Nights at the hotel

Students from the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln pose for a group picture outside the Bloom Hotel on one of our last days together in Kigali, Rwanda. Melissa Urscheler/Missourian
Our hotel in Kigali had an outside restaurant, and following a long day of classes and field trips, a group of us usually met downstairs after we returned home from dinner. We grabbed a few tables on the back lawn, ordered food or drinks and talked for a few hours before bed.

We gathered under those bright stars as a way to keep our minds off the emotional roller coaster we were on during the day, and it soon became an important reason why we grew so close as friends. Most of the time, we didn't talk about what we had seen and heard during the day. But when we did, we spoke freely, without fear that our naivete would offend our guides and teachers.

Before we left for Rwanda, our professor told us that what we were about to experience would create a firm bond between us. Gallimore shared a story from a few weeks earlier, when she had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She was attending a seminar with a group of other professors, and their interaction had been limited. But that had changed after there was a shooting in the same building. Going through such a traumatic event, Gallimore told us, caused them to become closer.

At that point, looking around the classroom at the eight strangers going on the trip, I found that hard to believe. But late in the evening, in the restaurant outside the hotel, we began to understand and to form the type of bond Gallimore thought we would.

During our two weeks in Rwanda, the students from the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska- Lincoln traveled the country in a bus with just enough seats for everyone. Melissa Urscheler/ Missourian
All 20 of us — the group from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the group from MU — grew together in so many ways. We taught each other a lot: about other countries we had visited and other languages we knew, about sports, music and art. The nights at the hotel were a way for us to get together and relax, to share and be ourselves.

We built friendships with the young wait staff at the hotel and our student tour guides from Rwanda. We played UNO, staged silly competitions like who could do the best impressions, quizzed each other on our Kinyarwanda and laughed until we were told the restaurant was closing. Usually, we helped pack up the plastic lawn chairs before calling it a night.

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Coming home a changed person

It’s been almost five months since I have returned home from Rwanda, and I still find myself thinking or speaking about my experience any chance I get.

In those two weeks, I established friendships I hope to maintain for many years. Our student guides from Rwanda shared their stories, supported each of us in our exploration of their country and culture. They showed us that this small but populous African country — it's about the size of Maryland and home to 10.5 million people — is defined by much more than genocide. I became close to the other students and professors from MU and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I found a mentor in Rangira Béa Gallimore.

Most of us from MU have tried to stay in close contact despite our busy schedules. We send each other news stories and other interesting articles or Web sites we find relating to Rwanda and our studies from the summer. The eight of us are permanently bound by our once-in-a-lifetime discovery of Rwanda. And we will forever be thankful for Professor Gallimore and her ambition to bring two disparate worlds together.

With her continuing help, a few of us will be returning to Rwanda to work with various organizations — with our own aspirations — to help Rwanda continue to flourish.

Melissa Urscheler is an MU senior studying convergence journalism with a minor in history. Urscheler, of O'Fallon, Ill., will return to Rwanda after graduation to intern with a human rights organization.

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1918 Rwanda-Urundi, a former German colony, is given to Belgium under the Treaty of Versaille.

1926 Ethnic identity cards are introduced in order to distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis.

1960 Belgian colonial rulers organize municipal elections. Hutus win.

1961 to 1962 Rwanda becomes an independent country.

Mid-1960s Half the Tutsi population is estimated to be living outside the country.

1967 Tutsis massacre begins.

1973 Tutsis are no longer allowed at universities and are restricted to 9 percent of paying jobs.

1975 The National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) is formed.

1986 Rwandan exiles form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

1989 Coffee prices collapse, creating a sever economic downturn in Rwanda.

1990 to 1991 The army begins to train civilian militias. The MRND stalls on creating a multi-party system. Tutsis are killed in many massacres. Opposition is persecuted.

February 1993 RPF renews fighting around Kigali, lasting for several months.

August 1993 The MRND and the RPF sign a peace accord, creating a coalition Hutu-RPF government. About 2,500 U.N. troops are deployed to oversee the return of the refugees.

September 1993 to March 1994 Militia training intensifies. MRND stalls on creating government. Extremist radio stations broadcast please to attack Tutsis.

April 6-7, 1994 The Rwandan and Burundi presidents are killed after their plane is shot down. The Rwandan army and militias start killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. U.N. forces stand by because intervening would break their mandate.

April 21, 1994 The U.N. reduces forces to 250 after the killing of 10 soldiers.

April 30, 1994 The U.N. Security Council condemns the killings but omits the word "genocide," releasing it from the obligation to protect civilians.

May 17, 1994 The U.N. agrees to send more troops with power to protect civilians and begins to use the word "genocide."

Mid-May 1994 The International Red Cross estimates that 500,000 Rwandans have been killed

Nov. 1994 A U.N. tribunal is created.

Jan. 10, 1997 The first trial comes before the tribunal.