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Rwanda genocide survivor has a new life, a new cause


Yves Twagirayezu stood next to his 17-year-old brother and watched the Hutu soldiers behead him and throw him into a 30-foot-deep mass grave. The 11-year-old Tutsi boy knew he was next.

He squirmed from the clutches of a Hutu soldier to jump in after his brother, followed by two other Tutsi boys standing at the rim of the pit. The Hutu soldiers, ordered not to waste bullets on the young prisoners, shoveled on dirt and rocks, figuring they would bury the boys alive.

"I got scared and broke loose," Twagirayezu said. "Once I was in the pit, I just remember the stench of bodies."

Eleven years after crawling out of that grave, the 6-foot-4-inch college student blends into the undergraduate student body at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Twagirayezu, who just completed his junior year, is starting to feel comfortable telling people his story of surviving the genocide in Rwanda, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis died.

Speaking in places including the front of the White House, he hopes to draw attention to Sudan, where African tribal farmers have been systematically killed in the Darfur region by a government-funded militias.

"After Rwanda, they used the excuse that nothing like that would ever happen again," Twagirayezu said. "So why is the exact same thing happening in Darfur and no one is doing anything?"

Twagirayezu escaped with his life, but 26 of his relatives, including his parents, sister and two brothers, were killed.

His uncle, Chrysologue Gakuba, had left Sudan decades earlier, establishing a private cardiology practice in Pikesville. He returned to Rwanda after the genocide, found his malnourished and traumatized nephew, and eventually brought him to Maryland.

"No one could take care of him, and we wanted to get him out of there because we were still concerned that the Hutus would attack and finish the job," Gakuba said.

Twagirayezu remembers that day in 1994 when the Hutu military began hunting down Tutsis after an attempted rebellion. When a Hutu soldier knocked on the front door, Twagirayezu bolted with his mother, sister, brothers and cousin through a hole in the back fence while his father greeted the soldier. Twagirayezu never saw his father again.

The family spent two months protected by nuns at a convent, until pressure from the Hutu soldiers became too intense. They moved to another church, packed with 40 other Tutsi refugees into a priest's home.

Two days later, spies tipped off Hutu soldiers, who took away the women and children, including Twagirayezu's mother, sister, little brother and cousin. Twagirayezu and his older brother evaded capture by hiding in a storage room with other older boys and men.

"It was almost unbearable," Twagirayezu said. "We could see through the cracks of the wooden door as they took them away, but what could we do? I wanted to run out because they were right outside the door."

Alone now, Twagirayezu and his brother decided their only option was to head home. Stopped at a Hutu military roadblock, the two brothers were thrown into the back of a jeep. Twagirayezu remembers a soldier yelling to the Hutus in the jeep: "Take the boys, but don't waste any bullets."

Escaping the soldiers' machetes by diving into the mass grave, Twagirayezu said, he was stunned and bleeding.

"I turned to my brother, who was covered in blood and tried to wake him up," Twagirayezu said. "I kept trying, but he just wouldn't wake up."

After the soldiers left, the three boys who had survived pulled themselves from the pit. Limping on an ankle severely sprained when he fell, Twagirayezu hid in a cornfield until a sympathetic Hutu escorted him to a town guarded by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The militia formed by the Tutsi political party halted the genocide 100 days after it started.

Twagirayezu was reunited with two of his aunts and eventually connected with his uncle.

Gakuba said that when he reached Rwanda and met his young nephew for the first time, he saw a starving, weak, shaken little boy. "He didn't say a lot," Gakuba said. "He just followed me wherever I would go and listen to whatever I said."

It was two years before Twagirayezu joined Gakuba, his wife and two sons in Owings Mills. "Once he arrived, he was immediately just part of the family," Gakuba said.

The language barrier was the hardest part of the transition, Twagirayezu said. He was old enough to be in seventh grade but couldn't speak English and had attended school sporadically during the previous four years in Rwanda.

For two years, Twagirayezu attended a school where English was not the primary language, and he spent many hours with a tutor. At 15, having caught up academically, he attended his first day of ninth grade at Owings Mills High School.

"At first I kind of had trouble understanding him," said Mike Senderoff, a high school friend who met Twagirayezu in ninth-grade algebra. "Everybody kind of knew Yves. He was such a laid-back guy, and at 6-foot-4, he kind of stood out."

But Twagirayezu remained troubled by his past. Gakuba remembers nights when he was awakened by Twagirayezu screaming during nightmares.

"He is trying to put that behind him," Gakuba said. "He kept it buried inside of him. It's not something you can get over. I just feel very fortunate that he doesn't have mental problems because of what he witnessed."

At Owings Mills High, Twagirayezu ran track, played on the soccer team and was selected for the Honor Society. During his senior year, Twagirayezu's uncle felt it was time to revisit the past and took his nephew back to Rwanda to see his relatives and his childhood home.

"It was tough going back," Twagirayezu said. "It was difficult to see those places again."

Twagirayezu transferred to the University of Maryland after spending one year at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He studies civil engineering and works such campus jobs as driving the university shuttle.

"When I look back, it's a miracle he survived," Gakuba said. "And it's a miracle he turned out the way he did."

This year, Twagirayezu has become involved in the effort to focus attention on the estimated 400,000 people who have died in the Sudan violence.

This spring, he told his story of survival at a Sudan rally on campus. An official at the national organization Africa Action also spoke and asked Twagirayezu to speak at the group's rally in front of the White House on the 11th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide.

Standing next to national figures, including actor Danny Glover and Rep. Donald M. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat, Twagirayezu told his story of loss to about 200 people.

"My skin had goose bumps," said Akenji Nduma, an Africa Action associate. "I was speechless, and everyone was speechless. When you know the gravity of 800,000 people dying, and he was so close to being one of those people, it's just amazing."

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