|Rwandan genocide survivor speaks at Livingstone College|
By Laurie D. Willis
In 1994, 800,000 Tutsi were massacred in the Rwandan genocide.
In 1998, while visiting the small east African country, then-President Bill Clinton apologized to Rwandans for the United States’ failure to intervene in the atrocity.
Eugenie Mukeshimana (Moo-key-she-manña) knew before Clinton’s apology that the U.S. and other United Nations members stood idly by during the abomination. And she didn’t need to see “Hotel Rwanda” to understand the horror.
She survived it.
“When I was coming to America, I was ashamed to say where I was from,” Mukeshimana told Livingstone College administrators, faculty, staff and students March 7 inside Varick Auditorium. “I was worried that people might have thought I participated in the killings, and I didn’t want to have to answer any of those questions.”
A turning point for Mukeshimana — who was eight months pregnant during the genocide — occurred years later while she attended classes at a university in the state of New York.
“The professor couldn’t pronounce my last name, and I had to state it for him,” Mukeshimana said. “Then the professor asked me where I was from, and when I said Rwanda there was no response.”
After that, Mukeshimana knew it was time to stop being silent. She knew it was time to stop being ashamed. She knew it was time to start discussing what happened in her country in 1994.
Passing along history
“I realized that my role now as somebody who knows that history is to pass on that history,” said Mukeshimana, who emigrated to the United States in 2001 and travels the country speaking to people about what she endured. Salisbury architect Karen Alexander and Dr. Racelle Weiman, director of The Dialogue Institute at Temple University, were instrumental in bringing Mukeshimana to Livingstone.
“We live in a global society, and it’s important for our students to know about significant events that happen in other parts of the world,” said Livingstone President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins Sr. “The Rwandan genocide was a horrific chapter in the world’s history, to be sure, but I felt it was important to let Ms. Mukeshimana come share her story with our students nonetheless. And I’m grateful to Karen Alexander and Dr. Weiman for their part in making that happen.”
The Rwandan genocide pitted Hutu against Tutsi and started after the assassination of then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Recalling the painful events of 1994 isn’t easy for Mukeshimana. But she feels compelled to do it.
After coming to the U.S., she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y. It was there that she realized her classmates — and even professors — were clueless about what had happened in her country. Today, Mukeshimana lives in South Orange, N.J., and is founder of the Genocide Survivors Support Network, a charitable organization that helps genocide survivors rebuild their lives and educate communities about genocide.
“When you’ve done nothing wrong you don’t expect that your neighbors are going to come to your house and say they’re going to kill you,” Mukeshimana said during the assembly. “We had to carry ID cards during the genocide, and … that card decided whether you lived or died.”
Fearful for her life
Mukeshimana told a harrowing story of hiding out and being fearful for her life and that of her unborn child every second of the day during the genocide.
“I ended up in the house of people I didn’t know,” she said. “I lived under their children’s bed for a number of weeks. They had to make sure the kids didn’t know I was hiding there and that their neighbors didn’t know. Eventually they searched the house and they found me. I was taken to a local official who was supposed to decide whether I would be killed, but his daughter pleaded with him to spare my life.”
The teenage sons of the local official helped murder people and would often come home and discuss the killings rather matter-of-factly, Mukeshimana said.
Fortunately Mukeshimana and her daughter, now 17, survived the genocide. But her husband, father and sister were killed, and her mother died shortly after it ended.
“Most of the survivors didn’t have relatives left,” Mukeshimana said. “I got a chance to have 23 years with my parents before they were taken from me. But it’s not just that you lose people. There was no welfare, no banks and no credit cards. It’s like chopping off your hands because it handicaps you. They took someone who would have paid for your college, someone who would have guided you, someone who would have loved you.”
After Mukeshimana spoke, Weiman gave brief remarks.
“Prejudice comes in all colors, and we have to show God that we deserve this earth that he has given to us,” she said.
Given a gift
Weiman also announced that a Rwandan woman, Valentine Iribagiza (Erie-ba-geeza), will enroll at Livingstone College in the fall. Valentine lost the majority of her family members, including both parents, in a massacre at a church during the genocide. She is coming to Livingstone College on a full scholarship, paid for by the college, and Alexander and Weiman hope the Salisbury community will join Livingstone in supporting her during her matriculation at the institution.
“She has been given the gift to be a part of your community,” Weiman said. “She has been through a lot of trauma. One of her hands is missing because it was chopped off by a machete, but … you have a way to show the world that where there’s cruelty good people can stand up.”
Earl M. Brown Jr. is helping facilitate Valentine’s enrollment at Livingstone College. Brown, who has traveled extensively throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, is in charge of the N.C. Study Abroad/Global Engagement, a collaboration of the state’s HBCUs designed to ensure more African-American students study abroad and more HBCU faculty members teach outside the United States.
“It’s not every day that a Rwandan genocide survivor attends college in the United States, and we’re very delighted that she has chosen to attend Livingstone College,” said Brown, a consultant for the institution. “Valentine will be met with welcomed arms, and Dr. Jenkins, I and others on campus will do everything we can to help her get acclimated — not just to Livingstone but to the United States in general.”