“It Was a Dream Come True”: After Two Years Online, Peace Lab Students Went to Rwanda for the First Time

By Franciszek Dziduch

Collage by Veronika Bejczy

After two years of holding the class online, this year’s AUC students taking Peace Lab in the January intensive, for the first time went to Rwanda. The trip was preceded by a week of four-hour classes, during which students received an in-depth preparative education about the history of Rwanda and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. On Tuesday, 17 January the students boarded the plane, ready for a ten-day trip, filled with meetings with various NGOs, such as Transparency International Rwanda, important figures like the UN’s Resident Coordinator of Rwanda or the Rwanda’s Minister of Youth and Culture, as well as memorial visits. The trip concluded with a day devoted to group projects, which summarised what the students have learned throughout the trip. “We’re still processing what happened there,” says Cat Gelderloos, Dutch, second-year Social Science major. “After knowing these people from online meetings for two years, it felt like coming home,” remarks Dr. Anne de Graaf, who teaches the course. 

Peace Lab – A Brief Overview

How did the Peace Lab course develop? The story goes back to 2014. At the time, de Graaf had just begun her career as a professor at AUC and was finishing her PhD, which focused on the role of young people in peace building. At the time, her friend, Dr. Monika Bartoszewicz, who worked at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation, took her Master’s students to Kosovo for them to learn first hand about peacebuilding in a country that had freshly emerged from a conflict. De Graaf, who taught in the International Relations (IR) track, liked the idea, and asked AUC’s dean at the time, Professor Marijk van der Wende, if the university could provide funding for such a trip, to which the response was negative. But de Graaf was determined – eventually, she and several of her first-year IR students went to Kosovo during spring break, paying for the trip with their own money, while also funding it for those students who could not afford it. “This way, everybody, who expressed the desire to go, could come,” de Graaf says. Bartoszewicz introduced her to various NGOs and government organisations, which initiated building her own network in Kosovo.

Upon their return to AUC, word about the trip spread across the university: “The students held a Who’s In Town and even wrote papers on Kosovo for other classes,” de Graaf reminisces. Finally, dean van der Wende sensed an opportunity to distinguish AUC from other university colleges. To this day, it is the only university in the Netherlands that offers a qualitative research method fieldwork class to Bachelor’s students. In 2015, after prioritising the budget for the trip, the new course was offered in the June Intensive period: Peace Lab Kosovo. De Graaf admits that she thought the course would operate only a few times and at last, the country would join the European Union, but “this did not happen, Kosovo and its context are constantly changing, so the country remains an interesting case study,” de Graaf remarks. 

In 2017, AUC was visited by Rwanda’s ambassador, H.E. Jean Pierre Karabaranga. He gave a speech about how the country sets an example for how to overcome a national tragedy. De Graaf remembers that after the speech, the dean at the time, Professor Murray Pratt, met with the ambassador and other AUC lecturers. At one point, amazed by the story of the Rwandan peacebuilding, Dean Pratt said that they should have another Peace Lab in Rwanda. At first, de Graaf thought of it as more of a joke: “I immediately responded: but we have to have funding!,” she laughs. “Everyone became very enthusiastic and the rest of the meeting, we spent working out with the ambassador on how it could look and how it would work”.

It took over a year to design the new class and put it into the schedule. “Finally, we had the class in place, we had funding for it, but then COVID-19 came,” de Graaf says. In creating such a course, she finds positioning under the authority of local people to be crucial: “the position of humility is very productive, as this way, you concentrate on active listening and understanding the context.” Thus, the first Peace Lab Rwanda of 2021 had to be held online. Despite the difficulties, de Graaf remembers the course to be “very successful.” She attributes the success to Dieudonné Gakire, an AUC member of Class ‘22, who was born in Rwanda. At the age of two, Gakire survived the genocide and grew up in the country traumatised by the massacre. “He is an exceptional individual, who has a vision and personal courage, which established him as an internationally known peacebuilder,” de Graaf remarks. 

Gakire remembers that he was very happy for this course to happen as it was important for him that “students see first hand the process of Rwanda’s peacebuilding and how it manages to secure its newly-found stability”. Residing in Kigali, Gakire was able to recommend organisations, and connect them with de Graaf, to help with the schedule and reach out to speakers. 

The trip was organised by one more former AUC student – Merijn Tax, Class of ‘22. Tax took the course in 2021 and asserts that “although it was online, it was still my favourite course at AUC.” He stayed in touch with the Peace and Love Proclaimers organisation and remained involved with the country. This led de Graaf to selecting him as the programme coordinator for this year’s field trip. Starting from October onwards, together with Gakire, they had been designing the trip, contacting various NGOs and the government representatives. 

Although Gakire was happy with his experience of the course’s online version, only when the students of 2023 could come in-person, the “dream came finally true”.

Peace Lab Rwanda 2023 – Student’s Impressions

The Herring interviewed four students who shared their testimonies and impressions about the course, all coming from IR track. 

When asked why she chose Peace Lab Rwanda, Cat Gelderloos explains that she was striked by the idea of visiting a country, in which a tragedy such as a genocide, happened only 30 years ago. Upon beginning the course, she came to a realisation that she was going to learn “about this fascinating country that has done what no one would have thought to be possible”.

Lara Grassi, third-year Italian Social Sciene Major, says that she had wanted to take this course already before her enrollment at AUC. She believes that experiences outside of classes are “really valuable, especially if you’re dealing with such a theoretical major which is IR”. Daniela Bocus, a third-year Social Science Major from The Bahamas, agrees that Peace Lab offers “to experience what I was learning about from textbooks, but in practice.” Grassi chose Rwanda over Kosovo, as she thinks of it as a unique example: “given the history of Rwanda and what happened post-genocide, how they reconstructed the country — it’s a miracle. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else”. 

