Nebraska Class Had Predicted Genocide in Rwanda
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
In April of 1994, Hutu tribesman began their genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda. The horrific violence caught most of the world by surprise. But a year earlier, a high school geography class in Alliance, Nebraska, anticipated that just such a tragedy could happen. They'd been studying the factors common to mass murders throughout history and they saw them converging in Rwanda.
Their teacher at the time, Tim Walz, is now a congressman from Minnesota and he joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome.
Representative TIM WALZ (Democrat, Minnesota): Well, thanks for having me.
YDSTIE: What was it about Rwanda at the time that made the students conclude that is had the greatest risk of descending into genocide?
Rep. WALZ: They were looking at things like per capita incomes, differences in wealth. They were looking at colonial histories, colonial interventions. And I think one of the things that stood out so much to them was is that a long-standing division along ethnic lines with one group of people receiving favoritism in the colonial aspect, and then tension starting to grow in an economy that was struggling might set the framework for this. Because there's no set group of metrics that you can exactly parallel to each of these genocides, but there were some when they took a look at historical ones whether it be Armenia, Cambodia, and of course the Holocaust - they saw some of these things seem to reemerge. And then that one, I think, really struck them.
YDSTIE: After they had made this determination, genocide struck in Rwanda. How did you and how did they respond to the news about these terrible killings when it came?
Rep. WALZ: It was a mixture of that kind of insightful epiphany moment that there could be things to be gathered from the past, there could be things that we could anticipate. There was also, I think, a real sense of maybe failure as a world community and they felt a part of that in terms of we understood this was a possibility, surely someone else did too, and asking, why didn't anyone do anything? What they started to understand was that the potential lays almost anywhere.
YDSTIE: I wonder when you were going through this and the students finally made the realization that Rwanda was in peril, if they felt like we've got to do something about it, we've got to inform someone, we've got to tell someone that this could happen.
Rep. WALZ: I thought as a class they did a kind of letter to the editor to the school paper type of thing where they were bringing it up. I think the need to do something was stronger afterwards when they've realized that it did happen. And I know that some of the students took to the idea of maybe boycotting, I know with especially Burma or Myanmar. There were some of them, if I remembered right, wrote letters to Pepsi and asked them to withdraw their support of the country and the military leadership there, because their anticipation was that was another one where they thought it could happen.
YDSTIE: Thanks for joining us.
Rep. WALZ: Thank you for having me.
YDSTIE: Congressman Tim Walz whose story was featured in the New York Times this week. Travis Hoffman was a freshman in Mr. Walz's geography class. Today, he lives in the Phoenix area where he's a merchandiser. Mr. Hoffman, I wonder what it was like for you as a student to see your predictions about the genocide in Rwanda come true.
Mr. TRAVIS HOFFMAN: Very like a - it's kind of a surreal feeling, certainly not something you expect. You do it in school and talk about - it's a project that you think it's over with and that's - for your own benefit maybe something you use in education further down the line, got to us a little more directly than just something you read about in the news.
YDSTIE: Was there something lasting that you took away from the experience? Something that had taught you or something that you look back on or a way that you look in the world now that is different as a result?
Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, I study a lot of geography and sociological concepts, so for something like that to happen that early in my life where we went through that, now when I look at things, you know, I really look at a lot of different reasons and ways about things and ideas. Some things I, you know, I don't take for face value.
YDSTIE: Travis Hoffman, thanks very much for speaking with us.
Mr. HOFFMAN: All right, take care.
YDSTIE: Travis Hoffman speaking from Tucson.