Genocide survivor inspires TRU

A survivor of a horrific war at a young age, Clemantine Wamariya was full of life and joy as she shared her story at TRU

Karla Karcioglu, Roving Editor Ω

In April 1994, a genocide occurred in Rwanda. The Hutus, the majority local ethnic group, began a slaughter of the Tutsis, a minority local ethnic group, killing 800,000 men, women and children and any Hutus who opposed the killings.

Clemantine Wamariya, this year’s keynote speaker for TRU International Days, was only six years old when the fighting began.

Wamariya remembers much of her childhood spent playing in her mother’s beautiful garden, living in a fantasyland filled with imaginary delights.

“When I learned someone was coming to kill us I did not understand,” Wamariya said.

As a child she understood death as God calling people to heaven and didn’t understand how someone could force people to go to God.

“I just remember I was so scared… I was scared of something that I didn’t know.”

Her parents decided to send Wamariya and her older sister Claire Mukundente, only 16 at the time, to their grandparent’s house. When her sister realized that her grandparent’s house wasn’t safe either, she decided to leave with Wamariya.

Wamariya explained how she and her sister walked and even crawled for days across Africa, without food, water or shelter. They would sometimes sleep inside a bag that she described as something like an Ikea bag.

“When I saw the horror later on, I thought people were sleeping,” Wamariya said. “That’s how my sister explained it to me.”

When they finally arrived at the first refugee camp in Burundi, Wamariya even didn’t know what a refugee camp was, or what it meant to be a refugee. Soon her sister realized that the camp was not safe. There were no laws to protect women, especially little girls, Wamariya said.

“No one cares.”

There are not a lot of rules at a refugee camp, but the biggest rule was once you’re inside you are not allowed to leave, she said.

Somehow her sister managed to get them out and they once again walked alone across Africa.

Wamariya explained that each place they would visit would have its own unique language and culture and that the two sisters would have to adapt themselves to blend in. They would change their hair, their clothes, their language and their story so that people wouldn’t know they were refugees.

In the camps, Wamariya said she would play a game and visit random tents to see if she could find her family members inside. During this time, she viewed the world like her mother’s garden – that, like each unique plant, each unique person was just striving to live.

Eventually the two arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a place they felt safe, and Wamariya got to sleep in a house for the first time in two years. Mukundente married and had her first child, but when things became turbulent again, they got on a boat to Tanzania.

Eventually the two ended up in Mozambique, where they moved into a refugee camp that Wamariya called “fancy.” This camp offered refugees pasta and spaghetti, but refugees that had been there a long time were sick of eating the pasta. Wamariya laughed as she explained how her sister would cleverly take people’s pasta and sell it in the city, call it exclusive and high end, and then bring the money back and divide it among the refugees. Eventually, the two saved enough money to leave.

They briefly returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo just as war broke out, and quickly left for Mozambique. Wamariya called it a “miracle” and “absolute pure chance” that they survived.

Unknown to Wamariya, her sister Mukundente was pregnant with her second child. When they arrived in Zambia they found an organization that resettles refugees. Both sisters and Mukundente’s two children ended up in Chicago.

“The rest is history,” Wamariya said. “Because of a lot of love and support, I am standing here today.”

“That life is not a life I would wish on anybody.”

Wamariya and Mukundente were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 where they were reunited with their family for the first time, including two new siblings they’d never met.

After her talk, Wamariya invited each audience member to consider their own personal story and how we are all connected somehow through our stories.

Wamariya said she initially struggled to tell her story because she didn’t know how to tell someone struggling in America that they have it better. She couldn’t imagine telling someone in the projects that they have it better. She couldn’t stand watching someone throw away half of a perfectly good pizza. With the encouragement of a school teacher, Wamariya began to open up and share her personal journey, saying “It’s your path, it’s your journey. Own it.”

When an audience member asked how people in Canada could help people in other countries facing similar situations.

“If you are doing for your neighbour, you are doing good for everyone,” she answered.