By Bonnie Adams Government Editor
Westborough- It is one thing to read an account of the genocide that occurred in the central African nation of Rwanda in 1994. It is quite another, Westborough High School (WHS) students would surely attest, to hear a personal account. On March 3, an assembly of juniors and seniors did just that, as they attended a presentation at the school by Earnest Rugwizangoga on what it was like to live through that terrifying time.
Rugwizangoga came to the school at the invitation of two student groups, the “Darfur Student Alliance” and “Facing History and Ourselves.” The WHS students, who were captivated by his story, responded with a standing ovation after he concluded his presentation.
Rugwizangoga told the students that he was just like them back in the early 1990s, attending school and playing sports. As such, he was not very aware of the tensions between his ethnic group, the Tsutis, and rival Hutus. But slowly things started to change, he said, with the situation the two sects going from bad to worse.
“Tsuti families started feeling persecuted,” he said. “Almost every male who had a middle income job was put in jail, including one of my uncles.”
On April 6, 1994, the Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated. From there tensions escalated, with the Hutus entering towns, burning homes and killing entire Tsuti families, Rugwizangoga said. His mother knew their town was on the path of Hutu destruction so she made the only decision she could. She gave him some money, opened the front door of their home and told him to run. Just run, she said. And so he did.
Eventually he was picked up by a family friend and brought to a camp that was intended to be a safe haven. Instead, it was “like a concentration camp.”
” People were brought there,” he said, “to make it easier to kill them. Women were raped daily as an alternative to killing. Machetes, gas, whatever could be used to kill was.”
Rugwizangoga was again able to escape, this time to a home where he and several other men lived in a ceiling for three months, only coming down at night.
“Every single day, we were just waiting to die,” he said. “We would discuss the best ways to die.”
Another friend came to his rescue and helped him to escape, this time to the United States. He was also able to reunite with his mother and two siblings, but three other family members had been killed. An estimated 800,000 Tsutis perished in the carnage.
Rugwizangoga now lives in Massachusetts, where through his work as an activist and community organizer, he speaks to groups such as the students at WHS. He also attends UMass, where he studies history.
WHS students like Sarah Warshaw, a senior and the president of the Darfur Student Alliance, were moved by the presentation.
“The assembly was a huge success and we never anticipated this event to be so powerful,” said Sarah Warshaw. ” Learning about genocide through such a personal and emotional experience is far superior to any textbook or pamphlet.
“We are so deeply grateful to Earnest for sharing his incredible story. Everyone was so moved by his words and respected him so much; the silent auditorium attested to that. We are thrilled with the positive feedback and hope this assembly will spark more involvement in the fight to end genocides around the world.”