In The Schools

Lazar Living Lessons Series: Eugenie Mukeshimana, Rwandan Survivor

Eugenie Mukeshimana, a Rwandan survivor, speaks to Lazar students on genocide. Credits: Gail Bottone

MONTVILLE, NJ - When discussing the value of the Living Lessons presentations at Lazar Middle School this past spring, eighth grader Katie DeAngelis said it well, “When you are at an all-time low, there is always hope.”

And hope was the theme of many, if not all, of the 50 speakers who spoke at the event.

The Living Lessons program: Voices, Visions and Values occurs at Lazar Middle School every other year which gives students an opportunity to hear speakers on diverse, challenging and touching stories designed for their grade level.

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One of the presenters at the seventh biennial Living Lessons program was Eugenie Mukeshimana, a Rwandan survivor.

Genocide in 1994, how can that be? But that is what Eugenie Mukeshimana, eight months pregnant, and her husband woke up to one terrible morning in their hometown in Rwanda. 

On April 7, 1994, Eugenie and her husband were getting ready for work like any other normal morning. The power had been out the night before, and they were unable to hear the nightly news. They didn’t think much about it that morning until they opened their door that overlooked a busy street. There was no traffic in either direction. They had a bad feeling. And they were right.

Whatever was happening, they felt they would be safe a home.  But at 11 o’clock that morning, they found out that the night before, an airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down by Tutsi militants on its descent into Kigali, Rwanda.       

The Rwandan people were ordered to stay inside. With the assassination, peace ended, and the genocidal killings began.

The radio station Eugenie and her husband were listening to said, “All Tutsis have to die. We have to clean the neighborhood.”

Rwandan soldiers and police executed important Tutsi and moderate Hutu military and political leaders who might have assumed control of the nation.     

For Eugenie the unbelievable thing that occurred was that these forces recruited and pressured Hutu civilians to arm themselves with any weapons they could find to kill, rape and hurt their Tutsi neighbors and to steal and destroy their property. 

When a knock came to their door, they saw people they recognized from the community carrying guns and machetes. Though they recognized each other because they took the same bus together every morning, they told Eugenie and her husband since they were Tutsis, they had to be killed. 

Eugenie and her husband offered them money and said tell them you killed us, and we will not show our faces outside. They told them that they would be back, and a few hours later some did come back but left. But then a third group came and asked for more money. They gave them all that they had. There was no way of getting to a bank. So they negotiated telling them they could take a few things from their home. They took everything of value. Eugenie and her husband knew that things were serious. They had to leave.

Faced with no place to go, they went to a house of a very close friend, who was a Hutu, and asked the wife if they could stay there. The wife was willing and prepared a snack for them. They were waiting for her husband to come home to eat the evening meal. When he entered, he was wearing the same type of clothes as the men who came to their house, and he was carrying a gun. 

Eugenie explained to the students that only the military had guns. If you had one, it was given to you by the military, and you were trained by them on how to use it.

The friend’s husband asked them what they were doing there. When he heard what happened to them from his wife, he said, “So.” He said, “I am not saying you are bad people, but you are Tutsis. It’s over. Get out of our house.” Eugenie said that this was “very confusing” to her. These were her friends.

Eugenie explained to the students that as she was growing up as a young child there was no ethnic hatred in her community. Everyone got along. It wasn’t until she left home to go to high school, which is like our college, where she learned of ethnic hatred. People would call her and her friends cockroaches. 

When she described what happened at school, her father just told her that they were “obnoxious people” and don’t let them bother you. Looking back at this, she believes that her father did not tell her of this ethnic hatred because he didn’t want her feeling less of herself and wanted her to do well in school. Eugenie said that she is not sure this was the right thing to do, but she understands why.

An important element of the story is: What is the the Difference between a Huto and a Tutsi?

There is no easy explanation of the differences between a Hutu and a Tutsi. The difference was originally socio-economic as defined by the Belgian colonial government in 1933. They wanted to divide the population, so they said that if one had 10 or more cows, one was wealthy and considered to be Tutsi. If one had less than 10 cows, one was poorer and considered Hutu, but this tactic to cause jealousy did not work. So they devised another tactic that measured the noses of the local population. They said if one was tall and one’s nose was long and thin, one was a Tutsi. If one was short and had a short nose, one was a Hutu. (Eugenie said, “This was crazy.”) They then issued race cards identifying one as a Hutu or a Tutsi, and these Rwandan ID cards helped in the killing of the Tutsis in 1994.

