week it felt like we had at least gotten a somewhat complete representation of Rwanda. We’d hiked the mountains, traveled the Savannah, seen some exotic animals, visited just a few of the memorials, and enjoyed the lake. Then it was time to say goodbye and start the journey home.

I watched the lights of Kigali begin to fade away. Within no time, the little circle of lights resembled nothing more than a particularly uninspired Lite Brite picture. At night, far above the ground, the rolling hills looked a lot like water, belying Rwanda’s landlocked status. The single dots of light scattered across the terrain conjured up the image of ships at sea. I twisted in my seat, watching the little blinking city lights until they disappeared. It’s goodbye, but only for a little while.

ISP and the Last Month

The last month, my month of independent study, went by so fast I’m surprised I don’t have whiplash. Somehow, inexplicably, I’m back in Kampala and only a day away from the completion of my course. For those of you going ‘wait, Lily isn’t due back for another two weeks,’ you’re not wrong. Shortly after arriving in East Africa, I decided that I wanted to travel around after the program ended. It became clear very early on that while I would be in Uganda for over a month and in Rwanda for over two months, I wouldn’t have the free time to see much of either country. So while my compatriots head back off home, I’ll be staying. I’ll be staying because I can’t imagine leaving.

Of course, I will leave. In just over two weeks I’ll be on a plane back home. Although that isn’t much time and despite how quickly the rest of my three and a half months have gone by, going home seems far off and distant. I can’t really explain how ‘normal’ Rwanda began to feel. After living in Rwanda for a month with my host family I lived in Rwanda for another month, mostly in Kigali and mostly on my own, conducting research into the role of media in peacebuilding. I made phone calls, set up interviews, I wrote a big-ass paper, and then I presented it. Nearly all of those things are things that terrify me. I hate talking on the phone, I hardly ever feel like I have questions to ask, I’ve never written more than a 15 page paper, and I HATE public speaking. I never imagined that I’d want to peruse scholarly research to any ends other than graduating college and then maybe getting my masters. The biggest surprise of this program may be that this little taste of research has left me craving more. I didn’t feel too awkward calling people I didn’t know, after the first two interviews I found it was no longer nerve-wracking, I finished the paper with copious amounts of coffee, and once I got past the first two minutes of the presentation, the last 15 were a breeze.

We’ve had a lot of end-of-the-program processing in the last week, probably more than I’d like. It is hard to say how I’ve changed or will change as a result of this experience. I don’t really feel qualified to say just yet. Most things people said, gaining confidence and independence they didn’t know they had, were things I felt I got out of China. That is the benefit of studying or living abroad, figuring out how to do things without the support network you’re accustomed to.

I don’t know what I got out of East Africa other than a desire to come back. The issues we studied, the involvement of the LRA in Gulu and the genocide in Rwanda, are things that really matter to me now, in the selfish way where they matter because I now know people that directly feel the impact of those events. But maybe, maybe other things will matter more too. Maybe things happening in far off places will matter not because I know the people it is happening to, but because they are the people I have yet to meet. They are the potential, they are the future. I don’t know them now, but maybe someday I will. I guess I feel more connected to things, if I had to put it into words.

There is this idea in psychology and peacebuilding called the ’sphere of concern’. Basically, it says you’ll do anything for the people in your most intimate sphere of concern. Most times that means your family. Broaden that a little and it means that for your close friends, there is nothing you wouldn’t do. For other people you know, you might do something. For your country, maybe a little less. For the rest of the world, not all that much. For those inside your sphere of concern, the level of self-sacrifice is inspiring. For those outside your sphere of concern, the level of apathy is depressing.

Uganda and Rwanda are outside our sphere of concern. During the genocide in Rwanda, the international community didn’t intervene because Rwanda posed no tactical significance. In Gulu, where the LRA terrorized the population for years, even in the capital no one was overly concerned. For us, these are far away places. When they are out of the news cycle, there is nothing to remind us of the ongoing problems.

And there is more to say, so much more to say, but I’m distracted right now. I’m sitting in the hotel in Kampala, having reunited with my friends from the other group for the first time in a month, and I’m listening to beautiful church singing. Tomorrow, I’ll be saying goodbye to these friends, but for today we can have fun and remember the incredible journey we took together. The first days, in this same hotel, we all felt completely overwhelmed and confused as to why we thought coming here was a good idea. Now, with confidence, we set off to the markets of Kampala today, then the airport tomorrow, and then the rest of the world after that.

I would have thought, after seeing the aftermath of so much death and violence, that I’d have a more negative view of the world. I think I might be more optimistic. Our failures show where we could succeed next time. If we widen that sphere of concern, we could do so much.


Commemoration Week

I knew Lee was a survivor before I met him. When the Uganda group and Rwanda group met up five weeks after the start of the program to switch places, we exchanged some stories as well. All of the Rwanda group talked about Lee with affection, but they never said exactly what it was that he told them about his experience in 1994.

