When Stephanie Nyombayire was only 7 years old, her family was torn apart by the genocide in Rwanda. Hutu extremists murdered dozens of members of Nyombayire’s extended family.
“Everything about that experience made me want to make sure that this experience wasn’t repeated — not just for my family, but also for any other human being’s family,” Nyombayire said.
Nyombayire, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a representative of the Genocide Intervention Network, will speak at Ithaca College tomorrow about the ongoing crisis in Darfur, in which approximately 400,000 people have died since 2003.
Her visit is sponsored by Ithaca College’s Student Anti-Genocide Coalition chapter, formerly called Students Taking Action Now: Darfur.
Senior Amanda Kesseler, the group’s co-president, said that STAND is primarily a student-awareness group.
“We think it’s really important to get the campus community educated on what’s happening so we can be stronger in standing up against the genocide,” she said. “As much as we can read about what’s going on, there’s nothing quite like hearing about it from somebody [who has] been there.”
Her personal connection to the Rwandan tragedy has led her to campaign for an end to genocide, specifically in the current conflict in Darfur.
In the United States, Nyombayire enrolled in Swarthmore College, in Pa. At the college, she was one of the founding members of the Genocide Intervention Network in October 2004. She said the students who founded the network believed they could have a hand in providing security for the people of Darfur.
“What really motivates me is that it had to be recognized that human life is worth more than economic interests. … The cost of holding perpetrators responsible for genocide should not even be calculated in terms of money or financial interest.”
In 2003, non-Arab rebel forces in Darfur staged several successful attacks against Sudanese military installations, accusing the Sudanese government of oppressing non-Arabs. The government responded by launching a military retaliation against both rebel and civilian targets and enlisting the Janjaweed — Arab herders-turned-paramilitary units armed by the government — to suppress the uprising.
“They believe that the easiest way to deal with these [rebel] groups is to exterminate them,” said Nyombayire.
In the ensuing violence, the government-supported Janjaweed massacred several thousand non-Arabs: Entire villages were burned flat, women were systematically raped and hundreds of thousands of refugees — mostly women and children — were chased into overpopulated camps in Northern Darfur and the surrounding countries.
“If you look at a Darfur map prior to the genocide and currently, you see that many villages have been wiped out, many villages have been deserted,” said Nyombayire. “Everything they own has been burned down to the ground.”
Wendy Sue Sumner, a local program planner for Ithaca’s Northern Light Learning Center, had the original inspiration for bringing Nyombayire to Ithaca. Sumner decided to organize a fundraiser after reading a news article about refugee women from Darfur.
“I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind for two days … I kept focusing on this photograph of these women in the desert,” said Sumner. “The article said you could help by buying a stove and make a difference, and I thought, Oh, I could do more than that, I think we could try to buy a hundred [stoves].”
“Fueling Hope: Stoves for Darfur” will hold a dinner and silent auction to raise money to buy stoves for families who have been displaced by the conflict. Working with members of STAND, Sumner invited Nyombayire to speak at the event, which will be held tomorrow from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Women’s Community Building at 100 W. Seneca St.
Nyombayire said The Genocide Intervention Network’s primary goals have been to raise both money and awareness.
“Clearly our big goals with this constituency are to educate, advocate and fundraise for the people of Darfur, and our major campaigns revolve around those issues,” she said.
Nyombayire said the conflict in Darfur has been complicated by China’s economic support of the Sudanese government. She said the college community should be aware of China’s role in the genocide, especially because of its partnership with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“What we’re trying to do is find every possible way to exert pressure on China to at least have them take a stand against the genocide,” she said. “A link should be made and attention should be brought to the fact that China is in a very secure position and a very powerful position to bring an end to the genocide.”
Nyombayire hopes to motivate students at the college against the Darfur genocide. She said the important thing is that all students realize they have a role in ending genocide.
“We can’t pass it on to our neighbor and say, Well, he’s doing something, I don’t have to,” she said. “[The genocide could] come to an end if all of us understand our role and responsibility. … It’s not just a crime against Darfur — it’s a crime against humanity.”