WOONSOCKET — Students at the high school know it takes work for people from different ethnic backgrounds to get along.
They get that message by walking through the often crowded hallways of their culturally diverse school and also from their teachers and counselors who stress learning to work together and understanding others is the best way to leave the school with keys to a successful future.
But sometimes that message needs a real world connection to help make it stick and that is what many of the school's students forged this week when they listened to Valentine Iribagiza recount a story of unfathomable inhumanity being overcome by inner strength and hope.
Valentine is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed more than 800,000 of her fellow Tutsi countrymen and supportive Hutu moderates. She visited two assemblies of the high school's English and Social Studies students with her friends from Harwood Union High School in Vermont at the invitation of the Woonsocket High School's Interact Club, a student organization working for social tolerance and service-related learning in the school. The Woonsocket Rotary Club sponsored the student enrichment program.
Now a resident of Massachusetts, Valentine made the trip to Woonsocket High with Harwood Union teacher Steve Rand, director of a Rwanda Program at his school that has taught Harwood students compassion for others through visits to the still healing central African nation.
Members of the country's Tutsi ethnic minority fell victim to extremists in Rwanda's larger Hutu ethnic group as the country spun into a period of social and political madness in April of 1994.
The descent into the horrors of a countywide ethnic cleansing began after the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, was shot down near the nation's capital, Kigali, and the Hutu extremists who opposed his policies blamed Tutsis for his assassination.
Valentine lived with her family in Nyarubuye, a district in Kibungo Province with a population slightly larger than Woonsocket's.
The Hutu killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutu in Nyarubuye began after Valentine and her family went to the Nyarubuye Catholic church under the belief they would find sanctuary there.
Steve Rand, who brought several of his program's students along for Valentine's talk with the local students, said the official Rwanda tally for the ensuing ethnic killing is 800,000 people but unofficial counts point to over a million victims being claimed by the genocide. The killing continued for 100 days and ended when the Hutu troops were forced to flee to foreign refugee camps by a rebel force taking control of the country.
The events in Nyarubuye church left Valentine “an orphan and badly wounded,” Rand told the Woonsocket students. The students would see a video of a Frontline program on British journalist Fergal Keane's story of Valentine's survival that included horrific images of the victims still sprawled across the church property weeks after the slaughter had concluded.
The film “The Rwandan Girl Who Refused to Die,” also showed Valentine as a hollow-cheeked, starved child who was still being treated for machete wounds that cost her the fingers of her right hand and left slash cuts on the back of her head.
The students filling the school's auditorium for the afternoon presentation attended by both Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and School Superintendent Robert J. Gerardi Jr., were transfixed by Valentine as she stood before them and encouraged everyone to join her in a Rwandan song of greeting and friendship. After the short song ended, Valentine began to tell the silent crowd of her experiences in the church with a soft but steady and sometimes questioning voice.
The killing that had started in the cities spread out into the countryside and forced more Tustis into her community than had lived there before the violence. The Tustis had stayed in their homes initially but then decided it would be safe to gather in the church, she said.
“You can ask, I think, why go to the church,” Valentine said. The answer for her parents and the other Tusti was simply their belief no one would bring guns into the church or kill people there, she said.
“Our parents got the idea to go to the church because back in 1959 there was a war but without genocide,” she said. People went to the churches at that time and were eventually transported to other countries as refugees. The older Tusti were “confused” in the belief, Valentine said, because they did not anticipate the inhumanity of genocide.
“We were confused because we didnt know your neighbor, or your friend, or your roomate, your customer, could change and become an animal,” she said. “That's why we were confused.That's why I didnt know that someone that was my friend could kill me,” she said.
Some people might say why not deny that you were a Tusti, she said, but the Hutu members of her community, even her teachers, all knew she was Tusti. There was no escape, Valentine explained.