“He later told us that he was so nervous to talk to us, that he isn’t used to telling people he’s come to care about,” said one girl.

“I just wanted to give him a hug when he was done,” said another girl.

For the next month, bits and pieces of his story came out through casual conversations. He was driving me down the muddy road to my house when he talked about what happened to his family for the first time. Like most personal conversations about the genocide, it emerged seemingly randomly, triggered by some connection intangible to those who didn’t live through the genocide.

“I was walking this way yesterday and a truck went by quickly and I got splashed with mud. My feet were already so dirty and now the rest of me was too. My host family couldn’t believe it when I got home.” I told him as he drove.

“Oh! I’m sorry.”

“It was pretty funny, nothing terrible. You just have to laugh at it.”

“See! This is why I laugh. You have to laugh at these things. Like these guys in TIG who say so casually ‘I killed 8 people’. I have to laugh, because who knows, maybe they killed my mother, maybe they killed my father. I don’t know, I’ll never know. So I have to laugh.”

It confirmed what I’d suspected, that his ubiquitous laugh and giggle were not superficial at all, but came from some deeper need to find something in life instead of anger.

The entire group left Kigali the day before the beginning of Commemoration Week, the anniversary of the start of the genocide. No public transportation ran on April 7th anyway, so it would have been impossible to have classes. Instead, we traveled up to Kibuye on the 6th to spend our last few days together by the lake before our independent study projects would scatter us across Uganda and Rwanda. Instead of planning to spend Commemoration Week with his remaining family, Lee made the three-hour drive with us. However, almost immediately upon arriving in Kibuye, Lee had to drive back to Kigali. Something had come up. We didn’t see him again until we returned Kigali two days later and he came to meet us when our car broke down. What we’d missed while we sunbathed in Kibuye became immediately apparent upon our arrival. In Kigali the air was heavy with something other than humidity, a kind of palpable communal grief. And for the first time in the few weeks I’d known him, Lee looked like he’d lived through the pain genocide leaves behind.

“I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.” Lee had told me a few days before, “I knew I felt sad but somehow I didn’t connect it to Commemoration Week for a while.”

At the time he looked like he always did, lounging in the office, serene and smiling. In the parking lot in Kigali though, he looked worn down and tired. He hadn’t expected to see us that day and had the car not broken down, we might never have seen what remembering did to him.

The next morning he attended our lectures, smiling as usual.

“I don’t know if you know,” our lecturer said, patting Lee’s leg, “but this man here is a survivor.”

Lee’s smile froze on his face and his jaw clenched.

“Most survivors, they don’t just have one story of how they survived, but several. You don’t just survive once.”

For the next few minutes Lee bit his lip as our lecturer began to speak about post-1994 politics.

In the afternoon we all rushed back from lunch, knowing Lee’s lecture, our final lecture, was next.

“For my testimony, I’m going to read it to you. I find, when survivors speak about this, they can get angry and say things that maybe they don’t really mean, or maybe they mean but don’t want to be the parts you take away from our experience.”

He read it like a child reading an assignment out loud, a little stilted, like the words he wrote down were somehow unfamiliar to him. It was like he was trying to read it on automatic, wanting us to get something out of his experience, but not wanting to think about it himself. It didn’t take long for his pauses between thoughts to increase, for the emotion to begin to surface.

“Some time ago I was told that my father was killed on the 9th. So I’m speaking to you today on the anniversary of his death. Personally, I know 86 people who were killed. This includes my immediate family, my extended family, friends, and neighbors. From my family, only one brother and one sister survived. When I made it out of Rwanda, I didn’t think anyone had survived. “

“The day I remember most is the day the UN left us, April 11th. We were taking refuge in the school my father used to teach at, 4,000 of us. The Hutu militia was outside, but we felt safest inside the school since the UN was there protecting us. We hadn’t had anything to eat for days, so when the UN soldiers told us to exit the rooms so they could distribute food, we did. They locked the doors behind us, made us evacuate knowing what was waiting for us outside. They had their orders, and they left us. A large group tried to escape together, some 2,000 people, thinking they could overwhelm the militia with their numbers. But they got rounded up and were marched to Nyanza hill. That night they were all killed. My brother was killed and so was his wife, who was 8 months pregnant at the time.”

Lee paused and looked at us. For a moment, he sounded like Lee again as he spoke to us.

“On Sunday, as part of Commemoration Week, a group is walking from the school to the hill, where they’ll spend the night. For those of you who will still be in Rwanda, I’d like to invite you to join us, if you want to come.”

Then Lee continued reading.

“I hid. That’s how I survived. I hid and went from bush to bush. I passed by the hill where everyone was killed. When you run, you don’t feel like a person anymore. They hunt you like animals. And the worst part, worse than the smell of the dead bodies, your family, worse than the sound of the guns and machetes, of the people crying out as they died, was the sound of the killers. They were singing. They were enjoying killing.”

