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A young survivor of genocide takes her message around the world

Howard Reich

11:33 AM EDT, October 5, 2012

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At 24, Clemantine Wamariya knows more about trauma and survival than most of us ever will. If we're lucky.

When Wamariya was 6, she and her sister were forced to flee the ethnic killings in Rwanda, spending the next several years in a series of African refugee camps where they fought starvation, mayhem and disease.

Wamariya, who began rebuilding her life in Chicago in 2000, has since become a much-admired speaker on genocide, a subject she'll address during Chicago Ideas Week. She hastens to point out, however, that she seeks no sympathy.

"I'm not a victim," says Wamariya. "I'm a survivor of hunger, of hate, of different injustices that humans are facing today."

More than that, Wamariya has become an advocate for human rights, a subject she came to understand in a most visceral way.

Before Hutu militias began slaughtering the Tutsi minority in the spring of 1994 – the massacres ultimately killing 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus – Wamariya led what she considers an idyllic childhood in the Rwandan town of Kigali. She played with her friends in a tree, the youngsters pretending it was a train, a bus, a plane – anything that struck their imaginations.

But everything changed abruptly.

"I always call it 'the noise,'" says Wamariya. "The whole killing – I didn't understand it. I didn't understand death. I thought you get old and go to heaven."

Wamariya and her older sister, Claire, fled and were separated from their parents, the rest of their family, literally everyone they knew. During the ensuing years, they experienced a life they could not have imagined. No one could have.

"After Rwanda, in our first refugee camp, it was basic human survival," says Wamaria, who with her sister subsisted in camps in seven African countries. "I saw my older sister Claire changing in front of me. She became aggressive in her way of living – she had to find food for us in the middle of this chaos, in the middle of people who were sick. …

"We were completely alone. It was more like the land of the lost. …

"There is not a word to describe it: I did not know where my mother and father are. I did not know where we are. We walked for days. It was a sense of confusion."

When the sisters arrived in Chicago, through the aid of the International Organization for Migration, there was a new language to be learned, new ways of living to be mastered. Like many survivors of genocide, Wamariya breathed not a word to her new friends about what had happened to her. She didn't fully comprehend it, she says, so how could anyone else understand?

But in seventh and eighth grades – when she began studying the American Civil War, European history and other bloody chapters of the human experience – she realized she was not alone in her past sufferings. Later, by reading Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's landmark book "Night," visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and otherwise taking the toll of human history, Wamariya concluded that she had to speak out about what happened, as difficult as that would be.

"It was like all the demons were awakened and shaken out of me," she says. "I could not be silent anymore."

Far from it. Her composition on what Wiesel's "Night" meant to her won an Oprah Winfrey National High School Essay Contest in 2006 and earned her an appearance on the show (which included a surprise reunion with her parents), as well as two follow-ups. Wamariya has been speaking widely ever since, and last year Pres. Barack Obama appointed her to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which governs the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is the council's youngest member, serving alongside Wiesel and others.

Wamariya's studies at Yale, where she's a comparative literature major in the class of 2013, further underscores how far she has come in the aftermath of her experiences.

"Even among Yale's extraordinary undergraduates, Clemantine's life story is one of unusual hardship, unusual courage and unusual determination," the university's dean of admissions Jeff Brenzel told the Yale Daily Pressin 2010.

Yet what happened to Wamariya her and her family always hovers in her consciousness.

"It never goes away," she says. "It has taken me so many years to finally be in my bed and fall asleep for six hours. …

"I hate light. … I feel like at night, it's safer. If anything happens, there's a way to hide at night. Another thing I hate about light is it reminds me about being in a refugee camp and being outside.

"For me, it's basically those are the kinds of traumas that every day you have to deal with. Do you trust people who might love you to not turn against you? …

"My trauma is not as bad as people who saw their family being killed in front of them, their family being tortured in front of them. …

"I'm still coping with my trauma," adds Wamariya, "but coping by trying to find different ways to heal it rather than hide it."

Such as speaking out, for everyone to hear.

Clemantine Wamariya will appear at 11:40 a.m. Friday during Chicago Ideas Week's "Edison Talks." The event will be streamed live at chicagoideas.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich