Leah Chishugi – Everything is a Benefit

Watch the full event here. 

By Oliver Franklin

“I thought it was a nightmare… a dream,” Leah Chishugi, survivor of the Rwandan genocide and author of A Long Way From Paradise, told a particularly sober crowd at yesterday’s Frontline event.

Stifling back emotion, Chishugi was describing the 6th April, 1994, a day she happened to be at Kigali airport. A day that she saw Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane shot down above the runway, an act that sparked the genocide that claimed the lives of over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis, and began a conflict that lives on today in the Eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was impossible not to be moved as, questioned delicately by BBC News correspondent Razia Iqbal, she told the horrifying story of her survival and eventual escape.

“[I found] children sucking their mother’s breast when the mother was lying down, dead,” she said (she rescued those children and took them with her).

Leah – then just 17 and carrying her baby boy Jean-Luc – regularly faced extremely close brushes with death at the hands of the Interahamwe. She told of how she would smear herself with blood so that the militia would assume she was dead. “[I was] lying down with people – dead bodies – on top of me… I think I was there for about eight hours or more.

“When I collapsed, I knew I was gone… As far I was concerned, I was dead.”

It was the crying of Jean-Luc that awoke her beneath the corpses where she lay hidden from the genocidaires, bleeding profusely from a machete wound to her leg, given to her by a sympathetic Hutu.

“For the first time, I wished my son was blind,” she said, describing the scene, undoubtedly holding back floods of emotion. “I hope it’s not in his head.”

Truly, hers is a remarkable story and one which paints a startlingly vivid account of the events. Incredibly, Chishugi’s escape from Rwanda saw her pass through Paul Rusesabagina’s Hotel des Milles Collines – the infamous ‘Hotel Rwanda’ – and also the Nyamata church, the location of one of the most horrific slaughters of the genocide and to this day a grim memorial of the events.

She spoke of the “combination of a lot of messy politics… “The more I try to understand it, the more I get angry.”

Instead, Chishugi has focused not on understanding but reconciliation, a process of healing she says was inspired both by her mother and ‘survivor’s guilt’. “So many people survived, but for me it is: how many people have healed?”

As such, she established a charity, Everything is a Benefit, to provide aid to women and children in the war-ravaged Eastern Congo. “Whatever happened in Rwanda is the reason Congo is suffering at the moment,” she said. “It could repeat itself.” She hopes to raise money to fund education projects in the Eastern Congo and to supply a severely underfunded hospital in Walungu.

She also touched on the salient issue of Western complicity in the conflict, particularly with the increasingly pressing issue of ‘conflict minerals’ – rare earth metals such as tantalum widely used in microchips and mobile phone components, of which the DRC has the world’s largest known reserves. “The international community should give back,” she said. “We use laptops, we use mobile phones… without Congo, we could not communicate at all.” The West, she said, should take the approach of “take a little and give a little.”

Chishugi herself however seems unconcerned about political haranguing, instead focusing on making a difference on the ground to the people in Eastern Congo. “I decided to use my experience to help others to understand,” she said, modestly. “I think that’s my therapy.”

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