May 23, 2014. In a presentation last week at Watauga High School that revealed some of the most horrendous and most inspiring aspects of human nature, Rwandan native Alex Nsengimana told Watauga High School students the harrowing story of experiencing and surviving the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Nsengimana is a pleasant and engaging young man who lost most of his family and many of his friends and neighbors as Rwanda endured the brutal slaughter of 800,000 men, women, and children, more than 10% of its total population at the time, during a period of about 100 days beginning in April of 1994. The genocide also orphaned some 400,000 children, including Nsengimana and his brother.
In introductory remarks for his presentation, Nsengimana said that in addition to talking about the history of the genocide in his country, “I will tell you of the miracles that occurred to lead me to where I am today.”
The violence in Rwanda was sparked by the assassination of the country’s president, a member of the Hutu ethnic majority who was killed when his plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The Hutus represent about 84% of the population of Rwanda, with the Tutsis making up about 14% of the country. Although definitive proof of who fired the missile that took down the president’s plane was not found, Hutu extremists promptly blamed the Tutsi minority and launched a bloody campaign of mass retribution.
The killings that followed were committed mostly by extremist militias of the majority Hutus against Tutsis, against Hutus married to Tutsis, and against some moderate Hutus. The murders were as brutal as they were widespread: most were committed with machetes and some victims paid to be shot rather than hacked to death.
Rwandans were required to carry identification cards that included their ethnic identity and the request to “show your ID” amounted to a death sentence for many Tutsis. When militia members could not use documents to confirm a person’s ethnicity, they sometimes used physical characteristics such as the person’s build or the length of their nose to decide if a person was Tutsi and whether that person should live or die.
Nsengimana’s life was not easy even before the genocide. His mother died when he was 6 years old and he never knew his father. During the genocide, the relatives who cared for him as a child were murdered in his presence, along with most of the rest of his family except for one brother, and he was very nearly killed himself. He attributes his survival to a miracle of divine intervention.
As part of a group of Tutsis fleeing militias intent on killing them, Nsengimana fell and then heard bullets whiz over his head. He had slipped on some cow manure while running and says of the event that “God used a cow pie to save me.”
It was hardly a straight path that led Nsengimana to Watauga County. He first came to the U.S. after being chosen for a Rwandan children’s choir that toured this country. While on the tour, he met and ended up staying with a family in Minnesota – “the coldest place on earth,” he says – for 2 ½ years before returning to Rwanda. He then came back to Minnesota for about 7 years and from there he was invited to live with Rob Garrett and his family in Blowing Rock.
He says it was through the humanitarian efforts of Samaritan’s Purse that he first came to believe there was hope for him and his countrymen. While living in a Rwandan orphanage in 1995, Nsengimana received a shoebox of gift items through Operation Christmas Child, a program of Samaritan’s Purse. Along with a toothbrush and a few items of simple clothing, he received a cellophane-wrapped candy cane. Unfamiliar with American confections or holiday traditions, his first response to the candy cane was “what in the world is this?”
Nsengimana told his audience at the high school that healing is taking place in Rwanda “but there is still a long way to go.” Families of victims and of families who participated in the genocide have exchanged gifts as part of the reconciliation, and 40,000 people imprisoned for their role in the killing were released in 2005. The economy is growing rapidly and “the people don’t want to go back” to the hatred and violence of the past.
Near the end of his presentation, he said “I want to share that you can also be part of healing around the world…I hope that you can stand against the name calling, the bullying, the dehumanization” that cause so much suffering and lead to so much grief. While noting that the large scale violence that occurred in Rwanda does not afflict the U.S., Nsengimana pointed out that prejudice and resentment occur on many levels and in many places, and that everyone has a role to play in ending the attitudes and behaviors that cause pain to others.
Nsengimana came to the high school at the invitation of Jesse Stollings, a social studies teacher who leads a course in 20th Century Genocides and Holocaust. Stollings first planned to have Nsengimana speak to students in his class and perhaps a couple of other classes. After an e-mail to colleagues about the presentation, their overwhelming response led him to schedule it in the high school auditorium, where more than 250 students and teachers listened as Nsengimana told his story.
Alex Nsengimana came to Watauga High School to speak about the Rwandan genocide and to tell of the miracles that changed his life. He left his audience with a message of how the power of resilience, hope, and healing can eventually overcome even the darkest elements of human nature and the worst of human history.