Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Oprah, Rwanda and Clemantine

If you watch Oprah, you may be interested in watching the show on May 24 or 25th.

That's when Oprah will speak to various essay winners.

Including Clemantine Wamariya, who goes to New Trier now but formerly attended my school.

Recently, I mentioned her story in a comment on DovBear's blog.

My transcript of her story (which may contain some inaccuracies) based on a speech she gave to my school last year, is available here. I don't know what she will be speaking about on Oprah's show, but no matter what it may be (I don't know how much time will be devoted to her), I believe it will be worthwhile. Her speech to me- to my school- was extremely powerful.

Below is her story (a reposting from my other blog.)


This is about the Rwanda genocide.

This is about the girl who goes to my school who survived.


Her name was Clementine. She was six years old at the time, and lived in Rwanda, where everything was beautiful, was wonderful. She was happy and her family was happy. There was no difference between the Tutsis and the Hutus, or at least, none that she could see. She went to kindergarten with all the other children, and together they played. Her mother always invited these children over to their house; it turned into a day-care center, really, after school. Her mother was the soul of kindness, always desiring to help other people- oh, they don't have salt, go give them salt, etc. Give them this and give them that.

Clementine describes her parents as being beautiful, wonderful parents. This is not a description teenagers often tender about those who care for them. She describes her mother, extremely spiritual, very Christian, a great believer in God.

And then, suddenly, overnight, everything changed.

This didn't happen long ago. This happened in 1994, when we were all alive.

Her mother came to her room, panicking, weeping. She clutched Clementine's hand, and her sister's hand, and said that they had to pray. "But why, mother, why?" Clementine kept on asking. What was going on? Her mother told her the president was being shot and tomorrow they were all going to die. But why?

Simply because they were Tutsis. They lived the Tutsi life, for though her father was of mixed blood, he was a rich man, and since he was rich, he was a Tutsi. Her mother was a Tutsi. And therefore they were Tutsis. They prayed, and that night everything changed. The three housekeepers, people she had trusted, left them that night. Left them because otherwise they would die.

Her father owned a taxicab company, and was very wealthy and well-known. Her mother was the soul of kindness. But everyone turned against them.

They hid for one, no, two, weeks. Hid in the house, eating off the food they had, starving. Then a friend of her father's came over and said he could only take the girls, it would be bad if he took the boys, because then they would kill him, but he could take the girls. Clementine's brother told her to think that everything was a movie; they were in a movie.

Clementine and her sister were sneaked into a car, hiding under piles of luggage. They drove swiftly, and all along was the stench and smell of the dead, even in the car, even though the windows were up, there was the smell of the corpses rotting away in the street. They were going to their grandparents, because they assumed that they wouldn't kill them. How could they kill them? They were too old. They got there, and found the rest of their aunts, uncles, cousins with them. They stayed there for a while.

They played different games, the children, to take their minds off what was happening.

Then one night her grandmother woke Clementine and her sister up. She screamed, "Get out, get out!" They jumped out the window, Clementine still remembers the little pants and sandals she was wearing. They ran, ran to the forest in the dark, and hiding in the dark forest they remained. Her grandparents and everyone else in that house- her aunts, her uncles- were all killed. Then she saw the house burning, and smelled the scorching bodies. She and her sister sat in the forest and watched them burn.

They walked. They walked for two days, these two children, one six and the other perhaps sixteen, at the oldest? There was no food, and no water, they were exhausted and hunted. They had to be quiet lest they attract attention. They finally came to a church and decided they would stop to rest in the church for a little while, because surely nobody would dare defile the church.

They opened the door and there were bodies; it was all piled high with bodies, and the confused six-year-old girl simply looked at the bodies. It was supposed to be a movie, her brother had said, but there were no cameras she could see; it was unreal, why was it happening. She wanted to die, she didn't want to live, she wanted to go back and burn with her grandparents in the house...

They hid in a corner of the church because they heard something; they heard footsteps. A man came into the church and asked whether everyone was dead, whether there was anyone left to finish off. He walked through the church; he looked straight at them. An overwhelming feeling came over Clementine, and she wanted to scream, I don't want to die, I don't want to die. Her sister told her to be quiet, otherwise he would see them. So she prayed...Did he seem them? Did he not? They do not know. He walked away, he walked out of the church, he did not kill them.

They stayed there maybe 20 minutes, how was it he did not kill them? They had to move, they had to leave before they were found, and so they left, and then her sister, after they crawled- walked some more, saw a sign, signifying the river that was the border between Rwanda and another place, where they could be safe. But the river was rushing, and fast, and there was no way they could swim it. Some men were in a boat, and they asked who these kids were, and the older sister had warned Clementine to be quiet and pretend she was deaf, so she answered they were walking to their aunt's house. The men allowed them to get in the boat.

Then...then...when they were in the middle of the river, one of the men lifted Clementine and pushed her into the lake. Pushed her in, a six-year-old, so that she would drown in the lake. She doesn't remember what happened; she only remembers awakening with her sister holding her hand, in the middle of the lake. Somehow, somehow, they were so cold, so cold, but they got to the other side, and walked some more, until they saw mango trees and they began to eat...starving, they fell upon them and tried to gorge themselves on mangoes.

