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Skulls in Rwanda show teh horrors of the 1994 genocide. Photo by Steve Evans, Flickr

An estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in the genocide. These children's skulls are part of a memorial / Photo: Steve Evans, Flickr

Reflections from Rwanda: Casting the light of peace over the shadow of hate

December is Human Rights Month

December 15, 2014 — 

Blood-stained children’s clothing hangs over church pews, little shoes sit abandoned, rows of human skulls show signs of trauma—the horror of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda lives on two decades later.

Education professor Jerome Cranston could picture the atrocities of the past while surveying a makeshift church memorial where thousands of Tutsis—many of them children—were herded and killed. The memorials provide a graphic reminder of one of the worst killing campaigns in history.

“One of the phrases [Rwandans] use is ‘We need to never forget so it never happens anywhere else in the world’,” Cranston says. “They are doing this for Rwandans, but they hope they are doing this for the rest of the world.”

In spring, Cranston travelled to the East African country as it marked the genocide’s 20th anniversary. In just 100 days, ethnic Hutu extremists killed roughly 800,000 people, most of them from the minority Tutsi community. Animosity between the two groups had brewed for years but reached a tipping point when the plane of then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down, killing everyone on board.

For eight intense days, Cranston met with members of the newly formed Rwanda Genocide Teachers Association—a group of 60 Tutsis who survived the atrocities as teenagers and who are now teaching peace education to the next generation.

“A lot of times they stop themselves and you can just see in their body language, facial expression and in their silence that they are trying to still come to terms with the horror and trauma that they’ve suffered,” says Cranston.

Part of his research is to explore whether or not Rwanda’s education curriculum has evolved with the desire of its citizens to live as one people. The middle-school teachers sought Cranston’s expertise to figure out how they can best educate their students about the genocide. In Winnipeg, Cranston teaches educators how to talk about human rights in schools in the recently developed course ‘The fourth ‘R’: Teaching and leading human rights education.’ Cranston shared his Rwanda experience with his students and plans on doing so with his collaborators at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Inequities in the world—particularly in education—are issues close to Cranston’s heart. His father was orphaned during the Second World War when Cranston’s grandpa, a British accountant working for the railroad in Chittagong, India, was killed during the bombing of a train station; his grandmother died a year later of malnutrition. His maternal grandmother, whose family members were servants for royalty in Nepal, were exiled from the country along with their employers; impoverished, her parents abandoned her at an orphanage.

“People who suffer trauma, immense trauma, will tell you stories in bits and pieces. So it was a lifetime of letting the pieces come together to make sense of the stories,” Cranston says. “[That experience] has helped me as a researcher to deal with people who struggle through immense emotional details. Listening to the survivors in Rwanda is very reminiscent of the way my parents would tell stories. There were would be long pauses—maybe for months—before you could hear how the story ended.”

In a conversation with UM Today, Cranston reveals his thoughts about Rwanda in 2014, and the hope of a people determined to not let history repeat itself.


Hopes and struggles

I talked to them about what compelled them to decide to become teachers, what their hopes and dreams were in terms of trying to rebuild Rwanda post-genocide, what they thought were the biggest struggles, and what they hoped their students would learn from what they brought to the classroom in terms of peace education and genocide studies … These teachers who survived it, they’re teaching a generation that weren’t there. How do you take on that hard work?

Power of education

I think the power of education to do good is immense. I also think that we need to recognize that there are some inequities and injustices built into the education system and we need to confront those and see them for what they are. So in the case of Rwanda’s education system, the way it was built and the way curriculum was designed pre-’94 contributed to the genocide. The curriculum was overt that there were two classes of people: There were Tutsis and Hutus. And the Tutsis were elite and the Hutus were going to be middle managers and on down, and that most of the opportunities in the system were going to go towards the Tutsis. [The teachers there] were quite clear the education system pre-’94 actually contributed to the mass atrocities that occurred. Teachers had been trained to see students differently, and that Tutsis would probably go on to go to good universities and get good jobs, and the Hutus were probably not going to amount to that much.