Then, Lee deviated from his script once more. His voice opened up, he opened up, and the emotion he’d been pressing down seemed to lift out of him.

“I want you to know, when I left Kibuye, I wasn’t running away from you guys. Even though it was Commemoration Week, I was happy to spend it with you. But I got a call saying they might have some information about where my mother was buried. So I had to run back to Kigali. I spent the whole day digging, but we didn’t find anything.”

Though he spoke calmly, he spoke genuinely, exposing how fresh the wounds of genocide still are 16 years later. For a moment, he couldn’t help but let us see how not being able to lay his mother to rest properly and respectfully still has a hold on him when he stops long enough to think about it.

“It isn’t enough to just live. Being a survivor isn’t about living, it is about helping someone else survive too. I want you to know, you are never small. Whenever you see something you know is wrong, you are never too small to do something. Genocide doesn’t just stop. The killers didn’t just decide that they were tired of killing; someone had to make them stop. The international community didn’t do anything, but I see you here, wanting to learn about what happened to us, and it gives me hope.”

Lee finished his personal testimony and then moved on to his lecture on memorials and the politics of memory. This time, he didn’t read from a script and sounded like his normal engaging self. He told us so much that afternoon, but like our morning lecturer said, when you survive, you don’t just survive once. There was so much he didn’t say.

He didn’t say that not even two weeks after the genocide started he turned 22. He was probably in the bush, struggling to survive on his birthday. He didn’t say that he knows who killed his mother, that his childhood best friend was the person who ended her life. For every detail about his experience in 1994 that Lee told us about, there are undoubtedly 100 more equally horrific ones that he left out.

Unlike the other group, after Lee’s lecture those of us who’d grown close to him in the last month found time to thank him individually and to give him a hug. For all the support he’d shown us over our time in Rwanda, our attempts to give him some measure of comfort in return seemed to fall exceptionally short. When those of us conducting our research in Rwanda threw Lee a surprise birthday party two weeks later, brought out the homemade cake and saw how the unexpected gesture touched Lee, we realized that maybe we might somehow be part of Lee’s healing process too.

Sometimes, it’s hard to look at Lee and remember what he went through. The majority of the time he doesn’t walk around with the full horror of the genocide radiating off of him in painful energy. Most of the time he is just a guy who has amazingly insightful comments to share and more warmth and compassion then most 10 people put together, not the 22-year-old that survived a nightmare and had every trust broken and felt every betrayal of humanity. It’s hard to think of him as ever being incredibly sad when he spends most of his time laughing.

The day of the commemoration walk I called Lee to get the details. We all wanted to go and support him, even if we didn’t walk with him and even if he never saw us. He sounded exhausted over the phone and explained that he didn’t feel up to walking. Almost in the same breath, he told us he’d pick us up in 45 minutes in order to meet Sarah at the bus stop. A grenade had been thrown at the bus stop the night before, the third grenade attack in two months. Since we were going to the bus park during the day and all the attacks had happened after dark, there was no danger and we tried to tell Lee that it wasn’t necessary for him to pick us up, not wanting to burden him any more, but he wanted the distraction.

He ended up hanging out with us for the better part of the afternoon, since we got news that Sarah would be late, due to the engine of her bus catching fire. He drove us to pick up gas so we’d be able to cook and then we retreated to the house that the five of us were renting during our ISPs. We practiced cartwheels on the lawn and took turns on the tire swing as Lee pushed us. By the end of the afternoon, he seemed more like Lee than the solemn stranger that had arrived at the house several hours before. By the end of Commemoration Week, the only thing left behind to hint at the sadness that lives somewhere within Lee were our memories.

Earthquake in Yushu

There isn’t much more to say than that. Over 1,000 reported dead and I expect that number to at least double in the next few days. Yushu is such a remote area, I have no idea how aid will get to the people who need it. I got to Yushu by plane, but the airport is damaged. The other option is by road, 24 hours of bad roads before the earthquake, now undoubtedly more unmanagable.

Yushu is harsh under the best circumstances. High altitude, windy as all get out, frigid. Now, with little shelter remaining undamaged, no electricity and no running water, I wonder how people are going to pull through this. The Chinese government is starting relief efforts, but this is a corner of the world that really couldn’t afford any set backs. Their already frail infrastructure is now further damaged. And due to political tensions, very few NGOs operate out of the area. I worry what will happen in two weeks, when the earthquake in Yushu has slipped out of the news cycle.

This is the place I remember:


IMG_1796 IMG_1794


I Bless the Rains Down in Africa

Two weeks and three memorials into our Rwanda experience, we were nearly burned out. Lee suggested a pizza and movie night for the following Monday to alleviate the mounting stress, but for a few of us that break seemed too far away. So Friday afternoon, after a day full of lectures about the justice systems set up to deal with the aftermath of the genocide, eight of us jumped on a bus to Gisenyi. Although assignments were beginning to pile-up, we decided that we needed a mini spring break more and chilling out by Lake Kivu seemed like the perfect place to leave the genocide behind, just for a little bit. We were scheduled to see another memorial on Monday and I was desperate to prove, if only to myself, that I did more than visit memorials while in Rwanda. But Lee’s last comment of the day followed me onto the bus: “there is no justice after genocide”.

