AWASH with blood and in the grip of civil war, it was a hellish place where families were cruelly torn apart by blade and machete, and precious life was routinely brutally discarded.
For long enough the troubled African nation of Rwanda would have failed desperately as an ideal destination place for a teenagers’ jolly school trip – however much their surly and uncooperative behaviour might have tempted you.
Twenty years have passed since neighbour fought neighbour, though even now the Foreign Office warns visitors to beware of “stray bullets” and “artillery fire.”
Yet when the group of a dozen teens from four west Edinburgh schools were offered the chance to visit for what was surely the ultimate school outing, the results were little short of life changing.
And as they stepped on to soil which once ran blood red with the horror of genocide, the youngsters suddenly discovered a place where hurt has been replaced by happy smiles, and where – unlike back home – the latest must-have was clean water, and IT skills were learned not on fancy new computer equipment, but from a good old- fashioned blackboard.
It was, recalls one of just two boys among the dozen-strong group of 16 and 17-year-olds, an extreme “end of term” outing unique not just for its incredible opportunity to help out at one of the country’s many orphanages but to pay respects at the poignant memorials to its many victims.
At the same time, it was an eye-opening insight into just how much Western teens have – from the latest electronic gadgetry to home comforts – compared with others elsewhere.
“Usually a school trip would be somewhere like Alton Towers, maybe Italy or France. To go to Rwanda was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it was a different world,” nods Adam Ali, 17, from Corstorphine, one of five youngsters on the trip from Craigmount High. “I think we all came back appreciating a lot more of what we have at home. We take so much for granted like education and clean water and we’re still not happy. I really think going on the trip has changed me.”
And Royal High pupil Lucy Park, 17, from Barnton, agrees the trip opened her eyes too: “We found that they live such a basic life whereas we have so much. It’s all about the latest iPhone or camera, but there they are, just happy with what they have.”
The teens from Craigmount, St Augustine’s, Royal and Forrester high schools were handpicked for the trip after a gruelling series of interviews and teamwork challenges aimed at ensuring they had the mettle to withstand two weeks mostly camping with none of their home comforts.
They also had to persuade nervous parents, most of whom would clearly remember the shocking images of Rwanda at war 20 years ago when one million people were slaughtered in a horrifying battle between tribes.
Once in the landlocked heart of Africa, the youngsters faced a series of physical and emotional challenges, from the toil of working at L’Esperance orphanage in Kigarama – where some children had lost mothers to HIV acquired when they were raped during the genocide – to coming face-to-face with victims with horror stories to tell.
There the Edinburgh teens played with nursery children, bonded with teens, cleaned floors and fetched water. Some sat in on one of the nearby school’s computer technology classes, suddenly humbled when they realised that the students were learning keyboard skills from a rough drawing on a blackboard, unlike at home where schools are fully equipped with computers and the latest technology.
“It was crazy to think they were learning computer skills off a board,” adds Lucy, who is now considering a future of volunteering work in Africa. “They don’t have the equipment to do it any other way. It brought home what a basic life they lead, whereas we have so much.”
The Youth Exchange trip was organised by Edinburgh City Council’s Community Learning and Development and followed a visit by a group from Rwanda to the city in 2008 to coincide with the G8 summit. It coincided with the 20th anniversary of the three-month massacre during which an estimated 800,000 people – mostly Tutsi people at the hands of Hutu – lost their lives.
According to organisers Martin Hutchison, the anniversary gave the trip a poignant edge: “They met people who were able to tell them what they experienced, so it brought the whole thing to life. We made it clear this was a ‘skills for life’ kind of trip, not like a school skiing trip, but something they could put on their CV.”
After a week at a youth centre in the capital Kigali, where the Foreign Office advice warns of grenade attacks in the past two years, the group headed to the orphanage where children from just 11 months old – a baby whose mother was struck by lightning and killed while she carried him on her back – to teens whose parents had often lived through the bloodshed only to succumb to illness, are cared for.
“They were put to work in the nursery, they bathed the kids, worked in the fields and carried the water,” adds Martin. “Many of them had never camped out in their puff before, yet here they were in the middle of Rwanda where it was cold at night, they had no personal space or comforts and yet they showed real maturity.
“They took on board things like the distances children had to walk, barefoot, to get to school and the lack of equipment. Even the shower was an old tree root with holes in it where the water flowed through. There was a real feeling among the pupils of suddenly appreciating everything they have at home.”
One of the youngest, 16-year-old St Augustine’s pupil Rebecca Meikle of Corstorphine, said the experience has left her with lifelong memories. “I knew about the genocide so I was a bit scared at first, but once we got there we found the people were so nice and appreciative of everything.
“There was one man, Simon, our tour guide, who told us he’d lost most of his family in the genocide. He was always so happy and we’d got to know that side of him, then him telling us about that was so upsetting.”
A visit to a church, scene of an atrocity were women and children were attacked as they sheltered, was particularly poignant: “We saw their clothes and bones. Seeing it made us all think ‘God, this really happened’.”
It meant that letting go of the modern technology and social media wasn’t as hard as she had originally thought.
“At first it felt a bit strange not being able to text and speak to friends but after a couple of days it didn’t matter. Actually it was nice to get away from being on the phone and to just relax and enjoy where we were. I think going on the trip has changed me. Now I really want to do something that makes a difference.”
YEARS OF BLOODY CARNAGE
IN the space of just four bloody months, Rwanda tore itself apart leaving 800,000 of its people dead.
The trouble was sparked when Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down above Kigali airport on April 6, 1994.
It set his fellow Hutus on collision course with Tutsi rebels – suspected as being responsible for the incident – and bloodshed quickly spread throughout the country.
Tutsi people around the country were hacked to death by government-backed forces brandishing machetes or slaughtered in churches where they had fled seeking safety.
The 30,000-strong state-supported Hutu militia group’s numbers swelled as ordinary people were urged to take up arms and attack the Tutsi people, encouraged by offers of money, food and land. Eventually, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, formed originally among Tutsi refugees in Uganda and some moderate Hutu, took control of Kigali from the government.
It led to a mass exodus of Hutus – around two million – to neighbouring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The presence of militant Hutus there has led to years of conflict and an estimated five million deaths.
Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government has twice invaded its larger neighbour, arguing it wants to wipe out the Hutu threat.
Foreign Office advice to travellers heading to Rwanda warns of trouble near its DR Congo border and that travellers should be aware of “incursions, stray bullets or artillery fire”.