March 2005

Genocide Survivor Calls Students To Action

"...Bagarinkah and her mother hid in an abandoned home for many days with no food or water. They saw women raped and killed. They saw grandparents kill their grandchildren. They saw neighbor turn against neighbor..."

by Jana Peairson

Norah Bagarinkah fled her home with her mother as the Rwandan genocide unfolded in 1994. Their people, the Tutsis, were being slaughtered by the Hutus, a tribe with which they had long lived peacefully.

  BUTAMWE, RWANDA 2001--A genocide survivor holding his infant son
photo by Kimberlee Acquaro
Hiding in bushes, not knowing where they were running to, Bagarinkah and her mother eventually came to a road block. Hutus were stopping everyone and requiring them to produce their identity papers--a death sentence for Tutsis. For those who had no papers, the Hutus judged the tone of their skin and measured the width of their nose, height and ankles to determine whether they were Hutu or Tutsi. As they approached the road block, Bagarinkah and her mother desperately searched for a way out.

One of the guards at the post was Bagarinkah's gardener. She pleaded with him, "I would rather die tomorrow than today. Please spare me today." He told her that because she spoke English and was a well-known Tutsi, the Hutus had been looking for her. He would get a good price for her. He could not spare her life.

He then took her aside, raised his machete and cut her across one arm. Terrified, she did not know if she was dead or alive. He then leaned close to her and said, "Run! Run and hide in the broken houses! They think everyone is already dead there." He also cut her mother, and said, "Please forgive me. It was the only way I could spare you. Run!"

Bagarinkah and her mother hid in an abandoned home for many days with no food or water. They saw women raped and killed. They saw grandparents kill their grandchildren. They saw neighbor turn against neighbor.

The pair survived the massacre that claimed almost a million Rwandans, and Bagarinkah has now made it her mission to educate others in an effort to rebuild her country. That mission led her to Samford in early February, where she shared her story in a special convocation.

Kimberlee Acquaro also spoke during the session. A photojournalist whose work focuses on cultural, humanitarian, women's and family issues, Acquaro co-directed God Sleeps in Rwanda, a documentary which explores how the Rwandan genocide affected the lives of the women and girls who survived.
Acquaro said that a disproportionate number of Rwandan men were killed, leaving the population 70 percent female. And because of the mass sexual assault on women, many now have AIDS and have passed the disease to their children. These women are left with the burden of rebuilding their society as well as the opportunity to take a leading role in their nation's future.

Bagarinkah said she and all other Rwandan women working toward change in their nation "want to make it possible for the next generation to grow up with a different attitude," knowing that they can make a difference. Both Bagarinkah and Acquaro urged listeners to consider what they can do now, as genocide again unfolds in Africa.

Although it has slipped out of the headlines, the ethnic-cleansing campaign in Sudan's Darfur region has left up to two million people homeless and killed 70,000 (by United Nations estimates) or 400,000 (by outside analysis) since the violence there began in February 2003. According to the United States Agency for International Development [USAID], 350,000 or more civilians may die over the coming months.

Based on the findings of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there are many similarities between the circumstances in Darfur and those of the Rwandan genocide. As in Rwanda, the Sudanese government is pitting ethnic groups against each other, using the Arab militia, know as the Janjaweed, to murder and rape civilians. They are also bombing civilian targets and restricting international humanitarian access, which threatens mass starvation.

As the Samford community considers the words of Bagarinkah, Acquaro and other recent human rights speakers who have brought their message to the campus, the genocide taking place in Darfur provides ample opportunity to move from consideration to action.

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