Neighbors murdering loved ones, friends killing family, cannibalism, trusted figures throwing you to your death; this is too much for most to bear. On April 9 Gilbert Sezirahiga, a Rwanda genocide survivor and deputy director of SMILE AGAIN, came to UW-Milwaukee and told how he overcame the unthinkable.
Robin Weigert, the assistant director of the honors collage at UWM, partnered with the Center for International Education to put on this event. It was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide that was on Monday, April 7. Sezirahiga goes around the world to tell his story in order to promote peace and awareness in populations that may not be as aware about the struggles of others.
He started his presentation with a video, “Ghosts of Rwanda,” made by Frontline. This video detailed what happened in Rwanda during the war that started in April of 1994.
Sezirahiga discussed the growing tension between the two major tribes in Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu. He said that it did not matter who was Tutsi and who was Hutu before the war started. He had friends, neighbors, and his priest was Hutu. Sezirahhiga was a Tutsi and was targeted during the genocide. According to the United Human Rights Council at the time the war started the Rwandan population was made up of three tribal groups; the Hutu which made up about 85 percent of the population, the Tutsi which made up 14 percent and then the Twa made-up the remaining 1 percent.
Gilbert Sezirahiga said how the president of Rwanda died, “at 8 at night and then the very next day I got up, at 6 in the morning, my neighbors where killing each other. My mom told me to run.”
Sezirahiga was 14-years-old when the war started. He said he ran and hid in the bush by his home. He saw the neighbors he grew up with kill his mother, father, brothers and sisters. He said that he had never seen a dead body until that moment. He sat in the bush and watched as his Hutu neighbors locked his Tutsi neighbors in their houses and set fire to their homes.
He thought of the safest place he could and ran to his church. At the church he found his priest and asked for help. Sezirahiga recalled how this priest said, “Gilbert I will not help you today. All Tutsi are to be killed today. I can’t kill you because I know your family.”
The priest took him into a room behind the church. This room was filled with women from the ages of 17 to 40. Sezirahiga said “some had been raped, some were naked, some were not, some were crying, some were not; I was the only boy.”
The priest and some soldiers took his clothes and shoes so he could not run. He found a friend who was among the women in this room. She offered him her clothing so he could run. He showed little emotion connected with this traumatic story. He said that she said she would not make it if she ran. Sezirahiga’s eyes looked as though he was silently thanking her again, as he said that with tears he took the clothing and ran. He wandered for a few hours, then ended up back at the church.
He returned to a room full of women, dead, all of them, dead. He turned back to the woods and he ran. Sezirahiga said he did not know how long he ran for but he ran until he bumped into a solder for Hutu opposing forces. The solder took him into protective custody.
Now Sezirahiga lives in Rwanda, when he is not traveling for SMILE AGAIN. He said many of the people involved with the murders of his family, friends and others were put in jail. Some, however, were under the age of 17 when they committed acts of violence; this meant they could not be prosecuted per Rwandan law. Sezirahiga said he knows people who are not in prison that killed members of his family. Some of these people live on the same street as Sezirahiga in Rwanda.
At the end of the genocide, 75 members of Gilbert Sezirahiga family were killed. According to the United Human Rights Council over 800,000 Tutsi and thousands of Hutu were killed.
One audience member, Anna Fochs, a sophomore at UWM , said he was not preaching about a tragedy or asking for help. He was telling a personal story to inform the audience. She was mentally exhausted from listening to his story and could only imagine how Sezirahiga felt telling his story around the world.
An audience member asked Sezirahiga what he thought the people of Milwaukee should do to stop racial bias in Milwaukee. Sezirahiga said talk to each other. Talk to your neighbors. “If there is peace on your street then peace on the next street then it will spread across Milwaukee,” said Sezirahiga.