Rwanda genocide survivor talks to students

Cathy Decker/Staff reporter
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA     Students at Rockridge have been collecting used shoes for a service project to help the children of Tanzania. From the left, are: Candy Blankenship, Junior High literature teacher; Eric Swanson, seventh grader; Providence Rubingisa and Devin Hasson, seventh grader, hold some of the shoes donated to Rubingisa’s ‘Shoes for the Poor’ effort. Blankenship will be accepting shoes until May 15 for the community project.

Seventh graders at Rockridge Junior High had a special speaker on Friday, April 24, to talk to them about genocide.

The auditorium was abuzz with the voices of young students prior to the arrival of Providence Rubingisa. Students had spent the previous month collecting used shoes for Ribingisa’s “Stuff for the Poor,” a non-profit organization he initially started to help the people of Rwanda, where he grew up.

You could hear a pin drop while Rubingisa was speaking.

He talked about how he was away from his residence the day the Rwanda genocide started in 1994. He was a 24-year-old entrepreneur and was off on business north of the capitol city Kigali. His parents and brothers and sisters lived in the capitol city.

Rwanda is a very small African country in the center of Africa with a population of eight million people. The people are divided by tribes into three groups Hutu, with 85 percent of the population; Tutsi, with 14 percent of the population and Twa, comprising one percent.

“Rwanda is a kingdom that has had a conflict between two tribes for years,” said Rubingisa. “In the 1950s many, many countries in Africa were fighting for independence,” he said. In 1959 some missionaries helped the Hutus take power from the Tutsis.

“Most of the Tutsis fled to areas like Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania or the Congo.”

Rubingisa talked about how some Tutsi youth were enlisted in Idi Amin’s army in Uganda and later came back to Rwanda to try to take back control. This happened on Oct. 1, 1990. There was a civil war in Rwanda from 1990 to 1994, against the Hutus. “There were 50,000 civilians killed in the conflict,” he said.

Then on April 6, 1994 the Burundi president and Rwanda president were killed by the Tutsi army at the capital of Rwanda to start off what has become known as the Rwanda genocide.

“The two presidents had been coming home from a Tanzania summit,” said Rubingisa. In addition, nine ministers of the government were assassinated.

On April 6, 1994 Rubingisa said he was not living at the capital and he received a phone call from a friend about the assassinations. “I didn’t believe him, but I could hear by the seriousness in his voice. ... If true, something bad will happen.”

Rubingisa sought refuge in The American Hotel north of the capitol. There was also a French run hotel, two miles from the border of Congo and three miles from the American hotel. “This was how I was able to survive the genocide,” he said.

He then left Rwanda along with two million others and fled to the Congo, where he spent three weeks. There was no water, no food, no toilets.

Cholera became prevalent, with around 50,000 people dying. “Bodies laid on the street for five miles. A truck took bodies to a mass grave and put them on fire.”

After he was in the camp for three weeks, he left and returned to Rwanda. At that time the Tutsis had taken power. “I found just the same things. Hutu was killing people the same way.”

He returned, this time staying at the French Hotel. He said more than 100,000 people were killed in 100 days. “Killing is about power,” he said.

Some of the atrocities he knew about included husbands being forced to kill their wives. Also, if someone was a result of a mixed marriage, that was reason enough to be killed. “Even before the genocide that happened,” he said.

In 2002 Rubingisa fled Rwanda and sought asylum in the United States. He left behind his wife and eight children (six of whom he adopted from his wife).

“Three weeks ago my biological children arrived,” he told the students. “The biggest thing that surprised his children was “You guys have so much toys,” he said.

Students asked questions such as what tribe he belonged in?

He said his mother was a Tutsi and his father was a Hutu. All citizens of the country have ID cards that list their tribe. His card reads Hutu, after his father.

Students earlier that week had seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda” and one student asked how much of the movie was true.

He said there was about one percent truth in the movie.

He was asked if he had any experience being close to a skirmish.

He said that only one time there was an incident when he was staying at the French hotel “There were many guns shooting and approaching the hotel.” He said he hid in his room. A woman, a Tutsi, was running and trying to reach the American Hotel. When she was near the French hotel they shot her down.

One student asked him what his reaction to the genocide was.

“I was upset, everybody was upset. I was incapable of doing anything.” He said everyone was scared. “I was alone. My parents were in the capitol.”

He said that everyone was against the war, His parents survived the genocide, but he did lose a couple of his brothers and sisters.

He talked to the students about his “Stuff for the Poor” business. He accepts used shoes and used clothing and a small business in Africa buys the items. He then uses the money to support different projects in Tanzania, including orphans.

“If I can get 50 volunteers in the United States who are adopting orphans (in Tanzania), the children will be helped until they reach University,” he said.

He said that the reason he is not sending the money to Rwanda is because of the corruption there. He earlier tried to benefit the people there, but the money was diverted.

For more information on Stuff for the Poor, see his web site: www.stufforthepoor.com.

Rockridge project coordinator Blankenship said she heard about the Stuff for the Poor project from a friend and fellow teacher Cassey Attebery, who teaches at Sherrard High School and coordinated a collection there for the organization.