Umutesi will be Interfaith Scotland’s speaker at Holocaust Memorial Day events – read her story in her own words…
When Interfaith Scotland asked me to speak at the 2017 National Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) programme I was honoured.
I have only been sharing my story since 2015 after my husband helped me to see that I could offer hope to people through my story. In Northern Ireland I was fortunate to speak with young people from either side of the Peace Wall from Catholic and Protestant communities to help them to learn the lessons from my own experience of the Rwandan genocide.
Rwanda is an example of a people that lived together in peace for centuries but became divided due to the Belgian colonialists who found it easier to control this peaceful people by encouraging them to see their differences as tribes, mainly Hutu, Tutsi and the minority Twa. The Hutu were chosen to cultivate the land whilst the Tutsi were charged with looking after the cows, a very important animal in Rwandan society. Resentment eventually grew between these groups which culminated in the events leading up to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The genocide began 3 days before my 13th birthday and life was never to be the same again. Up until then I was a happy child enjoying my family life and looking forward to returning to school to see my friends.
Within a few days I had been assaulted, had witnessed my mother being murdered and was embarking on a long journey through the jungles of Congo in search of safety for my baby sister who I carried on my back and my two young siblings.
What does HMD mean to me?
When I think back to my childhood in Rwanda I was a happy child with lots of friends. But the events leading up to the genocide warn us how prejudice, discrimination and racism can take hold and culminate in a genocide. The genocide did not simply happen overnight but was made possible by the dehumanising of one ethnic group by another. By the separating of Hutu children from Tutsi. by the name calling of ‘Tutsis’ cockroaches and snakes. By thinking that one tribe was superior to the other
My experience is sadly not unique. It happened during the holocaust and has continued to happen to other countries such as my own through history. Events such as HMD are so important in order to teach the younger generation, the future world leaders of tomorrow to walk the path of peace. To recognise that we are all the same in the inside. As the words of my husband’s song, ‘We are one’ explains, ‘We are all one and the same. When we cut we bleed. We all have the same dreams. To be loved to be free.’ We all have the right to expect to live a life without fear of being discriminated against or killed simply because of our skin colour, beliefs or ethnic origins. I believe through speaking to young people directly they are moved by these first-hand accounts and are moved to want to speak out against such atrocities.
I spent several years on the run in the jungles of Congo initially helped by a friend of our family from Congo who led us to the safety before continuing on his journey. I had the misfortune to lose my younger brother who was beaten to death during that period. I lived in fear that one day we would also be captured and killed. We lived day to day not knowing where our next meal would come from. Yet something within me gave me the will to survive. Perhaps I was driven by the desire to save the lives of my two younger sisters. After surviving several years in this wasteland I realised this was no life for my sisters or I and I decided to return to Rwanda. Unclear what the future if any might lie for me and my sisters in Rwanda or the dangers that might lurk ahead. I had no choice. This was no life for us living hand to mouth. Eventually we returned to our family village only to find that our family home had been destroyed. We were given shelter by a former family friend and neighbour.
With little funds available I decided to try and find out information on my father. I had not met my father due to the personal circumstances of his relationship with my mother. I had little choice, we were desperate due to our financial position. I was put in touch with my Aunt from my father’s side who was surprised to meet me, not knowing of my existence. She helped me to meet my father who unfortunately chose not to welcome me into his life.
With support from family, friends and a sponsor from Germany I was able to finish secondary school before going on to train as a nurse. I enjoyed being able to care for those who were sick and to make them feel better.
In late 2014 I met my husband Iain Stewart and ironically I owe that partly due to Holocaust Memorial Day. He was in Rwanda recording an album to promote peace and reconciliation 20 years after the genocide with a fellow survivor and famous Rwandan musician called Jean Paul Samputu who was a guest speaker in Scotland in 2013 which is where they met.
This leads us to the question of, ‘how life goes on.’ For me God was with me and guided me through the darkest times in my life and he has guided me here to the beautiful and cold country of Scotland that I now call my home. As I often say, ‘We cannot be slaves to our past.’ We must learn the lessons of our past and try to build a better future. One thing we can be certain of is that our future is uncertain who would have known I would be happily living in Scotland a country I confess I knew little about before meeting my husband. For my own country I am proud of how far it has come in such a short time. Yet there is still a long way to go as I said in order not to be slaves to our past we must learn to forgive. Only with forgiveness can we truly learn to put our past behind us and begin to move on with our lives. This process has begun but it is never an easy path and is often a long and difficult one. However there is no alternative if we are not to repeat the mistakes of our past and if we wish to build a better world for our children and generations to come.