HYDE PARK — In a country where 800,000 people were slaughtered in about three months, Lillian Eckstein fondly recalled a love story.
Eckstein, a University of Chicago Laboratory Schools senior, spent six weeks over the summer in Rwanda, where, in 1994, the Hutu ethnic majority murdered hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis. Machetes were used in most of the killings, while children and babies were frequently thrown into walls.
Eckstein traveled to Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland with a population of about 11 million, with 10 other teenagers to study how the conflict has been resolved over the past 19 years, both in urban and rural settings.
She especially came away impressed with the marriage of a Hutu man and Tutsi woman who met during the genocide at a water well. The man, then a young teen, fought to keep the woman alive, and the couple now have a 4-year-old daughter and infant son.
"To them, the love they had for each other surpassed the conflict of the genocide," Eckstein said.
Eckstein, 17, appreciates the wonderful life she has at Lab Schools, which she has attended since age 2 and where she is the senior class president, a member of the Model United Nations Club, and a standout member of the swimming, basketball and soccer teams.
She also has an extremely close family. Her parents, Carol Bernstein-Eckstein, the vice president, secretary and general counsel at Cabot Microelectronics, and Martin Eckstein, a stay-at-home dad, have walked Eckstein the 1-mile distance to Lab every schoolday for 15 years. They did the same for her brother, Nathan, a ballet dancer and now a sophomore at Princeton University.
"She and her family, they're all the kind of people who are looking out for others and trying to be the glue that holds the community together," said Chris Harper, an assessment specialist at Lab Schools and a longtime sports trainer for Eckstein.
Harper wasn't surprised Eckstein had chosen Rwanda for a summer destination. Before her junior year, Eckstein went to Vietnam for several weeks to help build three houses and examine the effects of the war there decades before.
"She's just such a humble and warm person," said Harper, of Woodlawn.
Eckstein's group ventured throughout Rwanda, from the southern town of Butare to a small village called Cyenkwanzi. She also visited Akagera National Park — viewing giraffes, hippos, gazelles and zebras — and hiked up Mount Bisoke, a 12,175-foot extinct volcano, despite recovering from a torn left ACL and meniscus injury from the spring soccer season.
Whenever she went, Eckstein said Rwandans were welcoming.
"I always received a friendly hello," Eckstein said. "I was impressed by the general openness of the people, especially having such a terrible thing happen 19 years ago. It is amazing."