By MIKE MCGEE
The Dallas Examiner
Genocide is considered to be uniquely human savagery. It could be that of the United States government and the Commences, or the Ottoman Turks and Armenian Christians. Or the Han Chinese and the Manchu; Nazi Germany and the Jews. For genocide survivor Providence Umugwaneza, the violence involved the Hutu-controlled Rwandan government and the Tutsi rebels.
Umugwaneza, along with Belma Islamovic, a survivor of the ethnic cleansing during the Bosnia War, spoke at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum on April 29 as part of the museum’s Survivors Series.
“It was during Easter break,” she began as she described how the systematic brutality altered her world. “My mother, she wanted me to go and visit my aunt and stay there for two weeks. And that is how I managed to avoid genocide.”
The author and peace advocate was 11 years old in 1994, when the four-year Rwandan Civil War birthed the worst of the conflict. That year, more than one million people were killed in a span of 100 days, which was later depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda.
On April 7, the morning of the last day of her visit, Umugwaneza “… couldn’t even wait for one minute to go” home, she said. But as she readied to leave, she heard her aunt scream. One day earlier, President Juvénal Habyarimana’s private jet was shot down near Kigali International Airport, killing all aboard.
His death lit the fuse to the mass-murder of Tutsis and ant-government Hutus by extremist Hutus.
“And I was wondering, why’d she’s supposed to care that he died,” Umugwaneza remembered, “… and then she said that everyone was going to be killed, so I didn’t understand until the next two hours.”
Eventually, people were running, screaming and crying. Homes were being invaded. Over the next few hours her uncles, aunts and other local families were killed by the invading force. Umugwaneza survived by hiding since, being a visitor, no one knew to look for her.
Ultimately, the young woman lost her parents, five siblings and numerous extended family in the genocide. Many of the 1994 victims were killed with machetes, she recalled, so that they would die more slowly. Homes were ransacked and photos were destroyed as a way to help mar even the memories of those who survived.
Islamovic was around 19 and living with her family in Bosnia and Herzegovina when conflict engulfed Bosnians, Serbians and Croatians. On Sept. 28, 1993, she and her sister were sleeping in the damaged high rise building they used to call home when a Croatian grenade was tossed into their room. Belma lost both of her hands in the explosion; her arms now amputated above her elbows.
She spoke about the hardships her family faced and the fate of those who could not leave the city of Mostar. At that time the danger had increased; the Croatian military and its support was strengthening, so family members and neighbors left the area on a truck.
However, Islamovic’s 99-year-old grandmother was unable to climb up into the truck. She and others like her who were left behind were shot.
To this day, those who know where she is buried are afraid to tell Islamovic what they know, since the various factions still remain in the region.
What humanity declared would “never again” happen in the post-WWII era continued to occur across the globe; be it a quarter of the population of Cambodia, or the Uyghurs in China, or others on the growing list.
It is this pattern of violence that compels her to assist other refugees now in the U.S. in healing.
“For many times now, whenever I have to talk to the people, I would say first to think to God and to take things to Him that He has given you in the United States. If I was still there in Bosnia, I would not maybe be like this,” she asserted.
“But I know I was here in the right place, in the right country. The people understand and help, and this is how it is.”
It was her way of “going through all that stuff” and coming through on the other side, Islamovic added, saying she was blessed to be alive.
Umugwaneza acknowledged a similar outlook.
“I find strength in finding myself alive because, then I look back, I don’t know how we even survived,” she said of the killings she witnessed. “I was lucky to survive. I told myself that there is a reason I survived, and the reason is for me to tell the story of our people.
“My parents, and especially my father, I wanted to [have] my parents around. I wanted to tell their stories. I wanted to be a voice. This is where I find strength,” she emphasized.
Letting younger people, children, know of such things through her voice helps blunt the cut of further genocide, which she called “intergenerational.” In that, she admitted that she found hope.
A Black African woman and a White European woman – civilian survivors with a shared commonality: horrors inflicted upon them by those around them, based upon ethnicities, religions or politics.
High school student Yaira Sanchez reduced the idea into a more personal perspective after attending the event.
“Hatred is a real thing that affects everybody in this world, and everyone is one day going to experience … some type of hatred towards them,” she explained, as she reflected on the survivor’s commonalities and what she took away from them.
“And that people just need to learn that you can stop it by just you, yourself, learning not to be that hatred,” she said.
Islamovic urged attendees to become interested in helping with global hot spots before things get worse.
“Do not wait. That’s when genocides happen,” she pointed out. “Because, those people who survive, like us two, they will get in this position that we are [in] today – it saves time. It’s not easy. So back every dollar to … help, immediately, to stop before genocides happens.”
Meanwhile, Umugwaneza suggested that those who want to assist genocide survivors should find groups – like the Museum in Dallas, or the Kaneho Neza Initiative she founded – and simply join in.
“It is something you can do for a community, for the young generation to make the right decisions, to become a teacher. This is where you have to start from,” she voiced.
“Once we take some responsibility that’s how we secede as a team.”
Umugwaneza is now a commissioner on the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission and has written a memoir, Next Couple Hours. Islamovic is the subject of the upcoming documentary Forgiving The Unforgivable and has the goal to become a motivational speaker.