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Nina Iliza Headshot

Rewriting My History as a Rwandan Genocide Survivor

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It's almost April again.

My Facebook feed will soon be flooded with people who change their profile pictures to the Rwandan memorial, a single candlelight, and update their statuses with the words "never forget." For many people April is the month to commemoration the Rwandan genocide; it is the month to pay homage to those who lost their lives. However, to me, April is just another month I try live without remembering the genocide. Throughout this month I am constantly reminded to never forget the very thing I wish I did not remember.

In 1994 my mother was killed. I stood there as she begged the soldiers to spare her life with both arms reaching out to me, signifying that I belonged to her, and that for me they should have mercy on her. Twenty years have passed and that is the most vivid imagine and memory I have of my mother. Twenty years later and I still find it hard to accept. Whenever I do force myself to sit and think about it, I become that little girl being pushed away from her pleading mother. There was so much lost in the month of April -- my brother was killed the same day as my mother, my grandparents and other family members were also victims. So when I hear the words never forget my thoughts are: "How can I?"

I have always felt like the month of April is the month where people remember to sympathize with what I go through all year. Next month you will start to hear more talk about movies like Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April. Rwanda will be googled more often, and for 30 days there will be more talk than usual about the Land of a Thousand Hills. I envy those people who can partake in only 30 days of remembering the genocide -- those who must be reminded to "never forget." I am jealous of people who need to read books and study what happened. I envy those who, for 11 months out the year, are not constantly reminded of the genocide. 20 years later and I still find it hard to attend a memorial and I find it preposterous to post or even say the phrase "never forget" only because remembering is so agonizing.

But I have come to learn that acknowledging the truth is the first step to accepting it. Hiding my suffering for the past 20 years has gotten me nowhere. I cannot let the pain of my history be the pain of my future. I found it imperative to create a way to rewrite my history so that my present self can begin to heal. I decided to rewrite the loss of my mother as the discovery of hope for myself and my country.

This year I launched a nonprofit organization in honor of my mother called Heart of a Thousand Hills. Heart of a Thousand Hills works to provide orphans and street kids of Rwanda with uniforms and school supplies to enhance their educational pursuit. I look at the organization as a way to give back to the county that I first and last saw my mother, the country which holds all of our memories. I take this as an opportunity to pass my hope on to kids who may not have any. This year I lay my hopes in gaining enough courage to join my fellow Rwandans in celebrating the lives of those we lost, and to outwardly acknowledge my mother's death, so I can celebrate her life. Twenty years later and I have found a positive way to never forget.