After a week of intense preparation, which mainly focused on learning about the country’s history and its sociological context, approximating to 150 pages and three individual presentations per day, the students departed to Rwanda. “We arrived at the crack of dawn, so we saw a clear blue sky with the orange sun in the background,” Gelderloos remembers. Gakire was waiting for them outside of the airport with a big smile on his face, ready to take them to their hostel. 

That same day, they spoke to the Deputy Executive Director of Never Again Rwanda. The following days consisted of at least two meetings with the representatives of peace building organisations, government officials or visiting memorials. The students share that the most important for them was to listen and learn, to avoid a possible pitfall of Westerners visiting the Global South: “from the start we knew that we truly had nothing to teach these people, they had things to teach us,” Grassi stresses.

Italian third-year Social Science major Francesca Giannella summarises the trip as “emotionally very intense”. Gelderloos remembers the impact the visit to Kigali Genocide Memorial had on her and others on the second day: “It was the first time we learned about the individual stories of the genocide victims. This made everything so much more real.” Because of the emotions, the students had to cancel the meeting they had scheduled afterwards. 

Gelderloos admits that it was Nyamata Church Genocide Memorial, which made her the most vulnerable. “In a matter of a day, thousands of people were massacred there, thinking it’s a safe shelter,” she explains, her voice trembling. “I saw clothes draped over the benches, still full of drained blood. You could see the bullet holes in the church walls and the ceilings.” She remembers open graves, with bones and skulls; “Seeing these memorials, one realises that it happened just thirty years ago. Suddenly, nothing in your life matters.” Grassi admits that after the week of theory, she “thought I was ready, but when I arrived there, I suddenly felt like we didn’t know anything.”

For many, the most special day was the visit to Gakire’s family village. After having lunch with Gakire’s parents, he told the students that he had a surprise for them. He brought them to a little stream in “the most beautiful surroundings — trees, valley, white rocks,” Giannella recollects. Gakire explained that a while ago, this had been a public washroom of the village. Giannella remembers the moment of no one talking, just playing with nature, smiling at one another. De Graaf also judges this day to be her favourite memory: “I’ve known Dieudonné for five years and for him to be so open to us was exceptional”. She says that she felt incredibly close to Gakire’s parents, something that they also expressed. Giannella further reminisces: “At one point, Dieudonné’s dad started saying in his native language that seeing us made him feel like his son was happy in the Netherlands.” Gakire, upon translating the speech, started crying and left the room. “And we all started crying. Sobbing, with the dad who was there,” Giannella concludes.

Courtesy of Cat Gelderloos

Intense emotions accompanied the students throughout the whole trip. “We didn’t experience things individually: we experienced collectively,” says Gelderloos. De Graaf points out the importance of sharing breakfasts and dinners together: “It was always the time when people would open up. Eating together was important to process everything that has happened.” Bocus adds that “each dinner, we discussed everything, and no one felt bad crying or laughing.”

For Gelderloos, the entire trip gave her a lot of hope for society: “If these people can rebuild their nation in 30 years, then what the hell are we doing here, in Europe, accelerating polarisation”. She found it startling that the former victims and oppressors could live together, next to each other. Giannella shares this sentiment: “Your neighbour killed your parents and you agree to live next to them, because what is most important for you is rebuilding the country.” “Rwandan people showed me a community I had not experienced before,” Bocus says.

Genocide survivor Gakire says that it is painful to see what is happening in other countries, like Kongo or Sudan. He recognises that the polarisation of different worldviews is happening everywhere, including Europe. This is why he believes Rwanda to be a great example of how this can be overcome: “you see people visiting from outside, and they are eager to learn, to take something out of it – it gives me hope to build better societies where everyone is feeling protected.”

De Graaf believes that she witnessed a transformation within the students: “I have this cheesy motto – open hearts open minds – but I saw this happen. Throughout the trip, the students became vulnerable to each other and to strangers.” This allowed them to learn about what de Graaf judges to be the most important factor in peacebuilding: conversation. “Students have to create the space in their minds for opposing views to exist and coexist.”

Upon Coming Back – What Now?

All students agree that the first few days of coming back were difficult. “It was very emotional, we checked up on each other frequently. We saw so many things together and after coming back, it felt lonely,” Bocus remembers. “The first week I isolated myself, because I didn’t know how to deal with what I saw and how to answer all the questions from friends, who wanted to learn how it was,” Gelderloos adds. Gelderloos says that she retained from the trip the “living-in-the-moment” approach: “for ten days I did not think about anything besides the present and what was I doing on the spot.” Grassi recognizes that it takes her time to properly process everything that she has learned: “I am trying now to take everything in and implement it to who I am here.” The students further remark that preserving the group dynamic is salient for everyone – once a week, they hold dinners together, where they continue to discuss and process everything that they have experienced.

Courtesy of Cat Gelderloos

For Merijn Tax, the trip has not ended: he is going back to Rwanda for an internship at the Transparency International Rwanda at the end of March. As he became familiar with the organisation throughout the course and met with the representatives during the field trip, Tax underlines that “Peace Lab creates networking opportunities, and helps to build your future career”. 

De Graaf contends that Peace Lab is an essential course: “we all come from divided societies, where people are not talking about certain things.” She believes that field trips such as the one to Rwanda teach “how to make understanding the top priority, rather than trying to be right or persuade others to your point”. She concludes with her observation that the students, over the time of the trip, let go of their culturally-learned biases and became open to new ideas and understandings — “As a lecturer, to witness such a thing – it doesn’t get better than that.”

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