After three hours of nauseatingly windy roads, we arrived in Gisenyi. We arrived at the bus station without any idea where our guesthouse was located, and the pitch black darkness of the night did little to help us find our way. And it was pouring. We managed to find the Presbyterian Guesthouse with the help of some people also taking shelter from the rain at the bus station. Only half our group had rainwear with them, and I was not part of that lucky half, and most of us arrived completely drenched. Deena arrived with her backpack unzipped, the only evidence of an attempted pickpocket. Apparently the thief didn’t want her toothbrush all that much.

The next day wasn’t bright and sunny, but it was nice enough to go to the beach. It turns out you can’t go anywhere in Rwanda and hope to leave the genocide behind. Even if I hadn’t selected ‘The Media and the Rwanda Genocide’ as my light beach read, there is nowhere you can go where people weren’t brutally killed. In that sense, all of Rwanda is a memorial. Still, as we lay out on the beach, we tried to forget. When I swam, I didn’t think about all the people who were dumped into the lake, and when we indulged in western food served to us right on the beach, I didn’t think about the survivors who spent weeks hiding out in the bush, starving. Well, I didn’t think about it much.

After struggling with Murambi for the better part of a week, which in hindsight isn’t all that long, I began to make my peace with it when I realized that, naturally, the key to it all is balance. I don’t want to forget Murambi or any or my experiences just because remembering is painful. It would be a dishonor to the people who died and a disservice to the people who survived. But at the same time, you can’t dwell on it. Life goes on.

When the sun was spent and the rain began to fall, we left the beach. That night in the guesthouse, hardly able to stand the feeling of cloth against our burned bodies, we laughed at our shared pain as we passed a bottle of wine around. We woke to the sound of singing from the nearby church and breathed in the fresh morning air, the kind of clean that only follows a downpour.

A little lighter than when we’d left, we returned to Kigali, to the topic we’d come to Rwanda to study. The next day, only a week after Murambi, we visited another genocide site turned memorial. This time it was a church.

“Were there any survivors?” I asked Lee as we walked up the pathway.

“Probably,” he responded. “There are almost always survivors.”

He pointed to a house just beyond the fence.

“You see over there? The woman who lived right there used to talk to people who came here, would tell her story, how she survived. But then her name came up in Gacaca. She wasn’t a survivor at all; she was a killer.”

He laughed, and somehow it wasn’t bitter

Inside the church bones lined the shelves, skulls and femurs, pelvises and bones I couldn’t identify. 5,000 people were butchered in the church, but the only evidence that remained were their bones, their clothes hung up in the rafters, and their few possessions piled in a corner along with the left behind machetes. It was disconcertingly, hauntingly beautiful.
Unlike Murambi, where I tried to take it all in, inside the church I waited and looked for one moment to connect to, one moment to remember rather than remember it all. I watched Lee look at the skulls, wondering, not for the first time, how he could force himself to come back, again and again. Like the Kigali Memorial Center and Murambi, Lee had a part in preserving the church and making it into a memorial. He reached into the sea of skulls and tenderly pulled one up and gently rearranged it, preventing it from falling through the grating. Lee, once again making sure no one ever fell through the cracks. His face was grim, jaw clenched, as he wiped his hand on his pants. Unlike in Murambi, where the bodies wore sickening expressions, skulls don’t have faces. At least, to me they don’t. The way Lee looked at the skulls, I don’t doubt for him, they all have faces. He left the church and I wondered, with him looking out for all of us, who was looking after him. By the time I made it to the door he was already halfway up the hill.

He caught up with me outside the church, half an hour later.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m ok.”

Somewhere along the way, he’d stopped believing me when I said “I’m fine” or “I’m ok”, but that didn’t stop him from asking.

“You know, this memorial does something to me, makes my stomach sick.”

“Is this the hardest one for you?” I asked.

“No, that’s Murambi. But it’s easy to see why Murambi is so hard. But this one,” he made a face, “this one just does something.”

“Lee, can I ask you something?”

“Lily, I said you can talk to me about anything. That means you can ask me anything too.”

“Why do you keep coming back here, to memorials, I mean, when they’re so difficult?”

“I think if I didn’t go to memorials I’d go crazy. If there were no memorials and you came to Rwanda, you might not know anything happened. The killings have stopped, people are living together, but terrible things happened here. Memorials are important; I need them to survive.”

It was Lee who said you can hardly step foot in Rwanda without stepping where someone was killed, Lee who set up so many memorials to make sure people would remember, so it would never happen again. All of Rwanda could be a memorial, but it isn’t. Just like the Gacaca court system was set up to speed up trial and reintegrate genocide perpetrators into society because you can’t turn an entire country into a jail, you can’t turn an entire county into a memorial and move forward at the same time.

