Rwandan genocide survivor Yannick Tona shares his story with Capilano Students

// Mike Conway

“Every day I thought we would die,” said Yannick Tona during an event held at Capilano University on Oct. 13. He was describing his and his mother’s sudden and desperate flight from home to save their lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Through Aegis, “an international student movement educating, campaigning and fundraising to end genocide and mass atrocities,” 20-year-old Yannick Tona recounted his story to Capilano students and faculty; of surviving the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and his journey to spread awareness and create dialogue in the hope to stop such human tragedies from happening again.

Tona’s story begins as a four-year-old boy, when he, his three-year-old sister, and his mother were suddenly forced to flee the Rwandan city of Butare on foot in the hopes of reaching the Democratic Republic of the Congo unseen. Yannick remembers being confused and shocked: “I was just a four-year-old boy, I knew nothing of life and death. I only knew that I loved my mother, and that was it.”

“It would’ve been bad just walking for a month,” explained Yannick, “but we had no food. But it was more, we were walking for a month with no food with people trying to kill us. I don’t know how we survived.” At that time in 1994, civil war had erupted across Rwanda. The event, widely reported in the media at the time, was a conflict between the three major ethnic groups of Rwanda: the Hutu, who made up a majority, the Tutsi, the ruling minority, and the Twa, a smaller minority. Accord- ing to Tona, Rwanda’s colonial past played a role in the creation of such tension between ethnic groups in Rwanda: “When the Belgians arrived in 1916, they created identity cards classifying people according to how they looked. If you were tall and skinny, you were Tutsi. If you were short, you were Hutu.” The Belgians preferred the Tutsi, remarked Tona, “because they looked European, like themselves.”

Though the tension created by the racial classification simmered for decades, the assassinations of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were the sparks that set fire to an al- ready precarious political climate. What followed was 100 days of bloody civil war and genocide, where an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 people (or 20 per cent of the population) were executed en masse, most of whom were Tutsis.

Tona’s family, being Tutsi, was also targeted. “When the violence began, my whole family met together, [though] I had no idea what was happening. It was my grandma who came up with the idea that we would have to run away in small groups to make sure some of the family survived.” Sadly, in the end Tona’s grandma was correct: “They killed everyone, all my aunts and uncles and cousins, even my grandma and little brothers. The youngest was just a baby.” Out of Yannick Tona’s entire family (nearly forty people), only Yannick and his sister, mother, and father survived.

The grimness of the events Tona lived through strikingly contrasts his character and sunny personality; however, listening to him speak is a bitter reminder of how hate and horror can fall upon innocent and undeserving people all around the world. That is not Tona’s main message, though, which is one of optimism, hope, courage and healing. The reason Yannick tells his story at venues such as Capilano, he says, is so people can try to understand why the rest of the world did nothing to prevent this tragedy, and what can be done to prevent it happening again. As part of this process, he pointedly says, “forgiveness is very important.”

Today, Tona travels the world spreading his message to aid the fight against genocide. He makes three challenges to his listeners: “spread awareness”, “make a sacrifice to help your community”, and “take action”. For Tona, these challenges are personal mottos; they are part of his process of forgiveness and how he moves for- ward from such trauma. “Now, I use my story as a weapon – a calling – to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

// Mike Conway, Writer
// Illustration by Britta Bachus

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