‘The hardest work I’ve done’

It was, probably, from an emotional and psychological point of view, the hardest work I’ve done. I’m still trying to get my head around it. It’s clear that the teachers are fully committed to genocide studies and peace education, and trying to build a unified national identity for Rwanda. But Rwandans are still going through some fairly significant political struggles. The ’94 genocide was directed at the Tutsis. There was a moderate Hutu element who were also brutalized and murdered but the government in Rwanda refers to the ’94 genocide as genocide against the Tutsis and the curriculum they teach is that. They’re silent on the impact on the modern Hutu. [Many Hutus were forced into committing the atrocities.] So for me going in as a researcher, it’s this difficult tension … You have this sense that there is another element of the story that’s not being talked about. Why? I’m not sure.

They are moving away from the artificial designation that was part of the classification of people as either Tutsi or Hutu. Rwandans currently say ‘We are Rwandans. We are one people.’ They don’t talk about it all.

The curriculum is labelled as the ’94 genocide against the Tutsis … It’s a bit of a paradox. We’re teaching people to be one people but we’re going to use a curriculum that clearly divides us.

One gentleman told me about the hand grenade lobbed at him and his family, how he was the only one who survived and continues to walk in pain and with a limp because shrapnel from the hand grenade remains in his leg. Another young man told me about his parents sending him into the banana plantation to hide and he and two siblings survived and the rest of the family didn’t get out of the house before the militia arrived and killed them … It was this horrific game of hide and seek where children ran into fields and hid. At the first sign of anything that resembled quiet they would go back to their homes and neighbour’s homes and scavenge for whatever food and supplies they could and get back out of the house … They knew that Hutu militias would return.

I found a local taxi driver—his name was Peter—to drive me around to the memorials. He told me about his experience. He was a victim; he lost his family and had to drop out of school. He would have been 14 at the time, and lived a life where he bounced around from one place to the next. He tried to go back to school as a 16-year-old but he couldn’t do school. He couldn’t do it again because of the trauma that he experienced. He does not have an education. He can’t hold a steady job. He lost all of his family except for two siblings. His younger sister died two years later; and he simply told me it was an outcome of the genocide … They used rape as one of the most atrocious forms of murder and torture there. People known to have HIV [were used as weapons]. My stomach turns at the idea that you could brutalize a woman that way. And then to top it off, give them essentially a death sentence that they have to carry around with them for the rest of their life … Peter was so candid. He gave me a phenomenal education about what happened to some Rwandans who have not been able to recover.

Thousands [of Tutsis] were herded into [the Nyamata Church] and hand grenades were lobbed into the church, and militia went in with machetes and hacked people to death. Small children were picked up by their feet; they were swung and smashed against walls … [Now a memorial, the church] is full of the clothing that had been saved, mostly of the children. Clothing that is slowly deteriorating, that still has blood stains on it. There are shoes lined up, clothing draped over the pews, small skulls assembled, and in painstaking detail your guide will tell you where they were smashed against the wall. [The church] was full of bone fragments and small little shoes.

When the Tutsis were slaughtered, the teaching was disseminated. I didn’t realize that essentially the teaching workforce was wiped out. There was no school for a number of years. A lot of the children were United Nation volunteers who came in and set up temporary schools.

My background

My parents were never overt champions for human rights but they told stories that made me keenly aware of the importance of standing up for human rights. So taking a stand to promote human rights was never an overt education, it was just part of the fabric of who my parents grew me up as.

Practicality over grandiose ideas

There are small interventions that make the difference in the life of a child. The really grandiose ideas that were going to reform the system might be nothing more than that: a grandiose idea. There is an optimistic element to it … It’s not what we sometimes think. There’s not a glossy-brochure solution to anything. In Rwanda, there were teachers who are really committed to peace, to peace education, to rebuilding a country but this group is 60 teachers out of tens of thousands. Quite often it comes down to individual teachers making a commitment to make a difference in the life of an individual child. It really is about individuals deciding to do so.

[My students in the course The fourth ‘R’: Teaching and leading human rights education] were aghast. I think for a lot of them, they understand what genocide means, they understand the horrors of it, but the telling of the individual stories that seems to leave them with their heads spinning, thinking about teachers going into classrooms, trying to foster community, build a vision for the future but at the same time struggle with these horrific things they’ve endured. They were trying to get their head around: ‘How do you do that?’


Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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