After the memorial we went back to the SIT office, ate pizza and watched a stupid romantic comedy. The movie was made all the more hilarious by the terrible subtitles and we laughed our tension away. For all the difficult experiences there have been amazing ones too. That night, we didn’t forget what we saw, just like we will never forget any of our experiences in Rwanda, but we felt life go on, and we went on with it. After the movie ended, I stood out in the rain waiting for my ride home and remembered.

Murambi Memorial

Most of our pre-departure briefings occurred the day before the event, or even hours before. We had our pre-departure briefing for the Murambi Memorial a week before we left.

“We’re trying to prepare you” Lee said, “but you can’t really prepare for this. People say it is the hardest memorial to see and I think they’re right. But even knowing this you won’t be ready. You will be shocked. The smell, when you walk in and see, you might not even want to enter the room.”

In April 1994, after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and the genocide began, Tutsis from several neighboring districts fled to Murambi, a nearly completed vocational school. They went to the school because they heard they’d be safe there. With only the food they could carry and water cut off, 50,000 people crammed into the buildings and waited. Two weeks later the interahamwe arrived and surrounded Murambi, trapping the people with no way out. Within two days, the interahamwe slaughtered nearly everyone; they were too weak from hunger and thirst to fight back. Only a handful of people survived.

We pulled up to the main building, modern and new, looking like it could be seamlessly transplanted onto any American college campus. We shifted restlessly in the vans, radiating nervous energy. In the week preceding the visit we’d speculated on what we’d see, imagined the worst we could think of, trying to prepare ourselves in some way.

“Is it bad if I don’t even want to get out of the van?” Donna asked to no one in particular.

None of us wanted to be there. Never in my life had I felt such a strong desire to flee from a situation, close my eyes to the reality of what had happened and run all the way back to Juniata. But at the same time, we were all acutely aware that experiences like this one were why we’d come on the program. I saw Lee get out of the car, Lee, who’d never had the luxury of not seeing the full horrors of 1994.

“No one has to go in.” Stephanie, our academic director, reminded us. “This isn’t required. You don’t have to go in and you can leave any time you want to.”

As much as we didn’t want to go, as terrified as we were of what we’d see and how it would change us, there was no chance any one of us was would opt out of seeing the memorial. We got out of the van, visibly braced ourselves, and walked into the building. It was only the reception area. Everyone let out a nervous little breath of relief.

Inside the main building met a man, a survivor of Murambi, who was going to be leading us around. I couldn’t guess his age, probably in his late 50’s, but he looked like he could be in his 70’s. He was tall and extremely thin, and a little hunched over. I could see a deep dent on the top right side of his forehead.

“That’s from where he was shot in the head,” Lee explained, “before the interahamwe left him for dead.”

I thought the school was supposed to be a near perfect preservation of the slaughter. I was expecting skeletons laid out where they died and rooms stained with blood. Maybe if the French Army hadn’t arrived first, cleaned everything up in order to make it their base for Operation Turquoise, it would have been. Operation Turquiose, publicized as a humanitarian intervention, in actuality created an area of safe passage for those who orchestrated and took part in the genocide to flee Rwanda. A year after the French tossed the bodies into shallow mass graves and built a volleyball court on top, survivors dug them up and preserved 800 bodies using lime while the rest were prepared for a proper and respectful burial.

murambiWe left the main building and went around back to where the classrooms were located. Rows of about 10 classrooms were grouped in each building, with a covered outdoor walkway connecting the unit. A security guard walked ahead of us and started unlocking the rooms. Somehow I found myself near the front of the group, though I could feel my body slow down in nervous anticipation the closer we got to the rooms, and was among the first to see the bodies.

“Oh, fuck.”

The bodies were shriveled and bleached white from the lime and were laid out on crudely constructed wooden tables. One body had a little tuff of black hair clinging to the top of the head. The room smelled sickly sweet, too sweet, like very fragrant flowers that had been sitting in a vase for too long and had begun to decay. Lacing that scent was the tangy, bitter smell of mothballs, an attempt to keep bugs away from the preserved, but slowly decomposing bodies. I started towards the door and heard Sasha whisper, “Jesus, it’s a baby” and sure enough, the white lump in front of her was a tiny little body. No one spoke after that. We entered our own little worlds as we went from room to room.

It was overwhelming. On the whole, we’ve become imprecise in our language and some of our most powerful words lost to hyperbole. When we say ‘overwhelming’ we normally mean intense or difficult. We rarely mean that we were confronted with an experience that literally overwhelmed every sense. My skin was buzzing and prickling uncomfortably, my ears ringing with the sound of my own blood sloshing through my head, and the smell of the room invaded my being down to my taste buds. My body didn’t know what to do with the sensory overload and started to run on automatic. My brain was stuffed full with thoughts: simultaneous, overlapping, and incomplete, none of them coherent or useful.

