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Family fights for the future of Rwandans

Remains of Rwandans slaughtered in the genocide still litter the country. Relics of their deaths remain as reminders of the destruction that was done.

Lisa Schadrac was 7 years old when her first-grade teacher told the students in her class to hide underneath their desks. A student reported seeing a man drive a machete through the belly of a pregnant woman outside in the street.

“We heard some shouting and shooting (outside the school),” said Schadrac. “Some kids were able to go and look.”

It was 1994 in Kigali, Rwanda, a country on the verge of a genocide that caused the deaths of nearly 1 million people in 100 days.

“My dad made sure that we survived,” Schadrac said.

A USF international studies junior, Schadrac hopes to work for the United Nations Embassy, assisting refugees and possibly helping to expand her father’s non-profit organization, War Survivor Ministries.

Rwandan refugees line up at the country’s border in 1994 in an attempt to escape the genocide ravaging the nation.

She fled Rwanda with her pregnant mother and two sisters – Leah, 6, and Vicky, 5 – to neighboring Tanzania in 1994. Her father, Ben, went back to Rwanda after securing his family in a safer country, returning to work in case the rumors of imminent ethnic cleansing proved false.

In 1932, the Belgian government implemented a distinction between Rwandan citizens – the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis – based on petty physical differences such as the width of the forehead and the length of the nose. Though a basis for contention already existed, major conflict in Rwanda started in 1962 when the country gained independence from colonialist Belgium.

“The hatred was built through the Belgians,” Schadrac said. “There was never a thing called a Hutu or a Tutsi until we were separated. We speak the same language, we believe in the same God, we eat the same food, we look alike. We were fine until a name was put.”

Under the Belgians, the Tutsis were afforded better opportunities, such as access to education and high-status jobs, because they were considered superior to the Hutus. However, Belgium left the power to the Hutus once Rwanda gained its independence.

“We (the Tutsis) were basically in power (during the colonial era) and the Hutus didn’t like it because (the Belgians) treated them like dirt,” Schadrac said. “So as the years went by, the Hutus taught their children that we Tutsis were cockroaches and we shouldn’t be trusted.”

When Schadrac escaped to Tanzania with her family, she was not fully aware of the conflict arising in her native country, but could tell that something was wrong because her parents were tense.

“I could have sworn my dad told us we were going on a little vacation, because we didn’t grab a lot of belongings,” she said.

Some people in Kigali laughed at Ben, Schadrac said, thinking he was acting impulsively, and they discredited his concerns as mere gossips. A few days later, on April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – a constituency of Tutsi rebels – was accused of the murder. The next day, the Interahamwe militia went on a rampage to exterminate the Tutsi population. The killings were carried out mostly with machetes.

“He took us out a couple of days before it happened,” Schadrac said. “He was just making sure and he was right, unfortunately.”

Ben witnessed the atrocities of the genocide as he tried to reunite with his family in Tanzania. He moved from place to place, hiding, not remaining in one place long enough to be caught and executed.Finally, the Schadrac family flew to the United States where they found refuge at the Grace Lutheran Church in Winter Haven.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” Schadrac said. “I was just mad being forced to learn another language, and I refused to speak English for a while.”

Schadrac learned of the genocide in her country in her early teens, when her father decided she was old enough to understand. He told her about the escalation of the violence toward the Tutsis and the moderate Hutus and how he had lost all his relatives to the mass extermination.

Now, Schadrac helps her father in his pursuit to educate people about the atrocities of the genocide by distributing flyers, arranging PowerPoint presentations, accompanying him to his speeches and contributing monthly payments to the orphans of the genocide.

“I support him,” she said. “It’s in his heart. He wants to educate people so it never happens again.”

Schadrac has never been back to Rwanda; however, she is planning to return with her father next summer to bring money and supplies to the orphans and widows who now live in the house once inhabited by her family.

“I am excited because I remember the house and even my room that I shared with my sisters,” Schadrac said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this soon; my dad said it is peaceful right now, but it’s hard for me to believe.”

The Schadracs’ large house in Rwanda is made of bricks and surrounded by a huge wall, which made it difficult for the soldiers to break in. The house, pockmarked by bullet holes within the bricks, was used as a hiding place for hundreds of people while the massacre took place. Today, it is used as an orphanage.

“What he has done has rubbed off on me,” she said. “I plan to follow him, probably make his dream bigger.”

Ben Schadrac is very proud of his daughter and he is behind her no matter what she will choose to do in the future, he said.

“I give her a lot of credit and I would like her to follow her own dream,” he said.