Rwandan genocide survivor visits Canada

Denyse Umutoni of RwandaMontreal, Quebec, 10 October 2007 (CBNS) — Denyse Umutoni, a Rwandan genocide survivor, sees in Canada an inspiring example for the world.

“It is a society composed of all the peoples of the earth in one country, in one community…all living together peacefully, at a relatively high level of unity,” said Ms. Umutoni.

A prominent human rights voice, Ms. Umutoni, was invited to Canada as one of 36 young people from around the world to attend the International Young Leaders Forum and the Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide in Montreal this week. She also attended the opening of the feature film Shake Hands with the Devil on which she worked as an assistant director.

Currently on a month-long tour of Canada and cross-cultural exchange facilitated by the Simone Kendall Foundation, Ms. Umutoni has also been meeting with new collaborators and speaking at public events on topics of peace and conflict resolution sponsored by the Bahá’í Community of Canada.

Ms. Umutoni’s world violently imploded in on her in April 1994, when she witnessed the brutal murder of her family in what has become known as the Rwandan genocide. What happened to her in the minutes and weeks thereafter, during which she lost almost 180 of her 200 extended family members, was even worse.

Her physical survival after those horrific events was a miracle, but the even greater miracle was that Umutoni consciously chose not to become a broken shell of her former self. She lived up to her father's dying wish that she continue to be the strong, loving, generous person that he knew her to be and not to allow the extreme inhumanity around her to drag her down.

Umutoni has more than survived. Rather than losing hope, she has committed herself to “the reconstruction of Rwanda”, “strengthening the unity of Rwandan society”, and the creation of a “lasting peace.”

Since 2001, Ms. Umutoni has been involved in various human rights organizations including CESTRAR, a workers union in Rwanda which was the first organization of its kind to achieve recognition of worker’s rights. As president of AMP (Messengers of Peace Association) and with the help of the German government, Ms. Umutoni instituted human rights clubs in all secondary schools across Rwanda.

She is also the national coordinator of a very successful, pan-Rwandan, public awareness program on key social issues called Cineduc (Youth Education Through Cinema), a project funded by DED and UNICEF. Cineduc has been successful in sensitizing people in rural areas to issues such as substance abuse, conflict management, children's rights, women’s rights, racial discrimination, and ethnic reconciliation.

In 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the genocide, Umutoni organized the retrieval of 3000 bodies from a mass grave, which included the bodies of her parents, and experienced the “spiritual shift” which led to the creation of Cineduc.

Ms. Umutoni, who was raised Catholic, says her human rights work experienced a further shift during the last two years with her study of the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, of which she is now a member. Not only did they help reconnect her with God after the devastation of the genocide, she was incredibly moved that there could be a Divine teacher with a remedy for the problems of today. The Bahá’í teachings on love, harmony, and the oneness of humanity coincided exactly with, in her words: “What Rwandan society needs on a day to day basis.”

Ms. Umutoni’s trip to Canada represents for her a great opportunity to widen the scope of the human rights dialogue. Through dialogue and consultation, she hopes that there will be a mutual and collective benefit.

“The lessons are two ways,” said Umutoni, who comes not only to share the story of her life and the lessons of Rwanda’s past, but also to open up an exchange of ideas with Canadians about the nature of social challenges. “I want to network with people of capacity, to learn about what people are doing here”, said Umutoni.

Ms. Umutoni’s travels to Vancouver Island, Montreal, and Quebec City have included discussions with counseling professionals, addresses to high school students at Maxwell International School in Shawnigan Lake, BC and Stelly’s High School in Victoria, and gatherings with the First Nations communities of Alert Bay, BC and Montreal.

Fraser Syme, a teacher of the Global Perspectives class at Stelly’s High School, whose classes organized time for 600 Grade 11-12 students to hear Umutoni speak, said he had never seen anything like it: “Kids were lining up afterwards to hug her.” Impressed by her disarming nature and amazed by her complete lack of hatred for those responsible for the genocide, Mr. Syme said that her message, in his own words: “Healing is possible, peace is possible,” really sunk in.

During visits to First Nations communities in Canada, Ms. Umutoni found herself welcomed with a similar warmth and affinity of spirit. Like her fellow Rwandans, Umutoni found that First Nations people are also, “struggling to find their strengths, to discover what is true, and to build a society around these values.”

When asked about the difference between Rwandese and the First Nations people she joked, “The only difference is that they are living on different continents.”

In her discussions of societal problems worldwide, whether at the level of addiction, abuse, racism, discrimination, or genocide, Ms. Umutoni brings audiences back to the one problem which she feels underlies them all: disunity. To illustrate this point, she usually closes her presentations with this quote from The Hidden Words text of the Bahá’í writings:

“O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth, and dwell in the same land...” (Arabic no. 68)

By simply reminding each other of our common humanity, Umutoni believes we can inspire each other towards the creation of a more peaceful global society.

Her words of encouragement to Canadians echo well this last idea: “Keep building unity, keep opening up the world!”


For related headlines from around the country, please visit:

The Montreal Gazette - Films help Rwandans heal
The Edmonton Journal - Group fights Rwanda killings with classic movies