“Gripping my sister’s hand as we ran from our grandma’s house, I was pushed against the crowd. All around us were people screaming, desperately looking for lost family.
Just six years old and terrified, I couldn’t understand the horrors unfolding around me – only later would I learn we’d been in the middle of the Rwandan genocide, which saw hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Tutsis like us slaughtered by Hutu extremists.
Growing up in Rwanda was heaven. I lived in the capital, Kigali, with my mum Christine, dad Apollinaire, older sister Claire, younger sister Claudine and younger brother Pudi.
Our home was always full of people laughing and sharing food, and I’d spend many happy hours climbing the giant mango tree in our garden.
But in April 1994, everything changed. Mum stopped going to church, Dad would come home from work early and we’d eat dinner with the lights off. My parents would speak in whispers and I’d catch the odd story of neighbours’ homes being ransacked.
I’d spend many happy hours climbing the giant mango tree in our garden. But in April 1994, everything changed.
Then one day Mum suddenly packed me and Claire, then 15, into a friend’s van and sent us to our grandmother’s farm a few hours south of Kigali.
Mum promised she’d join us soon, but that was the last we’d see of her for 12 years. I didn’t know it then, but Hutu militias had begun murdering our people.
Just days after Claire and I arrived at our gran’s, there was a knock at the door. Grandma gestured for us to be silent, then a moment later told us both to run. We didn’t have time to ask why. My heart hammered as we crawled through a field and then a thick banana grove, where we found dozens of others fleeing.
For days we walked with the crowd, drinking from streams and foraging for food, before finally crossing the border into Burundi. I never saw my grandmother again.
For the next six years, Claire and I lived in and out of refugee camps across Africa, battling malnourishment and dysentery, with no access to proper schooling. Every day I’d ask about my parents, but no one knew anything.
In 2000, when I was 12, Claire and I were granted refugee status in the US. Stepping on a plane for the first time was bitter-sweet. I cried the whole journey, still wondering if any of my family was alive.
After landing in Chicago, Claire and I tried our best to settle in to American life.
We were given an apartment, Claire got a job as a hotel maid and I started school, joining the cheerleading team. A year later, Claire discovered our parents were alive after contacting someone who knew one of our uncles.
Claire and I lived in and out of refugee camps across Africa, battling malnourishment and dysentery,
They’d fled their home and lost everything, but still lived in Rwanda. We managed to call them, but hearing their voices made me drop the phone and run away in tears.
For a long time I could barely bring myself to speak to them – it was just too overwhelming.
We didn’t meet until 2006, when Claire and I were invited on The Oprah Winfrey Show after I won a school essay competition.
Unbeknown to us, the producers had flown over our whole family, including two new siblings who were born after we’d fled, and we were reunited on national TV.
My legs gave way as I hugged my mum. She was thinner than I remembered, and Claudine, who I’d last seen when she was two, was now 14 and taller than me.
Devastatingly, I was told Pudi had died.
After the show we went spent time together at Claire’s apartment, which was lovely but surreal. No one really knew what to say – we’d all been through so much. My family returned to Rwanda three days later.
This time we only waited a year before we met again, after Claire became a US citizen and brought them to live with us on American visas.
Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days.
Since then it’s been both amazing and challenging as Claire and I slowly rebuild our relationship with Mum and Dad.
When I was 24, President Obama made me the youngest person ever appointed to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – a huge honour.
Then in 2014 I graduated from Yale University. People always say that my experience is unique, but there are thousands of people suffering in the same way.
I don’t want anyone’s pity – I want to give others the courage to speak out, too.”
– The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story Of War And What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil (£16.99, Hutchinson) is out now.
Photography: Julia Zave, George Burns/ABC
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