Sunday, June 13, 2010


I'm back in the U.S. now...and this thing only let me upload a few pictures.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Past Two Days...

So I spent all of last night trying to figure out how I am going to get home since my original plan went down the drain. I will try to give a brief overview of everything we have done yesterday and today. Yesterday, we went to the Gako Military Academy, which is where they train people to become officers. It’s not like WP though. People who go to Gako are NCOs and/or have gone through college already so they are older than us. And they take various classes and programs to either develop them into leaders for certain positions or to prepare for deployment to Darfur. We had lunch there and I sat with the Commandant. We had a very good conversation about several different things. One thing I found interesting though was his response to my question about if any soldiers experienced PTSD as a result of the war or genocide. He said there haven’t been any soldiers he has known of and that they don’t really go through that stuff. In my opinion, I definitely think some of them developed PTSD but because of their culture, none of them admitted it or sought help. Again, that is just my opinion.

Anyway, after Gako, we went to the Nataroma Memorial Site. This place originally used to be a church, but was turned into a memorial site after the killings that happened there. Many Tutsis fled there to seek protection and refuge but unfortunately, it is said that the priests conspired with the Hutus and come kill everyone hiding there. And that is exactly what happened. The main building we saw had all the belongings people brought. There also was preserved bones and skulls of the people who died. The next building we saw was the Sunday school. This is where babies were violently thrown against the wall to kill them. Some of the walls inside still had blood stained on the wall from it. The last building we saw was the kitchen. This is where several people were burned alive. The killers lit mattresses on fire and put them inside to block any exit. They all burned alive and inside there were still some hair and bones from the bodies. This was all very powerful and I’m grateful we had the chance to see it.

After the memorial, we went to the US Embassy. I was really excited to go but it turned out to be the worst part of the day. We pretty much got lectured about what we should and should not say…a week after we got to Rwanda. I probably shouldn’t have said that but oh well. After the embassy, we met with the Minister of Defense himself, which I heard is the second most powerful man in the country. He gave us a great insight into the country and provided us with plenty of good information. He also asked us what our impressions were of Rwanda and what our expectations were, to which we pretty much all replied by saying we have been very impressed with the development and progress they have made since the genocide. That sums up the events from yesterday.

Today was our last full day in the country. We started the morning off by visiting a few UN organizations. They gave us a presentation regarding the reconciliation of the country, with a focus on the involvement of women in peace and reconciliation. I found it to be very informative and interesting. They are trying to develop a Rwanda Peace Academy as well for their military forces. This is something the US lacks, but I guess it makes sense since we don’t do peace keeping and peace building missions. Next, we visited the Ministry of Finance, which turned out to be a lot more interesting than I thought it was going to be. Our presenter spoke a lot about Vision 2020 which is essentially a plan of where the country wants to be in various areas of development by the year 2020. I’m sure Google can you provide you with a more in-depth explanation than what I am willing to provide right now. He addressed some of the areas where they are not on track to meeting in the plan as well, which was interesting. In the afternoon, we returned once again to the Ministry of Defense to speak with a gentleman about the Gacaca court system. I was slightly disappointed because all week I thought we were going to see an actual Gacaca court case in action, but instead it was just someone talking about how the system work. It was still informative and I’m glad we went, but just not as exciting.

We concluded the night with a cocktail party at the Officers Club for the RDF. The night for the most part consisted of dinner, cultural dances, and lots of socializing. At dinner, I sat at a table with two Colonels from the RDF. One of them told us that we fought in “the bush” for 6 total years, 2 in Uganda and 4 in Rwanda. The bush is basically what they call the forest and stuff, which is where the defense forces fought and lived during conflicts. Most of the people in the RDF were not actually born in Rwanda too. Many of them were in exile in surrounding countries and had to fight their way back into Rwanda, which is where most of their parents originated from. It still amazes me to hear these stories of fighting and living for years in the bush, or seeing countless bodies from the genocide and then seeing how resilient and prideful the people of this country are. I wish the rest of the world could see what we have seen and could speak to the people we have talked to. I know that my perception of Rwanda and Africa as a whole has changed. Granted, we were a little spoiled coming to Rwanda because they are unlike many other African countries. But seeing the potential for this country and continent is amazing. I’m so inspired to just change the world and help them as much as I can. But anyway, we concluded the party with some gift exchanges and picture taking. I actually felt really sad tonight as it was happening. It was almost like I was at a graduation saying goodbye to friends. We have grown to love this country and its people, especially our 3 RDF escorts. But I know that we will keep in touch, even with our badass drivers!