The third room had lots of small bodies, not babies, but kids. I didn’t want to be in the room, looking at the contorted bodies and smashed in skulls, but it was as if my mind and my body had completely disconnected. I couldn’t really process what I was seeing and I couldn’t get myself to leave.

“My cousin is that big. They were probably my host-brother’s age. Had they lived, they’d be my age now. They were just kids. How can you kill kids? How could this happen? How? How? Fuck.”

I imagined, for a moment, that they were just frozen in time, that they could wake up. Their skin would regain color, their flesh plump back out, and all these little bodies would be alive and laughing again. Each child had my host-brother’s infectious smile and my host-sister’s mischievous eyes. But they didn’t wake up and now each body, each face, had their faces too.

I felt a steady weight come to rest on my shoulder, pulling me out of my head and putting me back into my body. I don’t know how long I’d stood in that room, but sometime while I’d been lost in my thoughts Lee had walked in. He kept his hand on my shoulder, gently checking in on me.

“How’re you doing?”

He didn’t expect me to be fine and my silent nod probably did little to convince him otherwise as he kept his hand resting on my shoulder a little longer. With a comforting pat he was off again and checking in on Donna. I walked out of the room and breathed.

IMG_4953It was disconcerting leaving each room and walking outside to some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. All of Rwanda is gorgeous and green, full of rolling hills, but the memorial seemed to be perched on the most picturesque hill-top of them all. The grass was long and untamed and wild flowers grew everywhere. It truly looked like its nickname, the Switzerland of Africa. Even though it was past noon, a light mist hung between the trees as the sun burned bright and high in the sky.

About the time I began to get desensitized to the sight of the bodies, the smell became too much. Somewhere around the 12th room I left after being inside for less than ten seconds because I forgot to breathe shallowly and ended up gagging over the side of the railing outside. Even outside, in the fresh air, the smell of death and decay seemed to cling to my skin and clothes. As a group, we’ve talked a lot about what we’ve taken for granted: running water, electricity, toilet paper, and control over what we eat, but I’m not used to taking air for granted. Because the air in the rooms was so nauseating, it meant that no one could do more than silently leak out tears; sobbing, even sniffling, would have made us vomit. Only one room, a classroom filled with skulls and femurs instead of slowly decomposing bodies, provided the space for a full reaction.

IMG_4938Bobbie left the room as I walked in and Marie stood somberly over the skulls. I wasn’t anything but numb until Lee walked in and once again placed his hand on my shoulder. I was so angry that he was there, that after everything he had lived through and survived he had to not only see this again, but also felt the need to comfort me. I was angry at everything but him, whom I was filled with such contrasting appreciation and tenderness for. He didn’t ask if I was ok, but just stood with me, his hand grounding me in the moment, and felt every shuddering breath and aborted, bit back sob. He stood there, in that room, and breathed with me. Lee squeezed my shoulder one more time and moved on to help someone else, a healer and rebuilder to all of us.

When I left the room I could see Bobbie resting her arms on the rail, staring at nothing. Donna was sitting in the grass, looking off into the distance, and a survivor cradled Jasmine as she fought back tears. At the Kigali Memorial Center most people had cried freely, but in Muramib we fought our emotions each step of the way. As deeply touched as we were, it was difficult to feel like we had a right to our emotions when three survivors of the massacre milled around the group, making sure we were ok. It occurred to me for the first time that this wasn’t just going to be shocking, but that we were might actually come out of the experience slightly traumatized. By the end of the day we’d seen walked through nearly three-dozen rooms and seen about 800 preserved bodies or parts of bodies.

“It didn’t make any sense. I tired to make it makes sense and I couldn’t.” Jasmine shared during the processing session the next day. “Then it didn’t seem real. How could what I was seeing be real if it didn’t makes sense?”

We all felt that way. For the next few days I could feel my mind twisting in on itself, trying to make sense of what I’d seen in any way it could. An odd sort of internal moral bargaining took place until I could trick myself into thinking that I could understand people killing people and even people killing people in the most brutal ways possible. But no matter how much processing, no matter how many mental concessions I make, killing children in horrendously painful ways will never be anything but senseless. We want to make sense of the world around us, but some things never will make sense and never should make sense.

The next day, Lee caught up with me as we were walking to a women’s association meeting. I hadn’t talked at the processing session and once again he was checking in on me. Had it been anyone else, I probably would have been annoyed at the intrusion. Each moment I had alone during our busy schedule was precious, another moment to try to make sense of the day before.

“You know, I worked on setting up the Murambi Memorial. The first week there, I couldn’t eat anything. I lost so much weight, but I just couldn’t eat. The smell followed me everywhere. You can come talk to me, if you need to. Call me or find me, you can always talk and I’ll listen. Because I know.”

