Students commemorate Rwandan Genocide
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Posted by: Katy Watson
With only two weeks of classes left, most Oklahoma Christian University students spent this week in heightened anticipation of summer and anxiety at the proximity of finals. The 30 Rwandan students that grace our campus, however, were focused on something else.
Fifteen years ago on April 6, 1994, extremists shot down Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana's plane, killing him and sparking the beginning of the tragedy known as the Rwandan Genocide. Each year since, the entire country spends a week mourning and remembering those who died, while advocating peace.
For the third year in a row, the Rwandan students at Oklahoma Christian held a similar week of commemoration, culminating tonight at 7 p.m. with a special ceremony in the Gaylord University Center.
“This week is a week that is given to remembering the genocide,” Director of International Programs John Osborne, who has been working with the Rwandan students, said. “It is a pretty heavy, traumatic and emotional time for the people of Rwanda, our students included.”
Tonight's ceremony will be spent in remembrance of friends and family who died and will also give the Oklahoma Christian community a chance to be together with and show solidarity for the Rwandan students, Osborne said.
“We will have time to sing, to pray,” freshman Aloys Zunguzungu said. “We will have some students give their testimonies on what happened to them during the genocide, and what they learned from what happened.”
In Rwanda, the whole country stops for the “Week of Commemoration”. People do not go to work, and time is spent with loved ones. If someone lost a family member, they will prepare something to honor and remember them. The students organizing this year's commemoration wish to bring that same spirit of remembrance to the Oklahoma Christian campus.
“We need to have everyone in the world – not just Americans – but everyone in the world learn what happened in our country,” freshman Vedaste Niyonsaba said.
When most people hear “Rwanda”, their mind usually jumps to the genocide. The students hope to not be defined by such a tragedy, though they know it is important to never forget.
“One thing we need to do no matter what, is to remember our past and the lessons that come from our history,” Zunguzungu said. “We want to show people that we really aren't slaves to our past. There was something bad that happened, but we can overcome it.”
A lot of the Rwandans who survived the genocide feel like because they have gone through so much, they are more experienced and mature than, say, a typical American college student. Niyonsaba, for example, had to flee the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo with his little sister when he was only six. He remembers seeing lines of Rwandans being prepared to get shot, though he did not recognize it at the time.
“I remember listening to the guns,” Niyonsaba said. “Now I understand what it is I saw.”
After two years, he and his sister left the Rwandan refugee camp in the Congo and returned to Rwanda. He was eight. Luckily, they found their parents, but only after years of searching.
“I think and I believe that God helped me,” Niyonsaba said. “God strengthened me in my past.”
A strong sense of spirituality is present in the Rwandan students, although Zunguzungu admits the people of Rwanda had their doubts because of the tragedy.
“After the genocide, people had a really negative view about life and God,” Zunguzungu said. “All these kinds of crazy questions came into the minds of
Rwandans: Why would God let this happen? Where's God? But as time went on, people began to realize, that's the way it is. We have to accept that as our history, and say, ‘never again'.”
The phrase, “never again”, is a recurring theme with the Rwandan students. They say it is important to learn from past mistakes, and not subscribe to the theory that “history repeats itself.”
“We can't let something like this happen again,” Niyonsaba said. “That is why we choose, ‘never again'.”
Osborne says another theme he hears often is that of “dealing with the consequences”.
“That event was so significant – orphans, broken families, forgiveness and reconciliation – dealing with those consequences is a huge issue that doesn't get taken care of in a neat and tidy little bow,” Osborne said. “It's an on-going process.”
Despite this, Zunguzungu has seen many positive strides towards recovery in Rwanda. He says he is proud of the government and the steps they have taken to live in harmony once again.
“The leadership encourages people to try to live together again,” Zunguzungu said.
“Sometimes it's really difficult – it's hard to live with people who killed your family, to live in harmony and love; but the government is pushing for that and it is working, it is really working.”
Zunguzungu wishes Americans would care more about what's outside the United States and says that would solve a lot of problems. He relates a story about when he first introduced himself in a classroom at Oklahoma Christian and a fellow student thought Rwanda was a part of the USA.
“I want them to care and listen,” Zunguzungu said. “I think they are kind of misinformed. They don't know what is going on out there. But they can learn. We can all learn.”
Niyonsaba says everyone is invited; just come prepared to open your minds and hearts.
“I invite all Americans to join us, speak to us and share our history with us,” Niyonsaba said. “When I am speaking to someone and sharing my history, especially someone who is understanding, I feel this happiness and peace.”