Nebraska Professor Collecting Stories of Rwandan Survivors

In the summer of 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people were murdered in Rwanda. (Image courtesy
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June 20, 2014 - 6:30am

During the spring of 1994, the world turned its back as the African country of Rwanda was ripped apart by a bloody civil war. 20 years later, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor is trying to help shed light on what’s been called a war the world forgot.

1994 was a year full of headlines. In the United States, the Supreme Court made it illegal to exclude people from juries because of their gender. Images of a white Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson captivated television audiences before the former football star’s now infamous trial.

But there was one headline, which stood out from the rest, or at least it should have.

On April 6, a plane carrying the president of Rwanda was shot down. Hours later, one of the darkest times in modern memory began—the Rwandan Genocide.

Neither the United Nations nor any individual nation made an effort to intervene as one of Africa’s most densely-populated nations descended into a brutal civil war between the powerful Hutus and their victims, the Tutsis.

Chantal Kalisa is a self-described child of exile.

“All of my maternal side of the family was killed during the genocide. My maternal grandparents decided to stay in Rwanda instead of fleeing, which is the case of many Tutsi people in 1994,” Kalisa said.

After the Hutus began to take control of the government in 1959, Kalisa’s parents fled Rwanda and crossed the southern border into Burundi.

Chantal Kalisa is a self-described "child of exile." Her parents fled Rwanda prior to the 1994 genocide. She is now the director of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an associate professor of French. (Image courtesy UNL)

“We lived in a neighborhood in Burundi that was entirely made up of exiles from Rwanda. So when we went to school, we went to school in Burundi, but came back home to Rwanda. So the Rwandan culture or the Rwandan identity is what I consider myself to be first and foremost,” Kalisa said.

Not only is she Rwandan, Kalisa is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches French and is the director of Women’s and Gender Studies.  She was in Lincoln in 1994, working on her master’s degree, when the crisis in Rwanda erupted.

“It used to be I couldn’t even talk about this as a scholar, because I am so much involved, I lost people. But I don’t feel like that. I feel the responsibility of understanding this. As one of the few scholars of Rwandan decent, it is very important for me to do this. And in many ways, it’s very therapeutic for me,” Kalisa said.

In addition to opening up about her own experiences, Kalisa is encouraging other survivors to do the same. She is collecting first-hand accounts from the genocide, recording the oral history.

“That’s how we live, this oral history. That’s how people’s memories work,”  Kalisa said.

Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962. Hutu extremists took power and harsh discrimination against Tutsi’s began. Random executions and torture were commonplace.

When the genocide broke out, Hutu civilians, armed with machetes and rocks, also took part in the massacres.

“They [said] you cannot even allow babies in the womb to be born. You have to erase this ethnicity to the bone, to the very last fetus,” Kalisa explained.

During what’s called the “100 Days of Terror,” from April thru July, an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s were murdered. Men, boys and male babies were among the first to be killed. Women and girls were often raped before being killed. Some women were intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS.

Kalisa said watching news reports at the time was like watching the 9/11 terror attacks on a daily basis. Only it wasn’t just pain or despair she felt while watching, but anger as well.

“It was covered with such racism, covered with such disdain. It was just Africans killing Africans,” Kalisa said.

“Francois Mitterand, the then president of France said, I’m paraphrasing but ‘in Africa, genocides are nothing. They kill each other.’ It’s just such a discourse of 19th century reasoning or excuse behind colonialism. ‘Those people are savages. That’s what they do,’” Kalisa said.

The genocide ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front—a group of Tutsi’s exiled to Uganda—defeated the Rwandan government forces in July of 1994.

Rwanda has spent the last 20 years rebuilding. The new government is trying to encourage reconciliation. The practice of identifying people as either Hutu and Tutsi has also been outlawed.

The new government also re-instituted the traditional custom of gacaca (ga-cha-cha) courts, tribunal systems where nine people are chosen by the community to preside over a trial. The gacaca courts could not impose a death penalty. Life in prison was the stiffest punishment handed down.

Around two million genocide suspects were processed through the gacaca courts. 65 percent of those were found guilty.

For her part, Kalisa said she’s done her best to move past the hurt and pain she feels at the loss of loved ones.

“What else can you propose? Go back to the way it was before? The genocide is unfortunate, but it happened. [Now] there’s an opportunity to rethink peoples’ identity, because it was peoples’ identity that got them to be killers and got them to be killed,” Kalisa said.

This idea of giving people an identity is one of the motivations behind Kalisa’s work to gather survivor accounts, which she hopes to one day turn into a book. She said instead of focusing on the politics or the hate that caused the genocide, she wants to remember those affected by it.

By recording this living history, Kalisa hopes to turn a war the world forgot into a lesson we will always remember.



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