Tell Oprah Essay Contest

Young survivors appear on `Oprah' to discuss genocide and raise awareness of other atrocities after their stories win essay contest

But then she read "Night," Elie Wiesel's wrenching account of his days in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, and suddenly the haunting events she had witnessed at age 5 in Rwanda came flooding back.

She wrote a moving 1,000-word account of her survival and last month was among 50 students across the nation to win a high school essay contest sponsored by Oprah Winfrey. Another winner, Clemantine Wamariya, 18, a sophomore at New Trier High School in Winnetka, also survived the 1994 mass killing of 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, at the hands of Hutu militiamen.

Since writing their essays, both students, who came to the Chicago area separately through charities that help resettle refugees, have used their fame to speak against genocide. Wamariya has told her story at area high schools. Rutagengwa, 17, has urged classmates to sign a petition asking politicians to stop the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, where some 4 million people have died in ethnic fighting.

"I survived the genocide," said Rutagengwa, wearing a green T-shirt that said "Save Darfur." "I feel like I'm here now and there are injustices so I can't sit back and watch without doing something about it."

Winfrey's essay contest asked students to answer the question "Why is Elie Wiesel's book `Night' relevant today?" About 50,000 students responded, and the winners won a $10,000 prize toward college tuition.

On May 25, Rutagengwa and Wamariya appeared with Wiesel on an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that was devoted to discussing "Night" and the experiences that led each student to write an essay.

"I still live it. I close my eyes and I'm back screaming," said Wamariya, who survived at age 6 by hiding in a banana tree while militiamen killed members of her family. "All I can do is share my story."

Rutagengwa's journey to activism began earlier this year when a history teacher at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she is a junior, urged her to read "Night." Rutagengwa couldn't put the book down.

"It was hard to remember that stuff and keep reading," she said. "It was very powerful."

In her essay she contrasted Wiesel's terror of nighttime in the Nazi camps with her own feelings of safety under cover of darkness. She was terrified of the daylight, she said, when the militias went out killing. At night, her family crept from place to place to keep from being discovered and killed.

Rutagengwa was particularly moved by passages in "Night" that describe Wiesel's feelings that God had forsaken his people. "I [also] felt God had abandoned us," she said. "For me, it was hard to go back to church."

Wamariya, who still has nightmares about her experiences, said she identified with Wiesel's description of nighttime. At night she felt the absence of hope most acutely, she said.

After hiding in the banana tree, she and her sister, Claire, then 15, escaped on foot to Burundi, walking for days without food to reach the border. From there, the girls bounced from one refugee camp to another, through Congo, South Africa, Zambia and elsewhere in search of a home before coming to Chicago in 2000.

At each place the sisters searched for their parents at Red Cross outposts but always came away empty-handed and assumed they had died in the genocide.

Then in 2001 a friend from Rwanda came to dinner in Chicago. The friend, it turned out, knew the girls' aunt. They called her in Rwanda and discovered their parents were alive.

Winfrey secretly flew the girls' parents to Chicago, and in a moving segment of the show, they walked onstage and surprised their daughters.

"It was great," Wamariya said. "I hadn't seen my parents in 12 years."

Speaking at high schools has helped Wamariya come to terms with her experiences, she said. Reading "Night" helped her take that step. "[The book] encouraged me to speak. It made me strong," she said.

Sometimes she speaks about the politics that led to genocide, she said. She describes how someone's physical features--Tutsis are typically tall and thin-boned, with long fingers and hands--could be used as an excuse for murder.

"It helps the [students] understand how horrible war can get and how hateful and cruel we can be if we put racism on the table in front of us," Wamariya said.

For Rutagengwa, reading "Night" gave her a new sense of purpose. Besides organizing the petition, she encourages students to buy T-shirts from agencies that aid Darfur and has written to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) about the need for U.S. aid to the region.

She would rather act to create a better future than remember a miserable past, she said. She rarely speaks of her experiences in Rwanda, where her parents and grandparents were killed.

Her surviving aunt and siblings would rather forget the terror of that time. "We don't like to remember that stuff," Rutagengwa said.

Wamariya agreed that many Rwandans choose to remain silent.

"A lot of us try to erase it," she said. She would rather speak out. "I think erasing it isn't a way to solve it. We should talk about it instead."

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dhoran@tribune.com

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