About 5,000 people had sought to take refuge on the church grounds and when the mayor, a Hutu, gave the order for the killing to begin, many were shot “straight away,” Valentine said. The killings were spurred on by the national radio which called for all Tustis to “perish and disappear from the face of the earth,” Valentine said. The killers then said Tustis were not even worthy of bullets and should be killed like snakes “by smashing our heads and cutting people up.”
No one was spared the killers ethnic hatred, not the elderly, not the children, not even the Tusti infants. Hiding among the bodies and pretending to be dead like a few others, Valentine witnessed children like herself being killed and even saw men smash the heads of babies together to kill them.
Valentine witnessed many people being killed in horrific ways as the killers hacked their way through the injured and dying on the ground. She did not see her mother killed but she did watch her father die. “They cut him to pieces,” she told the silent crowd.
When soldiers and Hutu militia left the church killing field for a time, Valentine went to find her mother and laid down near her body. In the morning, the killers returned and Valentine watched as they beat a small boy in front of her with a club “again and again,” until he died.
A man then turned to her and struck her in the head with a machete. She fended off the blows with her right hand but fell unconscious and was left for dead.
She would remain in a pile of bodies at the church for three days before someone came and took her away to a hospital. Just a handful of children hidden among the dead are believed to have survived the killing in the church compound.
Valentine spent the next seven month's recuperating in the hospital and then moved into an orphanage. Eventually her aunt found her and then her uncle was able to get her to a new village to begin rebuilding her life.
She met Rand and members of his program during one of their visits to Rwanda and that led her to a stay in Vermont and then Massachusetts.
“A group of students gave me an invitation to visit here, and I was happy just see how the people here were so kind and wanted to help us, the people in Rwanda,” she said while explaining her eventual arrival in the U.S.
Even meeting the students in Woonsocket meant something to her, Valentine said. “I just appreciate you, and your time, to come and hear this message. It's not a good message but you are so kind and I thank you so very much,” she said.
Valentine said later that it was once very hard for her to speak to large groups about what happened to her but each time it became a little bit easier and eventually it helped her come to terms with her experiences.
“I used to feel so bad but now I am feeling good,” she said. People always have questions for her about how genocide can be prevented, she said, and her answer is always the same.
“My message is to tell people to love each other,” she said. “If we love one another, we couldn't do this to each other,” she said. “If you love someone, you can't go and kill them.”
The program also included a presentation by Rand's students on the work still under way in Rwanda to recover from the ethnic hatred that spurred the killing. Anna Church, a senior at Harwood, told the students of her tours of the genocide sites maintained by government as a reminder of the mass killings that occurred in 1994. The skulls of the victims are displayed in some places, and the clothing of victims marks others.
Jordan Iannuzzi, a Harwood junior, told about the country's monthly day of national community service, “Umoganda,” and Zak Williams spoke about “The Good Samaritan School,” he his fellow students visited. The group found children attending a mud brick school but also found them to be living with hope and optimism due to the work of their teacher.
Nicholas Bousquet, an Interact Club member who was among the local students introducing the program, said later he found Valentine's talk “very enlightening.
“Especially to see how she views life after all the tragic things that happened to her,” he said. “It shows that people really do care and it is amazing how this story can pull people together,” Bousquet said.
Another city student, Marcos Martinez said he also thought the program was a good one because it told a story “most people wouldn't want to talk about.” Valentine must be a very brave person, he said, to be able to tell it as she does “in front of thousands of people.”
High School Principal Lynne Bedard credited Jason Marzini, a digital media teacher at the Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center and Interact Club advisor, with arranging Valentine's visit as a way get local students involved outside their school community. The Rwanda presentation could help the school to set up a fundraising campaign to help with the country’s reconciliation work, she noted.
“I thought it was amazing and I thought it was meaningful for the students,” Bedard said as the program ended. “You could hear a pin drop in here,” she said of how strongly Valentine had held the students' attention.
She also praised Rand's students for taking on such an important project. “It was so unique to seek those high school students being so caring and so willing to go out into the world community to help,” Bedard said.