Well I guess that concludes this post. Tomorrow we are heading to the market in the afternoon to do some shopping and then in the afternoon we embark on the long journey back to America. I will be home Monday afternoon for about a week for anyone interested. When I get back home I will make one last post of a bunch of pictures from the trip…well maybe not a bunch but at least a few. Good night.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Day to Remember

Today, we traveled 3 hours to the city of Butare (the old capital of Rwanda). On the way there, we stopped to see some old and new palaces that kings used to live in. In the more traditional palaces, there was one main house, and several other small houses in the back. We got to see the main house. The part that I think we all found interesting was that a man and woman would enter their bedroom in two different places. The woman came from the opening by the foot of the bed and the man came through closer to the head of the bed. Our tour guide also talked about how one of the kings had as many as 33 wives! Some suspected he even had more. It is unknown how many children he had because of that too. Pretty crazy. After seeing the main house, we got a tour of the modern palace constructed by the last king of Rwanda. He was the first to build a cement house in all of Rwanda. It contained several rooms as one can imagine, but they were all small in comparison to rooms we would see in houses today.

After we left this museum, we went to the Murambi Memorial Site. This was the most emotional experience of the entire trip. Unlike the other memorial site we went to, this one was less sophisticated and more realistic. It contained 24 rooms that were filled with preserved bodies from the victims of the genocide. As we walked into the rooms, we could smell the “death” from the bodies. The smell was almost too much to handle. Many of them had holes or even large pieces of their skull missing from being hit in the head with a hammer or heavy object to kill them. It was a surreal experience and one I will never forget. It nearly brought me to tears seeing these bodies and imagining the brutality and violence that happened during that time. It is hard for me to fathom how any human being could so violently kill innocent people. The rooms that were most shocking was the children’s room and women’s room, which were completely filled with bodies of the children and women killed at the site. Again, seeing the children’s room was emotional. Some of the skeletons were so small, they could not have been more than a few years old. And yet they, too, had parts of their skulls missing from being killed by machete or a different object on the head. This is a major reason why this genocide is not considered a war, as it is referred to by outsiders. In a war, soldiers do not kill women or children or the elderly or the disabled. In a war, both sides have weapons to defend themselves. What happened in Rwanda was not a war and it is important not to mistake it as one. It is also important to remember this incident and work to prevent any future instances. As emotional and heart breaking as it was to see all those bodies, it was also inspiring. It inspired me to become more proactive in the fight against genocide ideology and more committed to helping the cause of Rwanda. In total, roughly 55,000 people were killed at the Murambi site. And the sad thing is that this amounts to only a small portion of the over 1 million people murdered in the genocide.

But, on a lighter note, after the genocide memorial site, we traveled to the National Museum where we saw several artifacts and did a little gift shopping. I got a set of mini spears, which as bad ass, and a cane (although I think there is a different name for it). It’s like a traditional “cane” covered in animal hair that was used by kings….at least I think so. Either way, both things I got were badass. I think we might have spent more time looking around the gift shop and trying to figure out what to buy than we did in the actual museum. But it was a fun time and a good change of pace from the memorial site.

And this takes me to the coolest thing we did all day. This was memorable for reasons different than the memorial site. The President of Rwanda requested that we get a helicopter ride from Butare back to Kigali so that we would not have to make the 3 hour drive back so “late” in the evening. When we arrived at the landing pad, there were a bunch of villagers waiting in the grass to see the helicopter take off. When we all stepped out of the car, they probably were wondering, “Who the heck are these people and why do they get to ride on a helicopter?” Nevertheless, I personally was very excited because it was going to be my first time on a helicopter. The one we took wasn’t like a military helicopter; it was an extra VIP helicopter that the president had. We were in awe that this was actually going to happen. The ride was amazing and the view from the sky was breathtaking. The ride was only about 20 minutes and I enjoyed every minute of it. I definitely won’t forget that experience.

When we finally got back to the hotel, we met once again with the trauma counselor from last night and one of her colleagues. The point of the meeting was to come up with ideas to help them network and improve their program. Also, since I am a psychology major, they suggested I come back after I am done with the Army to help them. And in response to that, LTC Ryan, the officer in charge of our trip, said that I could possible come back next summer and do an internship with them! If that happened, I would be thrilled. I’m really going to work hard to try and make this become a reality. I’ve loved the time I’ve spent here and I would be more than happy to come back and have a more direct impact in helping the survivors and the overall progress of the country. But anyway, after the meeting, we went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with our escorts and our drivers. We had such a good time, lots of laughter and good conversation. And an insane amount of food which we did not even eat half of.

