Teacher and youth minister visits African nation 20 years after the genocide that left 800,000 dead
WILMINGTON – Citizens in Rwanda could teach the local population something about conflict resolution, according to a St. Elizabeth High School teacher who visited the east African country in August.
Melissa Pollio traveled to Rwanda with Catholic Relief Services, one of 12 people from across the country and the only delegate from the Diocese of Wilmington. It was part of a CRS program, “Called to Witness,” which brings youth leaders to a developing country. Pollio is also the youth minister at St. Elizabeth Parish. The point of the trip is immersion, not service, where the delegates study what the country does for and with its young people.
The first part of the trip included a visit to a genocide memorial in the capital city of Kigali. This year, the country is marking the 20th anniversary of the deaths of as many as 800,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsi and moderate Hutu, by the Hutu majority. Pollio called the visit a “deep and difficult experience.”
“One of the rooms that was in there had encasements, probably 20 feet long, that had bones – skulls and legs and arm bones and leg bones, and another thing of skulls. It wasn’t like being in a museum here, where you know you’re looking at archaeology, 10,000 years old. It’s people that should be walking around alive, that we should be meeting in this country today,” said Pollio, who was in Africa Aug. 14-25.
The country, however, has moved on, and Pollio said it was impressive to see the progress since. Citizens refer to themselves as Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi. The most inspiring part of the trip, she said, was the chance to see the peace and justice commissions that have been established to heal the wounds left by the genocide.
“They take young people, roughly age 14 to 20, children that would have not lived during the genocide, and they teach them conflict resolution and basically how to develop peace,” Pollio said.
In addition, survivors and perpetrators of the genocide are brought together to learn conflict resolution. In one village, Pollio met a man who was a perpetrator and his neighbor, a woman who is a survivor. The man told his American visitors how he did terrible things to the woman’s family, but after he was released from prison he had to find a way to live as her neighbor. She had to learn to forgive him.
On Aug. 30, their children were married, Pollio said.
“You would never hear of that in our country, that level of forgiveness. And they’re doing that all across their country. That was probably the most amazing thing to witness,” she said.
As part of the CRS program, each delegate must develop an action plan based on what he or she experienced. Pollio is not sure what she will do over the next year, but she would like to put the idea of the peace-and-justice commission to work in Wilmington.
“Violence is an issue. We have a real violence – or crime – issue in the city. Is there a way to apply that with young people across the city?” she wondered. “I haven’t really figured that part of it out yet.”
Elsewhere, Pollio witnessed efforts to eradicate poverty and malnutrition. The infrastructure is being rebuilt; construction is everywhere. There will be a new electric grid and free public wifi. Signs of progress are evident.