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ILR speaker’s journey called “an epiphany of hope” by Sudanese student

Konvitz Lecture speaker Freddy Mutanguha, a survivor of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, spoke to the Cornell community on March 13 about his experience living through hate, violence and misinformation. Through his story, he seeks to reimagine what peace looks like through forgiveness and community healing.

“More than one million people were killed, and there were thousands of widows, many of whom were victims of rape and sexual abuse,” Mutanguha said. “Many had seen their own children murdered. Streets were filled with dead bodies. Rwanda was a country destroyed. I survived a genocide, and today, I want to share my personal journey.”

The genocide in Rwanda orphaned more than 300,000 children, including Mutanguha.

“On April 14, they came for my family,” Mutanguha said. “We hid as best as we could. Yes, the death was near. I heard later that they killed them with machetes and clubs. The specialists [who specialized in killing children] killed my four sisters. After clubbing them, they threw them alive into a latrine. I could hear them screaming and crying for help. In 48 hours, we went from a family of eight to two.”

Three decades later, Mutanguha has dedicated his life to educating people about peace-building and the importance of forgiveness as a way of post-conflict reconstruction. He is CEO of the Aegis Trust and Director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where 250,000 genocide victims rest. He is now helping build the Isoko Peace Institute through the Aegis Trust. Slated to open in 2025 as a sister campus to the genocide memorial, it will be a destination for scholars and peacemakers to exchange knowledge.

“One year ago, I sat down with a man named Samson in prison. He had killed my family,” Mutanguha said. “I invited those who killed my family as my guests to the memorial. When they arrived, they began to cry. I thought that these men had lost basic humanity. [But], even the perpetrators had a human spark inside them.”

African Studies and Global Development doctoral student Azhar Sholgami was one of about 40 people who attended the lecture, honoring the legacy of Professor Milton Konvitz and made possible through the generosity of Irwin Jacobs, BEE ’56, and Joan Jacobs, HE ’54.

Sholgami raised her hand after Mutanguha’s lecture to ask a question.

“I am from Sudan, and it has been a very dark year,” Sholgami said. “I personally lost my grandmother to starvation, I lost my uncle, my grandfather was shot, my father was held at gunpoint, and my aunt and cousin were killed. I do not have it in me to forgive or ever forget what they have done. My question is, how do you reach that point of forgiveness when the past haunts you every single day?”

The war in Sudan broke out between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces on April 15, 2023. According to the United Nations, the conflict has displaced over 10 million people.

Mutanguha paused, then answered Sholgami, quoted in a BBC story documenting some of her family’s losses during the war. 

“Forgiveness is a journey, and it is possible,” Mutanguha said. “If you cannot forgive now, I cannot blame it. It will take time. For me, it took 17 years. It took me 10 years just to even begin to talk about forgiveness. If someone brought up forgiving, I would get angry and get up and leave. What is the most important thing for the survivors is not reaching the end but to start their journey. Forgiveness is not only for perpetrators. Forgiveness is for survivors.” 

In an interview, Sholgami said Mutanguha’s message of forgiveness “was an epiphany of hope.”

“Freddy’s talk showed that it was doable. Holding grudges or holding onto pain is harmful to you before anyone else, and that is what I have been learning. I am learning that Rwanda survivors do this for them, as well as their country and their children.”

“I love how Freddy pointed out that his kids, when they speak of genocide, think that it is something that happened centuries and centuries ago. To me, that was quite remarkable because the fact that it feels centuries ago despite happening 30 years ago shows that things can actually change and that things do not have to be the way they are.”

After attending the lecture, Sholgami said she felt empowered to continue her research on creating a comparative analysis of Rwanda and Sudan.

“I think for Sudan to progress, we have a lot to learn from Rwanda,” Sholgami said.  “Forgiving the past, reconciling with the past, healing from it, and choosing to look at perpetrators in the eye and forgive them for you and the sake of building your country. That is why I went to the talk – to find answers to that. To find answers on how Rwanda did it, because I think it is a miracle, what they did.”

Jiwook Jung ’25 is a student writer in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. 

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