She says she has no nightmares about stepping over human bones strewn on the ground. She says she wasn’t traumatized by her trip to Rwanda to learn why one group of people killed another. But 16-year-old Mallika Kandelwhal is not your average American high school student.
Kandelwhal began planning her journey as a summer study project after seeing Hotel Rwanda in her sophomore history class at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa. The movie inspired her to learn more about the 1994 genocide that killed nearly 1 million people in 100 days.
She applied for and received the school’s Ben H. Read travel scholarship to spend three weeks in Rwanda working with the nonprofit Genocide Intervention Network, interviewing survivors, observing trials and visiting memorials. Now a senior, she wants to share her experiences to correct what she considers inaccuracies about Rwanda in the U.S. media and to witness against conflicts elsewhere, such as Darfur and Iraq.
A personal perspective
“If I watch the TV news about Afghanistan and Iraq, all I think of is warfare, not the real people with families trying to get by every day,” she says. “Visiting another country, you see not just the media perspective, but views from people who live there.” The faculty committee that approved Kandalwhal’s trip asked her five times if she and her parents felt safe about the travel.
“Mallika reassured us not only that she was going with a Rwandan friend (and staying with her friend’s family), but also that Mallika’s own family would be accompanying her, as they did for her sister Medha’s trip to India for the prior year’s Ben Read scholarship,” says Charles W. Bryant, committee chair and Kandelwhal’s history teacher.
Kandelwhal traveled with Stephanie Nyombayira, a Swarthmore College student, Rwandan native and Genocide Intervention Project outreach director. Kandelwhal’s parents, both physicians, traveled with her brother and sister but kept close tabs on her.
Throughout her trip, Kandelwhal kept a journal and took many photographs, which are posted on her blog. Of her first impressions of Rwanda, she writes: “‘The Land of 1000 Hills’ actually has the most friendly population, not to mention the most beautiful landscape, I have ever seen. Everyone asks after visiting this country, ‘How could such horrible acts happen in such a beautiful place?’”
A highlight of her journey was a meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who said he was pleased to hear about her project and interest in Rwanda. She learned about the government’s goals of reconstruction through institutions such as the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and Gacaca courts, derived from traditional Rwandan community conflict-resolution methods.
“Rwanda has [begun] to address the roots of genocide, which are division and inequality, and replace them with unity and harmony,” she writes. She also visited the Murambi genocide memorial, a former school where Hutu militias slaughtered 60,000 Tutsi Rwandans.
“The memorial site held 24 rooms filled with the bodies of those dug up from a mass grave,” her journal says. “At first, I couldn’t even enter the rooms, not only because of the stench, but also because of the bodies themselves. Holes from the machete wounds were still visible, the bodies of infants who either clung to their mother or were beheaded lay on tables, and some bodies still had hair and teeth.”
In Kibuye in western Rwanda, she writes, “I visited a genocide memorial different from all the others I have visited … It is an empty church that overlooks the only great lake in Rwanda, Lake Kivu. The beauty and silence of the church were just as striking as the other memorials filled with skulls and remnants of the genocide victims.”
Message of hope
A Hindu, Kandelwhal says her faith led her to believe “there must be some force that kept people together. I don’t know how I would have survived if that had happened to my family.” Throughout her mission she saw the country’s natural beauty and a determined hope for the future among survivors from both sides of the atrocities.
“I heard a lot about how people reconciled with each other,” she recalls. “Most didn’t want to see the person across the street as a killer, but as someone who had lost their mind. Government representatives went to villages and explained that European colonizers elevated the rich and powerful Hutus to oppress the Tutsis, that the hatred came from an outside source.”
Back home, she found support, curiosity and admiration.
“Before I left, kids would say, ‘You’re going to Africa? I can’t believe you’re doing that.’ Most people thought there would be a ton of violence,” she says. “When I got back they said, ‘So, how was Rwanda?’ I think my going made it more of an option for others.” Kandelwhal says she hopes to travel more in college, perhaps study for a career in international relations. She sees Rwanda as a model of reconciliation.
At school, she has organized “Dancing for Darfur” to raise funds for the Genocide Intervention Network. The event will include speeches by local officials and entertainers from around the world.
“Mallika brings back an enhanced appreciation of both the terrible costs of human inhumanity and a renewed desire to bring about change,” says Bryant. “She is a living example of our last year’s chapel theme, Risk and Resiliance.”
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