I’ve heard people say that after viewing something disturbing it’s all they can see when they close their eyes. Days later, those frozen distorted faces are what I see when my eyes are open. It’s like the images burned into me and are now laid on top of everything else. When I got back to my homestay family and my little sister grinned at me and slipped her sticky little hand into mine, the image of the little bodies surfaced again. I played with her for hours and held her close, listened to her giggle and laugh, but felt the weight of Murambi the entire time. Every moment that I’m not 100% occupied, my mind goes back to Murambi. It doesn’t make any more sense today than it did yesterday, than it did when I stood in the rooms with the slowly decomposing corpses. All the historical background and theoretical material in the world can tell me how genocide can happen and does happen, but I will never understand it.

I’m not nearly done processing the Murambi Memorial and I’m not nearly ready to say that I’m ok with the experience. But I firmly believe that memorials like Murambi are vital to rebuilding a community and a country after unimaginable violence and that memorials only work if people go to see them. The Rwanda genocide was so short and violent that it was like the entire country went mad for 100 days, but then came to their senses when the RPF fought the interahamwe back. But that isn’t true. The genocide wasn’t spontaneous or random, but carefully planned, and people still hold onto that genocide ideology today. That’s why memorials are so important. We say ‘never again’, but we don’t really know what we’re saying that about. We have the luxury of not seeing and not living with the consequences, so ‘never again’ means ‘it will happen again, and we’ll feel really bad about it, but we won’t do anything to stop it.’ But I think if everyone could see what I saw and experience what I experienced; it really would be ‘never again’. It is too horrible to let happen again. IMG_4930

Tomorrow Lost

It felt wrong to take pictures. I quickly put away my camera as we walked through the mass grave to the Peace Garden in the Kigali Memorial Center. Others still took pictures, but with little enthusiasm as we looked at the names on the wall, many more names than we could count.

“How many people are buried here?” someone asked.

“Over 258,000 at this site. These are just the bodies recovered from Kigali and the surrounding area. Other places have their own memorials.”

We walked around some more in the African heat, not even a full day into our time in Rwanda and already feeling the strain of the topic we’d come halfway across the world to learn. I know I wasn’t the only one questioning why.

“There are a lot of people named Marie listed here,” Marie whispered to me as she walked past. Though she had her camera out, but she too has stopped taking pictures.

The Kigali Memorial Center is more than a tragically huge mass grave. In addition to the burial site there is also a museum. The only experience I have to compare it to is going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, but only if the Holocaust Museum had been transplanted to Germany and I’d visited only sixteen years after World War II had ended. Like in Gulu, the violence and death is very fresh.

The museum started out with a history of Rwanda prior to the genocide and the factors leading up to the genocide. Even before the mass killings started in April of 1994, there was terrible violence in Rwanda. Placards in Kinyarwanda, French, and English spelled out the events that unfolded. The pictures and videos depicting the violence and the aftermath were hard to face. One of the videos was the only known footage of an actual killing during the genocide. If I hadn’t just read it in a book about the media’s role in the genocide earlier that day, I’m not sure I would have realized that the video was of a woman pleading for her life before she was hit so hard she was nearly decapitated. Other clips showed mutilated bodies, masses of corpses in a church, and a bloated body washed up on a rock by the river.

Although we started as a group, the fourteen of us solemnly walking through the exhibit, we soon became spread out in the museum as some moved quickly, wanting to view the images in isolation, while others hung back, taking in every word and every horror. Jenny and I went through the exhibits at the same pace, never talking as we viewed the images and photos, but keenly aware of each other’s reactions.

Like the Holocaust Museum had the room of shoes, the Kigali Memorial Center has a room of pictures. It is by no means complete, but as the faces of those brutally murdered stare at you, it is nonetheless overwhelming. I wanted to look at each picture, take in each face so that, if only for one moment, they would be remembered by someone other than those who had lost them. In the same room, a video was playing of survivors telling of the last times they saw their loved ones. After only a few minutes and having seen only a handful of the pictures it became too much and I left the room just as Jenny was entering.

The next room had bones, mostly skulls. There weren’t many, at least compared to the number of people who died. I don’t think the skulls were there to make a point of how many people died, but rather, how they died. Although some of the skulls were intact, others had places bashed in. Another skull had a bullet hole. Several of the skulls seemed small for the average adult, and one particularly small skull was nearly smashed to bits. After even less time, that room also began to feel oppressive and I left once again just as Jenny was leaving the picture room. We mutually ignored each other’s blotchy red faces as we me in the center.

“Did you see Lee’s quote?” I asked her.

“Yeah. I keep thinking, ‘how weird is it that we know someone quoted here?’ and then I remember just how many people, just random people from the street, that they all have stories that could go here.”

The last room is wasted potential and the lost future. Beautiful illuminated photographs of children lined the walls along with placards with things such as their favorite color. The last thing mentioned on each placard was how the child had been killed. 10-year-old boy, favorite sport: football, tortured to death.

