WARREN TWP. – At an age when he could have been a freshman at Watchung Hills Regional High School (WHRHS), guest speaker Kizito D. Kalima shared with today’s WHRHS students his story of how he was called upon to be another kind of unofficial “warrior:” That as a young teenager who narrowly escaped death multiple times during the brutal genocide in Rwanda, Africa.
He spoke at the school on Thursday, Nov. 21, during National United Against Hate Week, Nov. 17 to 23. He spoke in the South Auditorium to a group of students from social studies, English and world languages departments.
Kalima had had to flee as many as a half-dozen life and death situations in his own country on his way to eventually reaching the safety and security of the United States.
His harrowing experiences in his previously peaceful home country of Rwanda, became a living nightmare when a bloody civil war foisted atrocities on him and his family. He had to experience, the death of his family members, relatives, neighbors and fellow countrymen, sometimes witnessing them personally.
He had to see, hear, and never forget all manner of the brutality of genocide, including executions, mass graves and hearing about plans that the refuge sites — the warehouses, the orphanages, and the safe houses where he sought temporary shelter from the carnage all around him — would imminently be themselves torched, bombed, or shot up.
And even after having lived another 10 years in the peace and relative safety of the United States, he then had to come to grips with the reality that there was still another, ongoing danger he needed to escape. He realized slowly that he was, and had been, suffering from a massive case of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It was complete with many of its cruel manifestations. He suffered from depression, from anxiety, from panic attacks, from migraine headaches, and more.
About Rwanda and the 1994 Genocide
The Rwandan genocide, also known as the “Genocide against the Tutsi,” was a mass slaughter of members of the Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutu tribes in Rwanda. The genocide took place between April and July 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War.
The Republic of Rwanda is in Central Africa, a few degrees south of the Equator, bordered on the West by The Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the north by Uganda, on the east by Tanzania, and on the south by Burundi. It is one of the smallest countries on the African mainland.
The population estimate as of 2015 was 11 million. Rwanda achieved independence from Belgium in 1962, when it was also admitted to the United Nations. There are four official languages in Rwanda: English, French, Kenyarwanda and Swahili. The largest religion is Christianity, including Catholic, Protestant and Seventh Day Adventist, and also less than 5 percent Islamic. Rwanda is home to the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa people.
Kalima is a member of the Tutsi tribe, who like the Hutu, are known to be on average among the tallest people in the world. Kalima, himself, is 6 feet 6 inches tall.
Center For Forgiveness and Reconciliation
After recounting for WHRHS students his harrowing experiences surviving the Rwandan genocide, including several instances when he distinctly remembers telling himself he had a clear choice to make: Either he could stay in shelters targeted for likely genocidal destruction, or run as fast and as far as he could. He said he knew he could easily be shot dead in the back if he did run, but even as a young teen he made the decision that he would rather die while making the effort to escape to freedom than let the genocidal fighters, who killed his family, control his fate. He chose to run every time, he said.
Fast forward to the United States, where he was free from the genocide, but continued to be tortured internally by rage against the people who murdered his parents, his family, his neighbors and his country. It took a while for him to realize, and admit to himself, that he had PTSD, that it was very serious, and that as big as he was and as strong and resilient and self-reliant as he was, he still needed help.
“I was being controlled still by the people who killed by family,” he shared.
He needed to adopt a mindset and as a personal code, several things he never thought he would have to or could ever hope to, adopt: He needed to seek and accept help from others; and he needed to learn and to live by a belief in forgiveness and reconciliation.
Turns out, he also reclaimed his indomitable bright spirit and effervescent personality which was on full display when he interacted with the WHRHS students. It was he who suggested that a photo of him be taken surrounded by the high school students.
Kalima said he learned that the common denominator between the great advocates of forgiveness and reconciliation down through the ages, including Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa in India, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa was: They all forgave.
That was the philosophy he was able to learn about and embrace: “I decided to forgive,” Kalima said.
Kalima is the founder and executive director of the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Indianapolis, Ind., Web site, www.chosetoforgive.org.
According to the website:
The Peace Center’s mission is, “To remove the obstacles to forgiveness and promote healing both for victims and perpetrators of injustice. By creating venues for constructive dialogue, we will build ties of understanding and cooperation, leading to reconciliation.” Its goal is: “To work towards a program that is a model of forgiveness and reconciliation for the world. To help accomplish this, an Academy of Peace/Mentor Program will be established to further the goals of forgiveness and Reconciliation.” Its core values are: “Forgiveness, Healing, Motivation, Tolerance, Acceptance, Reconciliation Inspiration, and Love.”