Rwandan teenager does her part to commemorates 15th anniversary of genocide

© AP Photo/Rippe
At Amahoro Peace Stadium in Kigali, Rwanda, a candlelight display is seen from the air during a 7 April 2009 ceremony to mark the 15th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.

NEW YORK, USA, 17 April 2009 – Vanessa Umubyeyi, now 15, was only a month old when the Rwandan genocide began, but she knows the stories by heart.

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In May 1994, a group of men with guns, clubs and machetes came to her family’s home. “My father did everything he could to save us,” she says. “We were living in Nyamirambo when they took him. We don’t know exactly how it ended.”

Vanessa’s father became one of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans killed in a wave of violence that engulfed the tiny country for 100 terrifying days, beginning 15 years ago this month.

‘There were so many bodies’
Each April, when Rwanda commemorates the anniversary of the genocide, Vanessa’s mother recounts the family’s stories so that her daughter will not forget.

“There were so many bodies,” Vanessa says. “The cars were running over the bodies. And there were children crying for their mothers even though they were already dead. There were wives looking for their husbands even though they were already dead.

“There were people who’d lost all hope, who jumped into the Nyiragongo River,” she adds. “They hoped the river would carry them to a country where there might be peace.”

Testimonies from survivors
The very fact that Vanessa is still alive is a victory for hope over despair. During the commemoration month, she has been collecting testimonies from some of the millions who survived the genocide.

“We just participated in a vigil for the commemoration,” she says. “We lit candles in the stadium [in Kigali]. We tried to bring hope to the children who are alone without a family. We showed the world there’s still hope in life.”

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1346/Pirozzi
Each April, Rwanda commemorates the anniversary of the genocide through ceremonies, testimonials and educational programmes, many of which are aimed at children.

Vanessa and her friends have been writing down their stories and sharing them with a new generation of Rwandans. “We wrote all that our parents had told us,” she says, “because there are children who were babies who don’t know anything about the genocide.”

‘Never again’
Vanessa believes that setting aside each April as a month of mourning is a way of showing respect for the dead, and of learning to move on. 

“It’s important because the sorrow is there to give value to our parents and sisters, friends and family who died,” she says. “It’s also important to criticize what happened. And it gives the chance for perpetrators to ask for forgiveness.”

During the 7 April commemoration ceremony at Kigali’s national stadium, site of a makeshift refugee camp and hospital during the genocide, Vanessa offered her testimony to the children assembled.

“I sent my message to the entire world: ‘Never again.’ And I told these children to never lose their will to live,” she recalls, “because when we were babies we survived the war. Now that we’re older, it’s easier.”



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7 April 2009: Genocide survivor Vanessa Umubyeyi, 15, talks about the importance of hope in terrifying times.
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