Rwandan genocide survivor illustrates tragedy

When Rupert Bazambanza woke up in Rwanda the morning he said genocide started in 1994, people were already dead. No one knew what was going on, and most people did not even know what genocide was.

“Overnight, our friends and neighbors became our enemy and wanted to kill us,” he said.

After it was all over, to convey his sorrow and to explain the murder of about a million people in Rwanda from April to July in 1994, Bazambanza used a rather uncommon form of expression; he wrote a comic book: “Sourire Malgr? Tout,” which translates to “Smile Through the Tears.”

He came to Gelman Library Friday to tell his story. Bazambanza’s presentation – part of the International Comic Arts Festival, an annual academic conference that promotes the scholarly study and appreciation of comic art – focused on trying to get people to understand what life was like in his war-ridden African country for those few months.

“It was like the Titanic. Everyone wanted to leave the boat, but had no way of doing so,” Bazambanza said.

He went on to clarify the differences between these two tragedies, Titanic and Rwanda. The people aboard the Titanic were alone; no other ships were there to save them. Rwanda, on the other hand, lies in the middle of Africa for the entire world to see. But no one would help.

He soon realized he could never go home because everything was burned down. People were being murdered around him, and bodies surrounded and covered the roads. Bazambanza went into hiding feeling very alone.

“I felt like no one cared about what was going on,” he said.

But Bazambanza wanted to make sure that people didn’t just let this tragedy fade from memory. He started traveling and sharing his story with the world.

“Every time I have the chance to talk to people, I realize why I survived,” he said.

Bazambanza often questioned why he has survived while so many died. But he realized that by surviving he was able to testify about the tragedy. Bazambanza created the comic, “Smile Through the Tears,” in order to tell the story of Rwanda and what he saw.

The comic, however, is not about his own life and the losses he endured, but rather it tells the story of his neighbor, his best friend’s mother, Rose Rwanga. She lost her husband as well as her children in the genocide.

“I didn’t choose my own story because compared to her, I still had life,” he said.

His neighbor felt that by losing her family, her own life was over. It was as if there was nothing left for her, and she might as well have died along with her loved ones.

By writing this comic honoring the Rwanga family, Bazambanza said he gave life to those who had perished. He said it is important for people to hear stories about those who died because it gives them the ability to live through his words. The departed now have an identity rather than remaining statistics.

Bazambanza and three of his friends who had also survived the genocide moved to Montreal after it was all over. The three men were so traumatized they actually felt as if they were haunted by the experience and those murdered. They ended up in psychiatric wards because they could not cope with the grief; drawing acted as a release for Bazambanza.

“I was lucky to create my own therapy – drawing ‘Smile Through the Tears,'” he said. He was able to get his feelings and thoughts down on paper and out of his mind.

In Rwanda, art was not encouraged. It was not appropriate or acceptable to pursue a career in the arts. Bazambanza explained how he used to hide himself in a room in order to draw.

“Now, I thank God I know how to draw. Because, I can tell you and show you what happened when no one was looking,” he said.

In the years prior to genocide, the nation went unnoticed. Rwanda was known for its gorillas, hills and wonderful weather, said Bazambanza. But this land of a thousand hills, the African Eden, was invisible. Today, Rwanda is well known, but only for hate and murder. The world does not know of its beauty because it remains hidden beneath the scars of genocide, he said.

Bazambanza explained that life in Rwanda before the genocide was simple. He enjoyed growing up there and said, “We didn’t need many things.” The people of Rwanda had morals and values rather than material things. Materials were not important to them; they were happy with life.

And hopefully many more will get a chance to see how the genocide ruined that happiness – “Smile through the Tears” so far has been quite a success. The book has been accepted by the government of Rwanda and is also being distributed in schools. Canada has also been promoting Bazambanza’s comic book.

Unfortunately, the book does not have a great possibility of being spread throughout Africa due to the limited means of the people. The only way other African school children could be exposed to Bazambanza’s work would be through the aid of organizations that would pay for the work to be distributed.

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