This year marks 20 years since the Rwandan Genocide, which was one of the worst massacres in history.
The tragic event resulted in the death of more than 1 million people at the hands of the Hutu majority, who began killing the Tutsi clan. The Tutsis were blamed for the country’s political, economic and social pressures, according to the United Human Rights Council. The Tutsis were also accused of supporting the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated rebel group.
iDebate, Rwanda’s United States tour group consists of five debaters and their adviser, who traveled more than 32 hours from Rwanda to the U.S. and made a stop at JMU last week. The group previously made appearances at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia.
JMU’s event, which was a part of President Jon Alger’s “Madison Vision Series,” was held in Memorial Hall last Wednesday evening. Debaters shared their own stories and the stories of their friends surviving the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
According to Jean Michel Habineza, Rwanda iDebate’s main adviser, for many, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing “Rwanda” is the 1994 genocide. Habineza compared the genocide to the Holocaust, since one ethnic group oppressed another in both.
“People were killed for one reason — being born different,” Habineza said.
Founded in 2012, the iDebate Rwanda program strives to use debate to educate the international community and future generations of Rwandans, help discuss the backlash from the genocide and, according to program debater Yvan Magwene, promote a platform for youth.
“Whenever I think of the impact the genocide has had on me, I sometimes wonder why I am involved in all of these youth activities, pushing for reconciliation, and peace in our generation,” Bryan Manzi, a debater who spoke at the event, said. “Then I remember that even though we are all products of our past, we’re not prisoners of it.”
Twenty-six-year-old Dadi Niwejye spoke first, telling his own shocking story of his near-death encounter as a young boy. The morning following the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s tragic death in a plane crash, Niwejye and his family were awakened by the sound of gunshots. The genocide had begun. They immediately fled their house in search of shelter.
“At 5 years old, I saw a dead body for the first time. His head had been chopped off and put at his feet. I was petrified,” Niwejye said. “My grandmother pulled my hand and told me, ‘Don’t let anyone see your face.’”
Like many other Tutsi families, Niwejye’s family took refuge in a nearby church. But they weren’t protected for long.
“People were praying, wishing to die by bullets versus being killed by machetes because the gunshots would cause less suffering,” Niwejye said.
He then described his jaw-dropping encounter with death. The militia would come by every morning and randomly select a few people to taken behind the church and kill.
“One morning they picked men first, women second — to rape and kill — and children third,” Niwejye said. “The third time when they came to grab the children, they pulled me by the ear and hit me with a gun butt out of the church. I was going to be killed like my father without the chance to say goodbye to my family.”
Niwejye, unable to speak or move, witnessed the first child get shot. As the fourth child in the line, he then witnessed the second die after being hit on the head with a hammer.
Just when he thought he was next, Niwejye was pulled aside by a woman, a mother of one of the Hutu killers, and brought inside to the killer’s family. That night, the woman took in Niwejye’s family to stay at her house.
“[It was] a place where one of the greatest killers called his home,” Niwejye said. “He [the Hutu] was a killer, but surprisingly obedient to his mother.”
Despite the tragic circumstances Niwejye has overcome, he has been able to move on with his life and discovered his passion for debate.
“I know God saved me for a purpose,” Niwejye said. “And I must serve that purpose that I understand when I am going to church, not to hide behind the church doors but to thank God, for he saved us.”
Bryan Manzi read the story of his friend, who was 7 years old when the genocide started. His friend’s father was a Hutu and his mother was a Tutsi, so his father was seen as a traitor when he refused to participate in the killings. His father paid the killers to leave his family alone, and they fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“When we came back to Rwanda, it was no longer the beautiful country we left behind,” Manzi read. “There were corpses everywhere.”
Like Niwejye, Manzi’s friend figured he must have been spared from the genocide for a purpose.
The third debater that spoke was the youngest on the tour, 14-year-old Kassy Irebe. Like Manzi, Irebe read the story of a fellow Rwandan. This woman, though not yet pregnant yet, wrote a letter to her future child, telling them about her father.
“I’m sure you will listen, understand, and maybe cry a little when you find out how much his forced absence affected me,” Irebe read.
While it’s easy for many to think about victims who experience genocide themselves, Habineza stressed that the consequences can span the future generations.
“When we talk about genocide, many people tend to view it in the sense of the number of people that died,” Habineza said. “But I would like to ask you, if you were to think about it, the true victims of genocide are those that were born after the genocide, those who were either too young to experience the genocide, or those who were not even born when the genocide happened.”
Contact Caroline Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org.