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Remembering Rwanda

BY LILY ABROMEIT | APRIL 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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Recalling life in Rwanda 20 years ago, living amid the country’s most graphic and brutal genocide, is a painful undertaking for Eric Uwimana.

“It’s not something you wake up and talk about,” he said.

In 1994, clashes began between two ethnic groups in the region, the Hutu and Tutsi. The tension culminated for weeks, eventually resulting in the death of 800,000 Rwandan men, women, and children.

Uwimana was 7.

“I was old enough to see what was happening, even though I didn't [understand],” he said.

Even though he may not have comprehended why neighbors were killing each other, Uwimana said it left an overpowering effect on his life.

“It completely shifted me,” he said. “I value life more than it should be. I feel more called to find my dignity as a Rwandese, and strive to achieve better, and more, and to have a bigger vision.”

As a Ph.D. student in human toxicology at the University of Iowa, Uwimana said he is “on a mission” to remember the disaster and help others understand.

Doing his part, he is attending the UI with a plan to one day return to help the rebuilding of Rwanda.

“My hope is to go back to my country and give back,” he said.

The 27-year-old said he would place an emphasis on the value of education, unity, and accountability.

UI law Professor Adrien Wing, who helped rework the Rwandan Constitution, said the people in the country have made a concerted effort toward positive change.

“They wanted to get rid of anything that was going to further ethnic hatred,” she said. “Ethnic hatred had led to a genocide, so they wanted to make sure they had protection for all of the minorities.”

Wing said despite the changes, it will take many generations before the nation’s scars are fully healed.

“Twenty years is not a very long time, and after a genocide, it’s nothing,” she said. “It will take undoubtedly centuries to deal with what happened.”

Despite the pain still echoing through his nation, Uwimana said, he has faith in the people to endure and to thrive.

“At that time, Rwanda was doomed as a country,” he said. “But Rwandans refused to be held down.”

Uwimana said complete restoration is dependent recognizing the tragedy and reminding the people of what can still change.

“It’s important for the younger generation … to remember and to learn about what happened,” he said, and the forces for future hope lie with the younger citizens.

An expert in world history said the world is always at risk for these kinds of situations. However, he said, pre-emptive measures could be taken.

“There’s a very complex history going into all of this,” said Mike Zmolek, a UI visiting assistant professor of history. “If we want to think about preventing these things, we can find the warning signs.”

A warning sign can be when there is racial or ethnic tension in countries, a problem solved mainly with peaceful communication, Zmolek said.

The dream of a renewed Rwanda keeps Uwimana hopeful.

“[My] vision of Rwanda should be that of a united community … to live together and strive to develop … peace and stability,” he said. “There is a process. We are on the path of reconciliation, but that is a long-term goal.”


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