An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed during the 100 day period from April 7 to July 1994. It constituted about 70 percent of the Tutsi population.

Back to the Story...

Eugenie and her husband then found refuge in a nearby school building. They spent the night without talking because they were afraid of being caught. But they were filled with anger and so disappointed. Speaking about her friend’s husband, she said, “He didn’t even pretend to care.” She added, “The anger became worse and worse and worse.”

The next morning they heard gun shots. They knew they could not go home. They waited until night time, and Eugenie said that they had to go back to their friend’s house. She was hungry and had never gone without food for a whole day before and now she was pregnant. They needed to find someone to help them.

When they got back to their friend’s house, the husband explained the word “genocide” to them. There was no word for this in their language he said. “This was so hard to comprehend.”

The husband explained that because the military knew that they were friends with Tutsis, they would come to their house to search for them. So Eugenie asked if he knew of anyone else who would take them in. She said, “Out of guilt, he agreed to this.”

They eventually found someone to help them. She was separated from her husband. She was taken to one home and he another.

The home she stayed at had small children. The children were not to know that their parents were helping a Tutsi. Because of the genocide, all schools were closed, and the children were home all day. The parents tried to get them to go by the neighbor’s house to play with their friends so Eugenie could go to the bathroom and have some comfort.

Eugenie was hidden under the children’s bed. She said that she had “no shower, no clothes, no sleep.” She was afraid that she would sneeze and give herself away.

She later found out that there were four other people hiding in the small house that consisted of two rooms and a bathroom. The four others were found and killed. The people who killed them knew them, but they did not know Eugenie. The family told them that she was a relative and a Hutu who got caught up in the turmoil, and her ID was stolen.

So they brought her to a home to get a temporary pass. It so happened that the woman who lived there was helping the military to kill Tutsis. 

She was not allowed to stay in their home but was allowed to live in the outhouse in the backyard. And in there, in the middle of the night, without electricity and no one to help her, Eugenie gave birth to her baby girl. 

(At this point in her story, she could tell the students all wanted to know if the baby survived, and she stated, “Yes, the baby did survive and is now 23 years old and doing well. ”But her husband was killed. She was told that he was killed when he was trying to get back to her after he heard she had the baby. Her daughter was seven and a half when they came to the United States, and she does not remember anything about the genocide.)

To continue the story: The next morning after giving birth to her daughter the night before, she was found and brought to a killing site. The men who saw her said she looked like a ghost, and they didn’t want to start the day that way.

Another man for some reason thought she had valuable military information for him. He wanted to take her and the baby. He told her that if she came with him, he would shoot them, but they wouldn’t be tortured. So she went. When she got to his home, he had a lot of kitchen appliances that he had stolen from victims, and they made a deal. She would cook for him, and he wouldn’t kill them. One day the man never came back, and she said, “And that is the only reason my daughter and I are alive.”

In 2001, Eugenie moved to the United States on a school visa. She studied social work at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York. She now is the founder and executive director of the Genocide Survivors Support Network, which is a charitable organization that helps genocide survivors rebuild their lives and to contribute to genocide prevention and advocacy. 

When the talk was over, the students left the room quietly.

The following is from the Living Lessons: Voices, Visions and Values:

Eugenie Mukeshimana is a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsis and the Founder and Executive Director of the Genocide Survivors Support Network (GSSN), a charitable organization with a mission to help genocide survivors rebuild their lives and use their voice to contribute to genocide prevention through education and advocacy. 

In 2001, Eugenie moved to the U.S. to study social work at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. After graduation, she began her career working with families in custody battles in Albany. 

She later moved to New Jersey where she first worked as an employment specialist for individuals with a wide range of disabilities and then as a case manager for homeless families. 

Eugenie is a regular lecturer in special programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. She is also a frequent panelist and speaker on issues of genocide and other human rights violations. She is a recipient of the 2012 Columbia University Human Rights Advocates Program Fellowship. 


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