By Nora Snyder
On a sunny LA day just like any other, ten fellow Trojans and myself boarded a plane with two employees of the USC Shoah Foundation and headed to Kigali, Rwanda. Our purpose? To conduct first-hand research on post-genocide reconstruction as part of a Problems Without Passports course. Problems Without Passports is an innovative program developed by USC’s Dornsife College that focuses on problem-based learning. Its courses come from a variety of disciplines, but all combine intensive classroom study with field research, and provide students with a unique opportunity to gain an in-depth understanding of a specific problem and work to propose solutions. Ours, an International Relations course titled Rebuilding Rwanda: Memory, Testimony, and Living Together after Genocide, took us halfway around the world in our attempt to develop practical suggestions that might aid Rwanda’s ongoing process of recovering from the tragedy that left it decimated only nineteen years ago.
But long though our geographic journey may have been, it is possible that our emotional one was even longer. Studying something as horrible as genocide is never easy. But no amount of lectures or textbooks can every really prepare a person for the experience of visiting a place like Rwanda. The printed word can do many things, but it can’t tell you what it feels like to stand in a building that used to be a place of worship but became a place of slaughter, a place where you can smell the stench of what can only be death in the air, see the blood of innocents on the walls, hear the screams of the frightened begging for mercy and finding none. There is a big difference between reading numbers of the dead and looking into the face of a friend and realizing that most of his family is gone. There is knowing the facts. And then there is a different kind of knowing: one that comes with understanding that we who were not there, who did not see, who turned our backs, can never really know.
If my time in Rwanda taught me anything, it is not to underestimate the potential for resilience in the human spirit.
That’s not to say that we spent our two weeks consumed with despair. There is much to be hopeful about in Rwanda today. I am in awe of the progress the small country has made in such a short period of time. It is hard to believe that a place that was the site of such atrocities within my lifetime is now one of the most rapidly-developing countries in Africa and a leader in the East African Community. If my time in Rwanda taught me anything, it is not to underestimate the potential for resilience in the human spirit. The Rwandans we met with had suffered and lost more than any person should be asked to bear. And while many often spoke of the importance of remembering the past and preserving the truth, this was always done with an eye on the future, always focused on how they could bring people together, move forward from tragedy, forge an identity of one unified Rwanda.
So when it came time to present our findings and propose our solutions, I found myself feeling a sense of humility. How could I possibly be expected to weigh in on an issue that just seemed more complex the more we studied it? At the end of two weeks, I felt that I had barely scratched the surface, that I had produced more questions than answers. Now that I have returned, and had some time to reflect on my experience, I’ve decided that that’s all right. More than anything, I feel extremely fortunate to have had this incredible experience. In a two week period, we visited seven embassies, two ministers, and the heads of half a dozen major organizations, not to mention some of the most inspiring individuals I have ever encountered. We saw things I will never forget. Of course I don’t have all the answers. Or any answers. But I will always remember the things I saw and the way I felt. And I will continue to hope. Hope that Rwanda continues to develop and thrive. Hope that it can serve as a beacon of light to other places that have suffered as Rwanda suffered, reminding them that it is possible to move forward. And hope that someday soon that promise of “never again” will be more than mere words, that as a planet we can come together and ensure that no place on Earth will ever again witness the horrors of genocide.