Now I am back at the hotel getting ready for bed. On tomorrow’s agenda is the Gako Military Academy and some other stuff I don’t know of. But I’m sure it will be a great day. On that note, off to bed I go. Good night moon, good night starts.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Future for Females

Today we started off with a visit to AVEGA, which is an organization that assists women who are widows as a result of the genocide. They offer counseling to help the widows and children of widows deal with their trauma. The organization also encourages forgiveness as a means of eventually healing and reconciling. Many survivors give back to the organization and community by becoming trauma counselors themselves after going through the healing process themselves. Because of the great deal of people who became widows due to the genocide, counselors often have to see upwards of 10 people a day. It was great to learn about this organization and see how much assistance they are giving to women and children who are still struggling.
After visiting AVEGA, we went to the FAWE girls school, which is where the above picture is taken. FAWE is a boarding school for females that focuses mainly on the sciences. While there, each of us were paired with one of the students and we had a chance to speak with them and exchange questions. The student I was paired with is named Ester. She is 17 and hopes to become a doctor one day. She also dreams of going back to the U.S. one day, which she says is the dream of most girls at the school. After our brief conversation, the entire group went around and got a tour of the school. All of the girls we met were very intelligent and driven. They are destined for success. While at their school we engaged in a little traditional dance with them, which was pretty funny to say the least. Overall, the school was very impressive. The focus Rwanda has placed on education of the youth, especially females, is commendable.
In the afternoon we went to the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide. While there, we received a very indepth description of the genocide to include some unfortunate details (babies being thrown against walls, rapes of women in front of their children and/or husband, rape of dead bodies, murders by priests/religious figureheads). We learned of some of the laws that have been instituted to prevent the resurgence of violence and genocide ideology. The organization also places a strong emphasis on working with other groups and other countries to help combat future genocides worldwide. Their work is admirable and we all are going to do our best to spread their message.
Next, we went on a city tour of Kigali, their capital. During the tour, we stopped at the building where 10 Belgian Soliders were killed during the war. Inside, we learned more about the genocide. The bullet holes from the fight are still easily seen in the walls. It is a humbling site. The rest of the tour consisted of seeing various old and new parts of Kigali. It was a fun time with the group.
The last thing we did before dinner was meet with a trauma counselor at the hotel. She told us about the various methods they use to help survivors deal with their trauma and PTSD. We were also able to ask her questions concerning healing from trauma caused by the genocide. It was a great conversation and I definitely learned a lot, especially pertaining to my area of focus (psycological resources for healing).
Tomorrow morning we are heading to Butare, which is about 2-3 hours away. While there, we will be visiting another genocide memorial site. And because it is so far away, we will be getting a helicopter ride back as initially requested by Pres. Kagame. Pretty cool. We all are really excited. Anyway, it's getting late here so I must retire to bed. I hope America is treating you as well as these Rwandans are treating us :). Peace!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Half Way There :(

This morning, we started off the day with an exciting visit to see the Womens Parliament. We spoke with about 5 women from Parliament about various issues we each were interested in. I think I can speak for the group of us when I say that we were rather surprised by the tremendous progress they have made and the significant role they play in the government. All the women we spoke with were extremely articulate and very well educated. They are doing amazing things to promote gender equality and prevention of gender based violence. One of my favorite quotes from the day that describes the women well was "behind these soft voices is a storng arm and a warm heart," which was said by President Kagame. This parliamentary group is being proactive in promoting their aims and is working to spread their programs to as many schools and possible and get their message out through means of radio, churches, and campaigns. It was an honor to be able to speak with them.

Next on the agenda was a meeting with members of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. They addressed much of the history leading up to the genocide as well as how they have worked to recover from its damages. One of the main things that stuck out in my mind was the emphasis they placed on local involvement through grassroot counciltations. It seems that they are trying to involve as many people as possible in developing the country, to include even the poorest people. This is something that I feel differs greatly from America, but in a good way. During this meeeting we watched a video that told of the history and gave some testimonies from survivors of the genocide. One of the striking stories included a man who killed all of a woman's children. After the genocide they eventually became neighbors and through the Gacaca courts, he told everything he did in the genocide and was forgiven and pardoned by the woman. It was powerful to see how someone could be so forgiving after such an atrocity was committed against them.

