Armed with American money and a pair of blue jeans, refugees fled the genocide in Rwanda by paying off Congolese soldiers at a river checkpoint.
Beatrice Umetesi, a Rwandan native, witnessed and chronicled the plight of refugees like herself during the mid-1990s.
“Fathers abandoned their families at the river bank, insisting they would hire a boat for the family, when in fact they handed the Congolese $20 and crossed the river alone,” Umetesi said.
Umetesi, author of the first-person account “Surviving The Slaughter,” spoke yesterday in Haven Hall about her book and experiences. Umetesi survived the Rwandan genocide, in which ethnic Hutus massacred hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis.
Umetesi described life in the Tingi-Tingi refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. She said the camps were plagued with fear, overpopulation and lack of security and essentials for living.
Of the 500,000 refugees who started the 400-kilometer journey from Rwanda to Tingi-Tingi, only 150,000 arrived, Umetesi said. Of the refugees who arrived at the camp, no children younger than four survived, and most pregnant women, elderly and others who were not as strong perished in the camp. She said throughout Rwanda and the Congo during the conflict, many refugees suffered similar experiences.
Umetesi said she eventually trekked 2,000 kilometers from Tingi-Tingi to the city of Mbandaka in the Congo, before escaping to Belgium.
David Todem, a biostatistics professor at Michigan State University, said he met Umetesi in Belgium when he was doing graduate work there. “I personally witnessed the effect of her suffering. She was very lucky to escape.” Todem said at the lecture yesterday.
In “Surviving the Slaughter” Umetesi re-tells the story of her and her family. “It is not a history book, or a dramatic interpretation. It is a personal account of the events as they happened to those I know,” Beatrice said, emphasizing the fact that the book was told in the first person in order to enhance the vicarious experience of the reader.
Her goal with the book was to bring those who committed the atrocities in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to justice, and warn future generations in order to try and prevent this type of atrocity from occurring in the future.
“If readers can put themselves in my place, then I hope it will prevent the horrors of war to occur in the future,” Umetesi said.
Umetesi and other visiting professors at the lecture were critical of the United Nations’ negligence in their response to the atrocity. “The key thing in Africa is that the U.N. tries to put political action first. They need to put people first.” Todem said, echoing the message of Umetesi’s book.
Umetesi was vehement about this point. “I don’t care about history or splitting hairs over facts. I want the people who committed the crimes to be put on trial and for the international community to focus on taking care of the victims,” Umetesi said.