I rushed through the last room, feeling physically sick and unable to look at the pictures any longer. I heard Jenny sniffing back tears, then ultimately failing, as she entered the room behind me. Outside, on the balcony, I had a clear view of the graves that only two hours ago had seemed somewhat abstract and emotionally inaccessible. I made myself go back and walk through the room a second time, slowly. An 8-year-old girl who loved chocolate hacked to death by machete. A 4-year-old girl who loved singing and dancing, stabbed in the eyes and head. Two sisters killed by a grenade, a 2-year-old burned alive in a church and another 2-year-old smashed into a wall. An infant hacked to death in his mother’s arms. Their pictures loomed over me as I read every word and I wondered if I’d ever forget their faces.

After the big pictures with the stories were a bunch of regular photographs of other children who had been killed, but with no added descriptions. This time, as I really did look at every single picture, I noticed a familiar face. In a picture with two young boys who were indicated as killed during the genocide was another boy with a sweet smile. He looked like our program assistant, Lee. Lee, whom only earlier that day had sat next to me during Kinyarwanda lessons, gently correcting my terrible pronunciation and giving me helpful hints. It might not have been Lee, it probably wasn’t. I don’t know his story, I just know that he has a story. Most people do.

It is tempting to use words like ‘inhuman’ cruelty when describing the genocide, but the truth is it was too human. People did this. People imagined the unimaginable and teachers killed students, ministers killed congregations, and neighbors killed neighbors. And as horrifying as that truth is, life goes on. That’s pretty much the motto here. In Uganda it was ‘Forgive and Remember’ and here it seems to be ‘Forgive, Remember, and Live’. Horrible, terrible, things happened here, but it is as important to see and appreciate the beautiful green hills and smell the fresh air filled with the scent of growing tea as it is to remember the genocide. Because as much as people shouldn’t forget and can’t forget, they also can’t stop. Life goes on and we must too.


The entire reason I applied for the Uganda/Rwanda program was to study in Rwanda. To me, the Uganda unit was incidental, just a month detour before the real program would begin. While not an expert in post-conflict issues in Rwanda by any means, my knowledge of the situation in Uganda was even more limited.

It’s difficult to quantify what I’ve learned in the last month. I feel like I’ve learned as much about myself as I have about post-conflict transformation, which is nice for me but does absolutely nothing to benefit anyone else. While in Gulu, I saw the devastating effects of 23 years of war up-close on an intimate level and it is impossible not to leave slightly different than when you arrived, even if I have yet to realize exactly I have changed.

During my three weeks in Gulu I saw people still living in the IDP camps, forcefully removed from their homes years ago and placed in cramped and squalid living conditions. During the height of LRA attacks, as much as 85% of the Acholi population was uprooted and displaced from their homes. As many, if not more people died in the camps from disease and malnutrition as from the direct violence of the war. While many people have left the camps since the violence has ended, many are still stuck in the same terrible environment, without the means to leave and start over. Empty packets of alcohol littered the ground of all the IDP camps we visited, leaving me feeling deeply conflicted. On one hand, I was angry that what little money available was going towards alcohol rather than feeding starving people or sending children to school. Yet, at the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fallout of deep psychological trauma as the result of years of violence, trauma that is hardly being addressed or treated. The saying was that during the conflict the men would be drunk by 10 am, the women drunk by 2 pm, and the children drunk by 6 pm. I doubt that the saying was much of an exaggeration.

At the same time as seeing the stagnant despair still permeating the IDP camps, I also I saw people trying to go back to their villages, but facing new problems living on their own after years of dependency on foreign aid. Agoro was just one if many viliages that don’t have the resources to combat years lost to the camps. With the violence over, many NGO’s are pulling out of the area, taking aid with them. After years of surviving on handouts, people now have no idea how to provide for themselves. And as people begin to leave the camps, many violent land disputes are springing up. While we were in Gulu, news reached us of three deaths related to a land issue, when one member of a family locked his grandmother and two young cousins in a hut and burned it to the ground. I’ve met adults who had been abducted as children, met teenage mothers recently returned from the bush, seen massacre sites, and met survivors. I’ve gained an Acholi family and now know the ghosting shadow of what it means to hold that identity.

Even with the LRA gone from Northern Uganda, they are still not gone from East Africa. It is estimated that over 25,00 children were abducted during the war and that many still remain in the bush. Gulu is treated as a ‘post-conflict’ area, which I disagree with, and not just because Kony has yet to sign the final peace agreement. It’s like Gulu exists in it’s own little bubble of deep denial. People want so desperately for the conflict to be over. Even if the LRA never comes back and the violent conflict really has left Gulu, Northern Uganda is still very much in conflict. It is in conflict because it is in transition, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Northern Uganda is in a critical moment, the decisions being made now will determine if this area recovers or if the LRA won the war. The LRA might have physically gone, but they left unimaginable damage in their wake.