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April 03, 2014

Rwanda Genocide Survivors Share Memories with US Students

by Elizabeth Lee

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, and there has been a global movement to remember and educate people about what happened.  Some survivors are sharing their painful memories in the United States, hoping students will listen and learn from what happened.

In front of a crowded room at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Yannick Tona recounts memories of horror and suffering most people would never experience.  He has been educating students around the world about what happened to his country of Rwanda 20 years ago, and what happened to his own family.   

“I remember the first time I saw the killing.  The first time I saw people been killed.  The first time I saw bodies," said Tona.

These firsts happened in Rwanda when Tona was only four years old.

“Hide in the bushes, hear people screaming, with machetes blood full of blood.  Bodies on the street everywhere," he said.

Tona’s one-year-old brother and grandmother were killed in the genocide.

Edith Umugiraneza struggled with the fact that she survived while her mother, brothers and many other relatives did not.

“Surviving for me was a problem.  Because I was blaming, 'Why did I survive why I did not go with others?' I had the question, 'Why, why?' all the time," said Umugiraneza.

Now living in the United States, she found healing through prayer and by sharing stories with other survivors

“It happened and we can not bring back our people so we have to move on and we have to help each other," she said.

Her story is a part of the video archive at the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education.  The Institute has been collecting video testimonies of genocide survivors in several countries.  For Rwanda, it aims to collect 500 testimonies.  So far, 65 are in its visual history archive.

The Institute is also involved with Kwibuka20, a series of events worldwide and in the virtual world that commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.  On the Kwibuka20 website, people can offer messages of hope and unity.

USC Shoah Foundation’s Stephen Smith is the Executive Director of Kwibuka20.

“People all around the world are coming together as a world community to reflect on what happened, but also to leave their voice and to make their point of view very clear about genocide in the world today what we can do about that how we can be involved," said Smith.

University student Gregory Irwin is passionate about getting involved after a research trip to Rwanda where he met survivors and heard their stories.

“I have been more driven to do something about genocide than ever," said Irwin.

Student Nora Snyder also went on the trip to Rwanda.

“Things like what happened in Rwanda are still going on in the world today and things will continue to happen unless we take the time to remember," said Snyder.

As a part of the Shoah Foundation Institute Student Association, they are remembering the genocide by organizing events on campus - including Yannick Tona’s and Edith Umugiraneza’s testimony.  The aim is to try to make students care enough to do something to prevent or stop any future genocides.