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Interview: Genocide activist Kizito Kalima


Kizito Kalima - BRANDON KNAPP

Kizito D. Kalima had, by all accounts, made it through. He had survived a Rwandan genocide that took the lives of his parents and other family members. He had found refuge in sports once he moved to the States, then worked his way through college at Indiana University-South Bend. But he kept getting headaches - migrane headaches, seven days a week. He went to doctors. Was he allergic to any type of food? Nope. Maybe a blood workup would point to the cause? Nothing there either.

"But one day, a doctor asked me if I had ever been involved in a traumatic event," recalls Kalima, a featured speaker at Saturday's Indiana Genocide Prevention Summit. "Of course, based on my background, this person sensed that something happened to me. So I said, yes, I survived a genocide; I got hit by a machete on my head and almost died. From there, we started talking. He explained that there's no cure; you have to be able to talk it out. It took me a long time; the genocide happened in 1994, but I didn't start talking about it until 2005. But as I started talking about it, my migrane headaches started going down and I was able to sleep. It got to the point where I was comfortable; I even started making jokes about it. And that's when I said I need to help other people."

The Indianapolis-based Kalima has since made it part of his life's work to encourage other survivors to share their experiences as well, often during programs organized by his organization, the Global Genocide Prevention Alliance. Last year, the Alliance organized a workshop at the Decatur Discover Academy bringing together a group of 70 children drawn from those of both Hutu and Tutsi heritage. Kalima explains that, because Rwandan emigre populations in the Midwest are divided by geography - with South Bend being home to a majority Tutsi population, and Dayton, Ohio, being home to a population comprised largely of those from a Hutu background - some of the children at the workshop had never sat down beside a person of his or her opposite tribe.

"Those people in South Bend are still feeling like victims of genocide, and the people in Dayton have been demonized; people still think of them as killers - and not all of them are," Kalima says. "Some of them were involved in it, but they have kids born here or who grew up here. Those young kids are innocent, but because of what their parents got into, there's a division within the Rwandan community in the Midwest. So what we do is try to bring them together."

He set ground rules for the workshop: While each attendee would end up talking about his or her personal experience, it was important to remember that they were all human beings, all Africans, all Rwandans.

"It ended up being like group therapy," he says. "Someone would say some ridiculous thing, and you wonder if they'll ever get a chance to heal. But at the same time, they haven't seen anyone able to overcome obstacles; what they know is the same cycle. For people who have been hurt, every little thing leads back to the genocide - even if you don't have gas money, it leads back to the genocide, those memories. If you can minimize those barriers, it's easier for them to say, I have a car, I have a job, I have a family, so why am I angry? When we sit down and talk, I always ask: Where are you in your life and what can we do to help you? Once they figure out that they have a life, you start questioning: Why are you angry about people who are millions and millions of miles away from you; why are you angry at people who hurt you twenty years ago? No one ever asks them these questions."

Not that Kalima would necessarily call the work therapy; he note that there's a strong bias against psychological treatment - or, in general, asking for help - in Rwandan society.

"It's not acceptable in our society to go to a therapist, because once you go to one, you're considered crazy, a psycho. When I came here, I was 17, 18 years old, and I was determined to change, and I lived with people who were open and would talk about it. I always tell my wife that I was raised by a computer. When I had a headache, or anything else - I didn't have parents, I've been on my own since I was 14, running around the world - I would Google, "How do you deal with anger? Why am I always angry or aggressive?" I got to the point where I said, I have to help myself, and as I was continuing to look for an answer, I met people: coaches, teachers, preachers, people who served as mentors or referred me to other people who helped me. The issue is asking for help."

This kind of personal growth is central to the reconciliation process, according to Kalima.

"For a genocide survivor, reconciliation is personal. Of course, our government has a beautiful policy that says, you need to forgive and move forward. But that's easier said than done - and who's telling you to do that, someone who's never been through what you've been through? The most important thing is when regular people, individually, decide to reconcile and forgive. Once you forgive, you feel free - and from there, you live your normal life. What the government has done looks good on paper; but I still have family members who will never forgive, because they've been hurt. For some of them who were old enough to know to exactly what was going on during the genocide, it's so hard for them to see a future where Rwandas - Hutus and Tutsis - will live in harmony. But these kids - including some, like mine, who don't know their biological parents - can't grow up angry, because it's going to lead to another killing."

Kalima is one of several speakers scheduled to attend the Summit, including Don Kraus, the CEO for Citizens for Global Solutions, a Washington-based advocacy group advocating for genocide prevention which has helped organize the summit, and George Wolfe, coordinator of outreach programs for the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Ball State University.


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