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ASHLANDERS ABROAD

Revisiting Rwanda

Ashland woman marks progress in African nation since 1994 genocide
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Christine Hjelt opens a nesting basket from Rwanda Wednesday in her Ashland home. Hjelt spent time working in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and attended the 20th anniversary commemoration earlier this month as part of a U.S. delegation. Julia Moore / Daily TidingsJulia Moore
 Posted: 2:00 AM April 25, 2014

This time 20 years ago, the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu Rwandans was in full swing.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide lasted just over three months, and left Rwanda divided, devastated and destroyed, with as many as 1 million dead.

"In those early days, there was pain everywhere regardless of your ethnic connection," said Christine Hjelt, who arrived in Rwanda with husband Jack Hjelt in January 1995, less than six months after the massacre had ended.

"The economy was in shambles, agriculture totally disrupted, social services and government structures nonexistent and religious faith challenged," said Hjelt, who lives in Ashland.

She arrived as part of the humanitarian aid sent by the U.S. government, for whom she worked. Hjelt had been in Somalia providing help in the wake of the Battle of Mogadishu, and she knew she likely would be sent to Rwanda next.

She arrived to find a country with more than 100,000 orphans and children separated from their families and about 135,000 people in jail for genocide crimes — but no system to prosecute them.

She said that although the U.S. was criticized for not stepping in to help Rwanda when the genocide was occurring, there was a strong humanitarian presence during the aftermath, and she and Jack worked to help the country rebuild its government and help its people.

"Every day was filled with new decisions and the need to support our Rwandan colleagues as they worked, put families back together again and dealt with their own trauma," said Hjelt, who stayed in Rwanda until 1999.

Earlier this month, Hjelt traveled back to the country, more than 19 years after she first arrived, as part of the U.S. presidential delegation attending the 20th anniversary commemoration of the start of the genocide.

The commemoration, called Kwibuka 20, was attended by U.S. officials including Samantha Powers, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes David Rapp and many others.

The event included speakers and performances, including a dramatic 20-minute artistic reenactment of Rwanda's history and the genocide.

During the event, numerous Rwandans deeply affected by the memory of the genocide had to be carried out crying and screaming.

Hjelt said that after the commemoration, she and the delegation met with the Rwandan president and talked about the grief-stricken Rwandans who had to be removed from the ceremony.

"He said that happens every year, but every year it's a little less," she said.

Over the years, Hjelt has returned to Rwanda periodically for three-month humanitarian missions, but it had been four years since her last visit.

In the time since she first arrived, Hjelt said the country has changed dramatically.

Higher education has blossomed, with two public and some private universities. Evening programs are popular, with 80 percent of the students female.

Though religion always has been strong in Rwanda, a huge Pentecostal religious movement emerged after the genocide.

"In times when you need to heal, your faith is important," said Hjelt.

Since the divide between Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities sparked genocide, the country has developed strategies to avoid segregating the two groups.

Identification cards no longer show to which group a person belongs.

A community center was erected to help preserve the memory of the genocide and help the country move forward, a structure similar to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., Hjelt said.

"There are efforts to move forward," she said.

Despite steps to recover from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the country's citizens still harbor deep resentments toward each other, Hjelt said.

"Rwanda has made such progress," she said. "But there are still these seeds of resentment swirling around."

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.


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