Ayan Sheikh / Lantern reporter
Norah Bagirinka never thought she would live to tell anyone how she survived the gruesome Rwandan genocide 18 years ago. But in front of about 50 people at the Ohio Union, Bagirinka did just that.
“Most of you have seen ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ it doesn’t even have an inch of what happened,” Bagirinka said. “I see a lot of movies, and I read a lot of books, but nothing can give the weight, because it was beyond human imagination.”
A member of the Tutsi clan in Rwanda, Bagirinka said it was the constant animosity and hostility between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority that eventually sparked the three-month massacre.
“You know about the Belgian influencing penetration of the country and how they came in and favored one over the other … so unfortunately, thanks to that penetration of the country, rivalry and hostility started to just boil, boil and boil, and before you knew it, we have a major genocide in living color,” said Jacquelyn Meshelemiah, associate professor in the College of Social Work at Ohio State.
Meshelemiah called the killing very up-close and savage-like. She said most people were “hacked” to death with machetes.
“Most of them were hacked to death, they were also clubbed to death and for those who were fortunate enough, I hate to put it in that context, they were maybe shot,” Meshelemiah said.
Bagirinka, a teacher in Rwanda at the time, said she was specifically targeted by the Hutu gangs because she spoke English.
“When the government soldiers came to attack the school, they were looking for me,” Bagirinka said. “They said, ‘There’s a woman here who speaks English and we think she has a connection with Uganda. We know she grew up in Uganda, maybe she came to spy.'”
Once the army tanks arrived at the school, Bagirinka said there were 10 heavily armed government soldiers ready to shoot her.
Bagirinka said she was ready to accept her fate, but it was a friend who stood up and defended her.
“He said, ‘This lady, I know her very well, I know where she comes from, I know her uncle, I know everybody, I don’t think we are doing the right thing,’ so they turned away,” Bagirinka said.
That wasn’t the last time Bagirinka feared for her life; she recalled witnessing the massacre of her relatives, friends and neighbors inside an empty church one early morning. Bagirinka said villagers were forced out of their homes and brought into the church for screening.
Nathan Howard, a third-year in criminology, said he found the stories Bagirinka’s told Friday in the Senate Chamber Meeting Room moving and extremely powerful.
“I’d seen ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ so some of that stuff was running through my head,” Howard said. “She explained that you couldn’t even imagine, so trying to multiply that in your head, it’s just all so sad.”
Bagirinka said those without proper forms of identification were judged based on their external features.
People were told to give up all their personal belongings including the clothes on their backs. Villagers were told that if they did cooperate, their lives might be spared.
Bagirinka said despite villagers’ cooperations, the “killers” opened fire and began attacking everyone in the church.
“Someone is shooting this side, someone is killing this side, someone is macheteing or cutting, I can’t even explain how it was, it’s more than what you can put in a picture,” Bagirinka said.
Bagirinka said she was saved by taking refuge behind church seats.
“My mind told me, ‘If you sit down, no one will see you,'” Bagirinka said. “I sat immediately and that saved me.”
Bagirinka has come a long way since the 1994 genocide; she lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her three sons and is the co-founder of Rwandan Women in Action, a Columbus nonprofit organization. The group helps refugee women and children from Rwanda, the Republic of Congo and Burundi adjust to their new lives in central Ohio.
Bagirinka said her hardships have inspired her to help Rwandan women still suffering from the ordeal.
“There are many women who are wounded there, though the government has tried to help women, but still we have women still suffering,” Bagirinka said. “Because of the silence, because there is no structure to help them, so that’s why I wanted to bring it up.”
Meshelemiah said women were subjected to inhumane acts of violence during the genocide. The acts included women being gang raped, some purposely impregnated by their rapists.
“There were many that were kept around pretty much as slaves to endure gang rapes on a ongoing basis,” Meshelemiah said. “They were used (and) sadistically raped not only with the penis … but with knives, the machetes and sharp objects.”
Meshelemiah told The Lantern the purpose of the event was to make students aware of the connection between acts of violence against women and genocides.
“If we’re more proactive in just addressing potential violence, we can prevent it from getting to the point of a genocide,” Meshelemiah said.