Innovative software that simulates the diplomacy and defence decisions made at the time of the Rwandan genocide is now taxing S5 pupils. Raymond Ross reports
It is 1994 and you are with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda approaching a roadblock. The car radio is blasting out the message to all Hutus to kill the "cockroaches", the Tutsis. Do you ram the barrier or do you give way? The choice is yours and hundreds of lives may depend on what you decide.
This is just one of the many decisions you will be asked to make by Pax Warrior, a computer program which teaches history by combining multi-media documentary with simulation.
James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh is the first school in Britain to pilot the software. Here 16-year-olds engage with history by navigating a decision web that is based on the experiences of General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian UN commander during the Rwandan genocide, which left nearly one million men, women and children, mostly Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus, dead.
The narrative begins in a hotel room where an informant claims a massacre is about to take place. Whether to believe this or not and what action to take begins the decision-making process.
At each stage pupils are faced with more choices, different dilemmas. To help, they have access to a research module and a section of survivors'
A cross-curricular tool, Pax Warrior covers history, politics, personal and social development, citizenship, guidance, collaborative working, geography, religion, English, modern studies, language, art and computer skills.
"It's not a game," says Alex Wallace, the headteacher. "It's different from any project I've seen.
"It's about making decisions about fairly significant moral dilemmas and creating in-depth knowledge about the factors involved in genocide."
Developed in Canada by the media company 23 YYZee, the school became involved through a parent, Sheila Robinson, who is the business development manager for Pax Warrior.
"At the start of the pilot last May we trialled it with 150 S5 pupils in the school hall, using a large projector screen," says Mr Wallace. "It was clear from the start that it was a powerful tool.
"We have a partnership with a South African township school and we'll get them to trial it too to see their reactions. They may have memories of pain and react differently."
Reactions among the James Gillespie's High pupils have been strong. "It's powerful and shocking, has a large impact factor," says Adam Cassells. "I didn't know about Rwanda before and I should have.
"It gives a lot of detail and it never becomes a game. It's very real and no matter what decisions you take, there is never a truly positive outcome.
The genocide will happen," he says.
Mhairi McLellan says Pax Warrior has made her more interested in currrent affairs.
"You learn how the media ignored Rwanda until it was too late. So when you're watching the news, you begin to wonder what else they're not covering. You also learn it's dangerous to believe only one source of news.
"It's made me want to tell people about terrible things like this and do something about it. It's made me more questioning.
"The images do come back to you, especially the one of the dead child," she says.
"If only the media had paid more attention," says Astrid Brown. "It's quite disturbing."
If the media's part in the conflict is disturbing, so is that of the Western powers. The detailed teaching notes report: "At the United Nations, the Security Council, led by the United States with strong British backing, chose not to intervene forcefully I After losing 18 soldiers in Somalia in 1993, the US was unwilling to participate in any further peacekeeping missions and was determined to prevent the Security Council authorising any new serious missions at all."
The roles of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches also make uncomfortable reading.
Although the pupils found the documentary material disturbing at times and the outcome dispiriting, they agree it was an important and positive educational experience.