YONKERS, N.Y. – A survivor of the Rwandan genocide has traveled some 5,100 miles to share his story.
Gilbert Sezirahiga was in Yonkers on Wednesday as part of a two-week trip to Westchester County, spreading a message of peace and tolerance.
“I came here to tell you how violence destroyed my country, my life and my family,” he said during a visit to City Hall.
Growing up in the village of Murambi in the African nation of Rwanda, Sezirahiga was 14 in April of 1994 when the murders began. Members of the Tutsi tribe were targeted by the Hutu in a mass genocide that claimed the lives of more than half-a-million African.
Men and boys were killed instantly, while women were sent to concentration camps where they were tortured before eventually being put to death.
In the village of Murambi alone, 5,000 Tutsi were killed in a 24-hour period. Sezirahiga lost 75 members of his own family, including his parents, grandparents, cousins, brothers and sisters.
“You can imagine seeing your neighbor waking up one morning, with a machete,” he said. “In one minute they just want to kill you. They set fire to my house. It hurt very much.”
Sezirahiga was only able to escape death after he disguised himself as a young girl. He was sent to a concentration camp and with the help of the women around him, he was able to escape, running through the African brush to safety.
“You can imagine how I felt, alone at 14-years-old without my mother and father and my family in the village,” he said.
Now, Sezirahiga has a degree in psychology and specializes in trauma caused by the genocide. He serves as the site director of the Murambi Memorial, the first and largest genocide memorial in Rwanda.
It was there that County Legislator Virginia Perez (D-Yonkers) met Sezirahiga during a recent trip to Africa. Touched by his story, Perez said she knew instantly she wanted to bring him to New York to share his message with Westchester students.
“It broke my heart and I realized this is something that needs to be shared,” she said. “What better way to have our children learn from this history than to meet a survivor in person and hear his story.”
In his first trip to the United States, Sezirahiga will speak to students at several schools, including those in Yonkers, Somers, Eastchester and Briarcliff Manor. He is also scheduled to give a presentation on May 13 at 5:30 p.m. in the Yonkers Riverfront Library.
“We should all learn from this and thank him for his honesty, his perseverance and his fortitude to go out and make a difference – to take such a horrible experience and turn it around and make the world a better place,” Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano said Wednesday before presenting Sezirahiga with a key to the city.