It was a request for milk that saved four-year-old Dydine Umunyana’s life.
Umunyana, survivor of the Rwandan genocide and author of the memoir Embracing Survival, retold her story of overcoming hate and maintaining hope at a lecture at Cornell Thursday.
In Embracing Survival, Umunyana recounted — through the eyes of her then four year-old self — the massacre of Tutsis Rwandans at the hands of Hutu perpetrators in 1994. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a 100 day span between April and June. Umunyana survived.
“I was lined up with everyone else who would be killed and I was the only little person,” Umunyana recalled. “They were about to kill me and I said, ‘I want milk.’”
Umunyana, who arrived in the U.S. three years ago to begin her role as a Youth Peace Ambassador for Aegis Trust, tried to explain that her innocent request for a drink was the perfect fulfillment of a Tutsis stereotype. Her perpetrators mocked the four year-old’s plea and that momentary pause saved her life. A neighbor Hutu recognized little Umunyana, shamed the killers and rescued her from a certain death.
Now 23 years later, Umunyana and her country have just begun the healing process.
Three decades of social unrest and violence in Rwanda culminated in the 1994 genocide. When the killing ended, Umunyana said, “There was no space for people to grieve. It was a victory. You had to right away start a new life.”
Not until recently have Rwandans begun to fully realize the magnitude of lives lost and changed. In Umunyana’s words, “It’s not until later. … It’s not until you graduate college or have a wedding. It’s then that you realize. There’s no one there to celebrate.” She fell silent, overcome with emotion.
A pause in the mass killings saved Umunyana’s four-year-old life, but since that moment, she rarely rests to reflect. Writing, for Umunyana, has worked as her first try at therapy.
In her memoir she discusses how her father survived physically but experiences mental distress — a crippling PTSD. Her mother and three siblings escaped the killings as well but wear deep emotional scars.
“Instead of saying ‘Do well in school!’ my mom has always told me, ‘Don’t you dare get traumatized!’” Umunyana said, sharing an anecdote about her mother’s worries.
The 26-year-old’s Thursday night talk showed her commitment — despite the emotional pain — to establishing a unified dialogue amid cultural differences. She hopes to share her story to unearth a collective, human history.
When asked by an audience member how her country is moving forward, Umunyana said, “From the outside, now, Rwanda is united. But the process of forgiving and surviving is different for every person.”
The tiny country geographically forced conflicting groups back together after refugee Tutsis returned. According to Umunyana, just as there was no time for grief, there was no room for continued hatred.
“Rwanda is really a complicated country. The country had to learn to look at each other as not a Hutu person and a Tutsis person,” she said. “It’s a long process but we’re trying to look at each other as just a person.”
And, on a personal note, Umunyana added, “No one chose his or her body or their family or their background. I can only judge someone on what they’re doing now. We have to look inside.”
The young Rwandan author — consciously and unconsciously — remembers her history in everything she does.
“It’s part of my life. It’s part of my history,” Umunyana said. “Whatever I do, it connects to that. … How can I make the world a better place? Because I’ve seen what the world looks like without peace.”