The last place we visited was the Ministry of Local Government in Kigali. The main points addressed during this meeting were decentralization and good governance. I have to admit, the presentation was a bit...dry. But one point that stuck out to me the most was the concept of a national talk. Every year the President gives a speach to his country (I'd assume it is similar to the state of the union address) and the day after he gives the speach, people across the country and even internationally can call, text, or send emails with any questions, comments, or concerns they have regarding anything that was addressed in the President's speech and he answers them. Again, it shows this country's importance in getting everyone involved in helping the country progress.

Before dinner, we spoke with a future WP cadet from Rwanda, Alex. He had a chance to sit with us for an hour and ask any questions he had about Beast and the Academy in general. It was nice meeting him and I'm sure he will do well. For dinner, the group went to Sol e Luna, a well known pizza place in Kigali. We were accompanied by two of our escorts, 1LT Mary and John (they have us call them by their first name because I guess they don't want to make us have to say their challenging last names). Dinner was a lot of fun. We all had great conversations and the food was good as well. It's always nice to go out as a group. We all get along very well and learn a lot from each other. But anyway, I'm off to bed now. I'm excited for another fun filled day in Rwanda tomorrow. And on that note, good night America.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

To catch you up to speed...

We have been in Rwanda for 3 full days now and they have been 3 amazing days. When we arrived at the airport here in Kigali, we were surprisingly greeted with our escorts from the Rwanda Defense Force (their army). For the beginning of this trip and for the remainder, we will have these 3 escorts from the RDF. The first full day here, we went to the Ministry of Defense and spoke with several high ranking officers to include three generals. They briefed us on the genocide and most significantly the process the country has taken to recover from such destruction. And I must say they have done remarkably well. After the Ministry of Defense, we went to the Demobilization Headquarters. This is an organization that helps rebel soldiers who escape from the Congo be reintegrated into society. The program lasts roughly 3 months and various services are provided, to include skills training, counseling, and interaction with the community. We concluded the day by going to the Kigali Memorial Center for the genocide. It provided us with an in depth look at the history of Rwanda that led up to the genocide and conditions during the genocide. Personally, the room that effected me the most was the children's room. It was hard for me to believe that people could so easily kill such young children. In one instance, I read that a child was killed by being stabbed in the eye and face. Another very young child, maybe 9 months old, was killed by being thrown against a wall. Many others were killed by machete. On a much lighter note, for dinner that night we went to the Mille Collines Hotel (most famously known from the movie Hotel Rwanda). Dinner was great and the conversation was even better. We were there for about 3 hours and had a great chance to get to know each other as well as our escorts. Prior to dinner, as a group we walked around Kigali for about an hour. We met many locals and were able to see the poor state they live in. Unfortunately, it was challenging to communicate with them as very few speak fluent enough English.

The next day we went to the gorilla naming ceremony. It was just about an all day affair and it was absolutely amazing. It was special to be able to see such a great tradition. The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was also there that day and gave a speech to all the special guests as well as his countrymen. Following the ceremony, we got the distinct honor of having a private meeting with President Kagame. Each of us were able to ask him a question and we had a very informative conversation. Very few get the chance to speak in such a private manner with the President so it was definitely an honor. However, that was not the end of our special day. After we left the meeting, we traveled to a Demobilization site. At this place, we were able to meet the actual rebel soldiers who have escaped from the Congo and want to be reintegrated back into society. One man, a colonel, and one woman, a sergeant, shared the stories of their escape and their future plans upon completion of the program. It was a very touching and humbling experience. For these excombatants, they risked their lives to escape. Anyone who is caught escaping is immediately killed. But the desire to live a better life was so important to them that they were willing to risk that.

This takes me to today. We started the morning off with some gorilla trekking. That's right, GORILLAS! We went into the mountain in small groups and were able to see several gorillas. A couple even walked right past us. It was a fun experience and definitely something I will never forget. After that, we went to one of the Rwandan Military Academies. There, we received a short briefing on the different programs and classes over there and then were able to ask any questions we had about the academy.

Well, that just about sums up the last 3 days. I tried to be as brief yet descriptive as possible. Hopefully I will be able to do more regular posts for these remaining days here. I hope all is well back in home. Until next time America...