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Rwanda 20 Years Later

| July 2, 2014

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A remembrance ceremony for families that were wiped out during the genocide. photo courtesy of GAERG (a Rwandan-based survivors' organization)

About three years ago, I returned to Rwanda for the first time since the 1994 genocide. Upon returning to the village where I grew up, I was both saddened and angry as I realized there was no sign my family ever lived there. Yams and cassava were growing in the same spot where my family’s home once stood. Horrific memories came flooding back.

From April to July of each year, Rwanda and the world commemorate the genocide. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. But for those of us who lived through it, in some ways, it may as well have been yesterday. Even today, I am deeply troubled by the memories of those 100 days in which neighbor turned against neighbor, friends became enemies, and even priests and nuns actively participated in the killing of those who sought refuge in churches.
        
I was nine years old at the time, and 20 years later I’m still trying to come to terms with what I witnessed. Today, I still have flashbacks to those days in which I watched helplessly as innocent men and women were dragged to their deaths; those nights when I listened to machete-mutilated children cry for parents whom they’d never see again, and the instances when I came face to face with mobs trying to kill me, simply because I was born a Tutsi.

I survived. Not so for my parents, six siblings, and countless other relatives. Afterwards, I learned that one day during the genocide, while I was in hiding with my grandmother, my Hutu neighbors had taken my parents, all my siblings, and other relatives to a nearby river, where they proceeded to butcher them and throw their bodies in the same river whose banks I grew up playing on. Their crime? That they were born Tutsis under a Hutu-led government, which believed that being of the Tutsi ethnic group was a crime deserving of death.

Since the genocide I have struggled to come to terms with my experience, but as I often tell those whom I speak to, a genocide experience is not something you ever get over. No matter how much you want to keep it in the past, it is never far from your present. I realize this, for example, every time I hear loud bursts in my New York neighborhood and have the instinct to run. Then I realize they are just fireworks, not bullets like those I heard every day and night during the genocide.

Over time, the nightmares of Hutu mobs chasing me with machetes have subsided, and I’ve worked persistently to channel the despair, anger, and survivor guilt into a sense of responsibility and a life of activism. But the sense of loss is always there. Not a single Mother’s Day or Father’s Day passes that I do not feel the terrible void left by my parents’ murder.

I also often think about how old my six siblings would be today. The oldest, my beloved brother Jean D’Amour, would probably be married now, and I would be an aunt. My youngest brother, Daniel, just a couple months old when he was murdered, would be 20 years old. Siphoro, Josephine, Elkanah, and David would all be young adults in the primes of their lives. And with them by my side, I would truly know the meaning of brotherhood, sisterhood, and a large, loving family. But their lives were swept away in those 100 days of mass murder. I don’t have physical pictures of them, for they, too, vanished in that night. But their images and love are forever ingrained in my heart and mind.

For the last 13 years, in their honor, I’ve focused my energies on the work of genocide prevention, which was inspired by David Gewirtzman, a Holocaust survivor who came to speak to my class when I was a sophomore in high school. I was a timid 16-year-old asylee, too afraid to share my story with anyone. But David encouraged me to share my story, and we began speaking together in 2001 until he passed away in 2012. Through my presentations in schools, conferences, and community events, I try to preserve the memory of my family and all those whose lives were brutally cut short by the genocide, as well as to call for support for genocide orphans, widows, and women who were raped during the genocide and now live with HIV/AIDS. In sharing my experience with young people and adults alike, it is my hope that I can prevent others from ever experiencing the horrors and loss I experienced 20 years ago.

Today, threats of genocide are looming in Darfur and South Sudan and in countries such as Burma and the Central African Republic, not to mention the mass atrocities being committed in Syria. Clearly more has to be done. So as we observe the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda this year, I call on you to do more than remember. If what happened in my native country has taught us anything, it is that we must not be indifferent. We must not be silent in the face of genocide, threats of genocide, and mass atrocities. Through letters and phone calls, and in person, we must raise our voices in protest, and call on our local and national leaders to take action.

I strongly believe that a more peaceful and equitable world is possible. But it will require the involvement of each and every one of us. So don’t be silent, don’t stand by—take action. Educate yourself, your children, and your community about the dangers of racism, anti-Semitism, hatred, and intolerance. Join a local or national organization working to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. United to End Genocide, Genocide Watch, the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Facing History and Ourselves—these are but a few of the U.S.-based organizations that are making an impact in the work of genocide prevention and to which you can offer your time, experience, and expertise. 

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