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For some of the 14 Penn students who spent two weeks helping at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village for Rwandans orphaned in the country’s genocidal conflict, the experience brought back memories of personal tragedy. For all of them, it was a stark reminder of the horrors humans have inflicted on each other. But it was also an inspiring time, “all about hope, all about the future.”


The skulls and femurs are stacked from the floor to the ceiling, like a bookshelf taken from the set of a gruesome horror movie. The musty smell of decaying bones is consuming, the shrapnel holes ominous. There are traces of blood everywhere, on the walls, on the ceiling, on the old pieces of clothes piled upon more bloody clothes. Death, in its most raw form, is inescapable.

It’s here, at the Nyamata Church in southeastern Rwanda, where up to 10,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group fled at the height of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, only to be trapped and slaughtered by enemy Hutus at the very place they sought refuge. Today, the skulls, many still cracked from the clubs or machetes that beat them, remain inside the church and in another mass grave outside it, serving as a haunting memorial for the genocide that took the lives of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans over a 100-day span.

For Zack Rosen, the strong-willed captain of the Penn basketball team, the vivid scene is too much. He kneels to the ground, thinks about his grandparents who survived the Holocaust, and weeps. He feels an arm around his neck. It’s his basketball teammate, Dau Jok, an African whose own father was the victim of similar ethnic violence. Beside them, another Penn student whose father was murdered, Humna Bhojani, has what she’d later call “a complete breakdown,” crying over the senseless killings she knew too much about. Somewhere nearby, classmate Sindhuri Nandhakumar feels a mixture of anger, frustration, and confusion as she thinks about the civil war that ravaged her native country of Sri Lanka for decades.

For Rosen, Jok, Bhojani, Nandhakumar, and some of the other 14 students from the University who are in Rwanda for a school-sponsored service trip, the jarring images at Nyamata trigger a flood of somber thoughts and memories from their own lives. For others, seeing the remnants of such horrid mass murders is like nothing they could have ever envisioned, leading to discussions that are as much emotional as they are intellectual.

But the Penn students know they cannot let their emotions get the best of them, not for very long at least. Waiting for support and comfort back at the youth village where they’re staying are a group of teenagers, some of whose parents’ remains still lie within that church.

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COVER STORY: Horror and Hope By Dave Zeitlin
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Left: Penn students Sindhuri Nandhakumar, Erica Sachse, and Claire Shimberg with local children on the road to Rubona, near the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. (For safety reasons, no ASYV residents were photographed for this story.) Below: Remains of genocide victims in Nyamata Church in southeastern Rwanda, where they were murdered.


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©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/26/11