Bates students share experience with Rawandans escaping genocide

LEWISTON — An audience at the Great Falls Forum on Thursday learned how 13 Bates College students and their professor conducted groundbreaking interviews last May with survivors of Rwanda’s genocide.

Alexandre Dauge-Roth, an associate professor of French at Bates College, explained how the three-week trip offered students an opportunity to connect with several people who endured unspeakable horrors when Hutu extremists massacred as many as a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. He said the project offered “a radically different context than the classroom” and presented a framework for “reshaping the dynamic between student and culture.”

The experiences were “mutually transformative,” Dauge-Roth said.

The students met with orphans of the genocide who were 16 months to 17 years old when their families were killed. They are now mostly in their 20s and 30s.

Dauge-Roth told the audience that all people interviewed responded only if they wanted to. He said many of the survivors have kept silent on the horrors of their experience because so many people tell them it is too terrible to hear.

“These stories are highly disturbing and unpleasant, and they destabilize you,” Dauge-Roth said.

One of the survivors was quoted as saying, “You don’t have the luxury of putting it aside. You are in it.”

The meetings between students and survivors sometimes resulted in facts and experiences coming out at unexpected times and places.

The Bates project was successful in large part because it was conducted on “a relationship of trust,” the Bates educator said.

The trip provided the students with a chance to use their skills in French. Often a French-speaking translator was present between survivors who spoke only a Rwandan language and the students.

The interview encounters generated a number of challenges. Dauge-Roth said the students were required to imagine things they could never know. They had to find ways to respond to the horrors of genocide.

He said that going to Rwanda was valuable because it presented effective chances to overcome stereotypes about the people and the place.

Following Dauge-Roth’s presentation, two of the students told how the trip had affected them. Emma Scott, a senior from Philadelphia, Pa., said, “I never felt so warmly received anywhere.” Simone Pathe, a junior from Madison, N.J., recalled that the people they interviewed “were so excited that people cared.”

In response to a question from the audience, Scott said she felt “huge hope coming out of these young people.”

Pathe said that people who resist hearing the horrific details of the Rwandan genocide “are missing that sense of hope by not listening.”

Dauge-Roth received a 2009 Maine Campus Compact award for infusing public service and civic engagement into his teaching. His book, “Writing and Filming the Genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda: Dismembering and Remembering Traumatic History,” is due to be published next month.

About three dozen people attended the talk on “Lewiston to Kigali and Back: Learning with Orphans of the Rwandan Genocide” at the Lewiston Public Library’s Marsden Hartley Cultural Center.