Professor M. Therese Seibert spoke highly of the group of students she accompanied to Rwanda this past May and June.

“This group started fundraising and organizing and collecting work service articles way before we even went.

They gave presentations before they even got to Rwanda,” Seibert said of the four Keene State College students.

Olivia Schiaffo / Equinox Staff

Olivia Schiaffo / Equinox Staff

Mariellen Breton, Alexander Habibi, Kelly Christianson and Mark Di Ianni accompanied Seibert to Rwanda as part of the Peace-Building Institute’s Never Again Rwanda project. According to the  Peace-Building Institute’s website, the group aims to educate people across the globe about the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, in hopes of preventing such a thing from ever happening again. The project also hopes to continue the rebuilding the country has gone through since then.

The group visited landmarks across the country, most of them specifically related to the genocide.

Over the weeks they spent in Africa the group became educated on the history of Rwanda. They also saw first-hand how the genocide affected the country and what has changed since.

Breton (or “Mars” if you’re talking to her peers from the trip) was the first student to present. “She was always the first one up every morning,” Seibert said.

Her presentation focused on the geography of Rwanda. The east-central African country is a landlocked mountainous region known by some as the “Land of one-thousand hills,” according to Breton.

Habibi, a European history and holocaust and genocide studies major, spoke about the genocide.

“Alex is the most well-read students I’ve ever known,” Seibert said of the next student to present.

The genocide occurred for about 100 days in 1994, but the conflicts and tension in the country go back much further.

Dating back decades, there have been two majority native groups in Rwanda. The Hutu, the farmers and commoners, made up roughly 85 percent of the population in the country. The Tutsi, mainly land-owning cattle herders, made up the remaining 15 percent.

After World War II, Belgium colonized Rwanda.

The Tutsi were thought to be more “European looking” by the Belgians, so they were given the power in the country. Relations between the two groups would be tense, until an eventual tipping point.

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying Rwandan President and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down.

No one knew for sure who was to blame for the assassination, but Tutsi extremists were ultimately blamed, especially by the government and the media.

“The radio was really key in spreading this hate propaganda,” Habibi said. Within hours the mass killing of Tutsis and Hutu moderates began.

While the figures are largely debated, most officials estimate at least one million Rwandans were killed in the three month period.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front [RPF], a Tutsi-led political/military group, eventually regained control of the country in July. “To this day the RPF still governs Rwanda,” Habibi concluded.

Christianson spoke next and focused on the memorials the group visited on their trip.

“She’s the reason we’re going to Rwanda,” Seibert said. According to Seibert, Christianson helped find students willing to contribute to the project and she also was one of the key forces in fundraising for the trip.

Christianson explained to the crowd that many of the memorials aimed to reject genocide denial.

The memorials represent standing monuments that prevent people from just forgetting this tragedy happened, Christianson explained.

One particular memorial called the Children’s Room stood out to Christianson, “It’s the hardest memorial to go through, but it’s very important to see. We didn’t experience anything else like that,” she said. The memorial features pictures of some of the children killed in the genocide.

Christianson later spent time telling the audience of her extended stay in Rwanda, where she taught English at two schools for three and a half weeks.

“I had about two-hundred-and-fifty students altogether,” she said.

She also has been working on the plans for a new hospital in Rwanda, specifically aimed to provide health care to homosexuals, who are often discriminated against in the country. Christianson reached out to KSC Pride when she got back to campus and the group fully supported the project with whatever they could do.

Seibert added that four KSC student architects are going to Rwanda to design the hospital.

“I learned more in three weeks with PBI [Peace-Building Institute] than I think I would in one semester,” Di Ianni said in his presentation about the role of organizations such as PBI. Di Ianni explained that these types of organizations help people connect all across the world and help out wherever needed.

Betty Mutesi was the Keynote Speaker for the event. A human rights lawyer and Projects Manager for International Alert in Rwanda and Burundi, Mutesi is considered an expert on human relations in Rwanda.

No matter how much the country has changed since the genocide, people still associate Rwanda with trouble, “The first question they ask you when they see your passport ‘Do you still have war in your country?’” Mutesi said, explaining her routine conversations when she goes to airports.

“People have really moved forward, and we celebrate that,” Mutesi said. People who may have been enemies fighting against each other 20 years ago are now neighbors.

Seibert called for the audience to be advocates for these students.

“Be ambassadors for the work these students are doing. The work is quite phenomenal,” Seibert asked of the audience.


Skyler Frazer can be contacted at

Share and Enjoy !