It's now been 20 years since the horrors of the Rwandan genocide took place. While most Americans are aware that an estimated 800,000 (mostly Tutsi) were killed in the conflict, more than double that amount, or 1.8. million Rwandans, fled to neighboring countries as refugees.
One of those displaced by the 1994 genocide was Clemantine Wamariya, who was 6 when the violence erupted. After losing many members of her family, she and her 16-year-old sister Claire were separated from their parents. She lived in numerous refugee camps before making it to Chicago in 2000. In 2006 she appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show, where she reunited with her parents, whom she had not seen since the genocide began. She's a recent Yale graduate, and was appointed by President Obama to serve on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
She'll be speaking at the Florida Holocaust Museum
in St. Petersburg this Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m.
"There's no possible way to imagine what living in a refugee camp is like," she told CL by phone from San Francisco on Friday afternoon. "Time is completely frozen, and people either hope that they are going to go back home or they're so scared to go home...because how can you possibly want to go back to your home when you realize someone killed your wife or your husband? Someone set your house on fire, someone's ready to kill you. How can you be a person where you want to go back to a place where they have taken everything away from you?"
Wamariya says that her sister Claire was always thinking about getting out of the camps. She recalls how at one camp they were thrown into a room with hundreds of other people and were told to find their own spot, because the organizers had no idea about where to place two more people. "We had no food, no water. There was one little shower in the corner. Sometimes water came out. And sometimes it didn't. I remember how we had to walk three to four hours to fetch water."
Clemantine lived in such camps until she was 12. She says she can't imagine what it would be like to live in a camp as an adult: to have had a full life in one's country of origin, and then be thrown into a stark refugee camp among legions of strangers.
Probably the best-known refugee crisis in the world right now is happening in the Middle East, where more than 2.5 million Syrians registered by the U.N. have fled to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. But there are also huge refugee situations in Central Africa Republic, South Sudan, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Waraiya says that the most important thing people should understand about all of those refugees is not what country they have left, but just to remember that they are all humans who have been displaced. "These are brave minds, incredible people who led a normal life, who were citizens of their country, who believed that their country would protect them, who voted for people to protect them, and the next thing you know, they're not protected, they're leaving a country that mistreated them."
There has been some media coverage in the U.S. on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. But while for most of us it's a tragedy that can't really be fathomed, for Clemantine Wamariya it's a searing experience that she can never forget.
"Twenty years is nothing when you look around and you realize that your family members were killed and will never come back — and no punishment will ever bring them back. Twenty years is nothing when you wake up and have nightmares of being transported back to the same location. Twenty years is nothing when people look at you and ask you where you're from, and you tell them and they immediately connect it only to a word. A word like genocide. Behind the word genocide is so much pain, so much loss, and so much confusion, so for me, I'll say 20 years is nothing."
Clemantine Wamariya speaks at the Florida Holocaust Museum on Wednesday, April 30 from 6:30-8:00 p.m.