They heard someone coming, and her brother had taught Clementine to climb, so she climbed the mango tree, and so did her sister. They remained there and looked down, where a family was walking. They didn't notice them, but then a little boy saw them and started screaming that there were people in the tree. They came down out of the tree and explained they were refugees to the family, who were living in the middle of nowhere in a little mud-grass-hut. They stayed with those people for a long time, there was no technology, they learned to care for themselves...Clementine remembers cooking over open fires, etc.

They then went to refugee camp, which was the worst experience in her life...being there with Hutus who had killed the Tutsis, being there amidst the death from all different causes, the death from disease or lack of shelter or hunger. Pure death. She shut her mouth and would not talk at all in the refugee camp, for two years she did not talk except to her sister, and then only with anger.

They went to many countries, to the Congo and many other places, and finally there was a kind of sponsorship through an immigration program that allowed her to get to the USA- a church or family needed to sponsor her here, and a church sponsored her, she lives with a member of the church. For a long time she believed she was all alone, had grown up alone, everything, everything had been taken from her.

But then, in the USA, one day they met a woman who knew her aunt, and had her aunt's phonenumber, and they found out her aunt was still alive. And a miracle- her parents, too, were alive, different, torn, having lost everything, leading a very different life, but alive. They had more children, too....they are still in Rwanda. Clementine has not returned to Rwanda, as of yet, she cannot in some ways.

But it was what she said later, when people asked her questions, that made the biggest impression on me. People asked her what made her survive, when she so wanted to die, when she truly hated her life. And she said, and this is her story and her life, not what you ought to do, but simply what she said- it was God. Her mother had taught her prayer and spirituality and God, and she believed in Him. She believes that He has a plan for her, the good and the bad, a master plan that is there for her. And someone asked her how she could believe in God after all she had been through, and she said that it had been very hard, and sometimes she asked herself how it was possible, but that she answered herself by showing her all the miracles- how was it she was alive? How was it the man in the church didn't see her? How did she survive the raging river, the currents that could have killed her in the lake? How did her parents survive? God is with her, He will always be with her...

And then she said that sometimes she hears us Americans says, " I have so much homework, I hate my life." And she said that although she understands what we mean, she wants us to remember that there are some who DO hate their lives, who suffer and feel pain and want to die. There is now a genocide going on in Sudan, and she feels that pain. And she wants, more than anything, simply to obliviate the difference betwen the Hutus and Tutsis and whoever else, because they are all people, and they all suffer, and nothing like this should ever happen...

And then...and then she stated something unbelievable. Not in a tone of confidence or pride, but someone asked her whether she had forgiven. She said it was a hard thing to forgive, you do not see someone kill your grandparents and forgive them. You do not remember corpses and forgive. But she said that she had forgiven, had fought so that she might forgive, and with that forgiveness had freed herself. Before she could not talk about it, but now she can. She can tell us of the spirituality of the good people who helped her, the Churches and her mother and prayer and God. She can tell us of the horror. She can tell us everything.

This is not my story to tell, but since I believe Clementine truly desires to end hatred, I think I can only help by typing this and allowing you, too, to see what she sees, and know what she knows. To see the strength that she had so that she might survive, that she might retain belief in God.

Today I saw a holy person. Perhaps I saw the holiest person I know.
And she is not a Jew.
And that is okay. Because she doesn't need to be a Jew to tell a story of such terrible grace and beauty, such magnified power, as to make me shudder, make me tremble.

Today I saw a holy person.

I pray that you might see her, too.


Ezzie said...

Powerful story.

kasamba said...

Clementine sounds like an amazing person.

So do you.

(Great post)

dbs said...

What a beautiful, terrible and humbling post.

FrumGirl said...

In a world where it is so hard to find someone to admire, you did. Amazing story, thank you!

Anonymous said...

incredible. i was another of the 50 essay finalists on oprah, and i had the opportunity to talk to clemantine before i knew of her dark past.
she's bright, happy, and friendly. surely if someone with such a past can pull through, we can as well.

Preetha said...

truly amazed....clementine ,her story n u ...God bless!!

Regina Umutoni said...

hey there , power ful story hey... was so ispired when I watched it.. I am now in South Africa and also a Refugee Young woman From Rwanda ,
I totally agree with clemantine's Approach to life .. being a Refugee is not my trade mark, I want people to see the Individual, that is me, before anything else , Plus I am a survivor and not a Victim!!!

Power to you girl.

I started my own org for refugee youth empowerment and hope to continue making a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I went to one of the school's Clementine went to and I did not attend New Trier. Through process of elimination I find that we went to the same school.

Anonymous said...

Clemantine lives in the room two floors above me here at Yale. We eat breakfast together a lot. We joke about our mutual love for high heels and cute dresses. We eat bowls of ramen together.

Not a second goes by when I am not thinking about how amazing it is that I have the privilege of being friends with someone like Clemantine.

She truly is a most amazing human being, and I love her to pieces.

Anonymous said...

That was SOOOOO amazing...it made me cry :( But truly wonderful story.

Anonymous said...

I was with Clemantine an hour ago. She is such an inspiration. Love you Clemantine