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by Greta Petry (October 31, 2006)

SSW Students See Rwanda through the Eyes of Survivors

Katie Willis, Rev. Ganza Jean Baptiste, and Abby Taylor
 

From left, Katie Willis, the Rev. Ganza Jean Baptiste, and Abby Taylor.

Senior Abby Taylor, 20, has a more personal connection than most to the true story recounted by Immaculée Ilibagiza in her book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.

Taylor, a student in the University at Albany's undergraduate social welfare program, met Ilibagiza last spring on campus and then traveled to Rwanda in July on a service learning trip with five other UAlbany students and School of Social Welfare faculty members Barbara Rio and Starr Wood.

"So now I am reading the book with a more personal view of the genocide and I can actually picture the places she (Ilibagiza) talks about," said Taylor, of Brookfield, Vt. The book's author hid in a small bathroom with seven other women in a minister's house for 90 days during the 1994 genocide while 800,000 Tutsi people were slaughtered all around them. Ilibagiza lost her mother, father, and two of her three brothers in the killings. A clothing wardrobe pushed against the outside of the bathroom door concealed the room from discovery by Hutu gangs.

One passage that Taylor found to be particularly moving in Left to Tell was: "When morning broke, the birds in the pastor's shade tree began singing. I was jealous of them, thinking, 'How lucky you are to have been born birds and have freedom – after all, look at what we humans are doing to ourselves.'"

In Rwanda, Taylor and the School of Social Welfare group met Immaculée's surviving brother, Aimable, and had dinner with her cousin, Jacqueline, a member of Parliament, her cousin, the Rev. Ganza Jean Baptiste, a priest, and an aunt. Ganza is a priest at the Centre Christus, a Jesuit cultural and spiritual center in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The group stayed at the Centre Christus and helped build a security wall there.

The genocide memorial in Kigali where a mass grave was opened in order to add the remains of another victim.
 

The genocide memorial in Kigali where a mass grave was opened in order to add the remains of another victim.

 

The students also volunteered at Mother Theresa's orphanage, which houses children orphaned by poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the genocide. It also shelters homeless adults who are physically disabled or traumatized as a result of the genocide.

"For a genocide to happen in such a small country (Rwanda is about the size of Maryland) it hit every person living there," said Taylor. "No one was left unscarred from the massacres. Everyone knew someone who was killed or who did the killing."

One hope for the future is that Rwandan schools now teach all children about the 1994 genocide and the long and complex history of violence between the Hutus and Tutsis.

Taylor said, "The girls I stayed with in Rwanda and I got into many conversations about religion while we were there. It is so hard to comprehend how people who have been through so much tragedy remain so strong in their faith. It is their faith, however, that probably kept them alive."

Ilibagiza, a Catholic, would agree. Through her months of confinement, physically layered against seven other bodies on the bathroom floor, the Rwandan woman used prayer and faith to toughen herself against the fear of being killed.

Ilibagiza believes she was spared by God for the purpose of telling the story of the genocide. In her book, she describes how Hutu people were given days off from work to systematically exterminate their neighbors until "the goal" was accomplished. Government-controlled radio stations exhorted them to "Kill the (Tutsi) cockroaches." No other country intervened to stop the massacres, which were brought to end by the Tutsi rebel army.

Tension is not gone from Rwanda, Taylor said. "Many Hutus who were part of the genocide still do not feel any remorse for what they did, and the Tutsis find it extremely difficult to forgive someone who feels no regret and would probably do it again," Taylor said.

Ilibagiza, on the other hand, found forgiveness to be the only way she could handle the atrocity. Taylor said, "I also think this experience has taught me a lot about forgiveness in my own life. We waste so much of our time holding onto anger, and it only holds us back. People should use their energy for something good."

Joining Rio, Wood, and Taylor on the trip were Christina Holdrege and Katie Willis, 2006 B.S.W. graduates; Jamie Weeks and Helen Ehmann, UAlbany students in political science; Brooke Strauss, a 2006 M.S.W. graduate; and community social workers Colleen Nixon and Ann Fitzpatrick. The group raised money for the genocide orphans' school, health expenses, and for the wall materials before leaving the U.S.

 

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