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Arriving in Rwanda: Ghosts of a Troubled Past, Working Towards a Better Future

07/25/2014 06:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2014

The JWW team traveling to eastern Congo has begun their trip in neighboring Rwanda. It's an important time to visit the country, which this year marked the 20th anniversary of the genocide that killed nearly a million civilians in only 100 days. The team spent Monday, July 21 in and around Kigali, visiting genocide memorial sites in the area, speaking with survivors and -- as our mission compels us to do - bearing witness to their stories of atrocities, survival, forgiveness and reconstruction. Below are Diana Buckhantz's reflections on the experience.

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We always begin our trips to Congo with a visit to the various Genocide Memorials in Kigali, Rwanda. We visit these sites as a reminder of why we do the work we do and to pay our respects to the victims of the Rwandan genocide. Despite the fact that I have been here many times, it's like the first time, every time. I am left speechless again and again in the face of such indescribable cruelty and inhumanity. At the Ntarama Church where people ran to seek protection, there is a wall splattered with the blood of the children who were killed when the perpetrators hurled them against the walls. In another room, men and women were burned to death as the prayed for help. And then there are the women. Over and over, we hear how the women are gang raped. We were shown a stick about 8 feet long, and we were told that after being gang raped, the women were raped again with these sticks to destroy their insides. And then they were murdered.

We then visit the Genocide Memorial Museum where there are rooms dedicated to the Holocaust, Armenian Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide and Bosnian Genocide. In each room the descriptions of the cruelty are identical and virtually indistinguishable one from the other. Then, we come to the Children's Room. Parents have immortalized the children they lost, and their beautiful faces smile back at me from the walls. It is almost too much to bear. The atrocities and acts of depravity continue from one conflict to another. What kind of a humanity murders children? It truly is impossible to comprehend the barbarism. I never become immune to it. With each visit it disturbs me more.

With the Genocide having been only 20 years ago, almost everyone we meet here has lost family members. We met a man who was 13 years old and whose mother and brothers were killed. Only his father and sister survive. The next man was 7 years old when his family was decimated. Only he and his father survive. Angelique was 37 at the time of the Genocide and was one of the people who sought refuge in Ntarama church. Her 4 year old child was shot and killed while on the back of her sister-in-law. Angelique was carrying her other baby when she was stabbed and passed out. She awoke to find her baby dead on her back. The stories go on and on.

And yet amazingly -- there is hope. Only 20 years later, Rwandans are living side by side with each other in what appears to be reconciliation. It is certainly not easy. Many people whose family members were killed are living next to the very people who were responsible. Rwandans have worked very hard to erase Tutsi and Hutu from the nomenclature yet it is almost impossible for me to imagine this ability to forgive and the willingness to live together simply as "Rwandans." Of course, many say it is not always easy to do so. In particular, there are challenges in teaching their children about the Genocide -- how do you answer questions about what occurred or who perpetrated the atrocities when some of those people are your neighbors? Or if you were a perpetrator or a family member of one, how do you come to terms with the fact that you must ask for forgiveness -- that you were responsible?

We all ponder this question and we ask it. And the answer is simple -- not easy-- but simple. Rwandans say that they choose life -- that in order to go on and to live in peace, they must accept and forgive. They choose a life of peace and reconciliation and a better life for all their children. Now If only the rest of the world could learn this lesson.

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Anne, Spencer, Michael, Angelique, Vaughan and Diana