War and What Comes After: Clemantine Wamariya at TEDWomen 2017 (Transcript)

Clemantine Wamariya – Author

Words matter. They can heal and they can kill … yet, they have a limit.

When I was in eighth grade, my teacher gave me a vocabulary sheet with the word “genocide.” I hated it. The word genocide is clinical … overgeneral … bloodless … dehumanizing. No word can describe what this does to a nation. You need to know, in this kind of war, husbands kills wives, wives kill husbands, neighbors and friends kill each other. Someone in power says, “Those over there …they don’t belong. They’re not human.” And people believe it. I don’t want words to describe this kind of behavior. I want words to stop it.

But where are the words to stop this? And how do we find the words? But I believe, truly, we have to keep trying.  I was born in Kigali, Rwanda. I felt loved by my entire family and my neighbors. I was constantly being teased by everybody, especially my two older siblings. When I lost my front tooth, my brother looked at me and said, “Oh, it has happened to you, too? It will never grow back.”

I enjoyed playing everywhere, especially my mother’s garden and my neighbor’s. I loved my kindergarten. We sang songs, we played everywhere and ate lunch. I had a childhood that I would wish for anyone.

But when I was six, the adults in my family began to speak in whispers and shushed me any time that I asked a question. One night, my mom and dad came. They had this strange look when they woke us. They sent my older sister Claire and I to our grandparent’s, hoping whatever was happening would blow away. Soon we had to escape from there, too.

We hid, we crawled, we sometimes ran. Sometimes I heard laughter and then screaming and crying and then noise that I had never heard. You see, I did not know what those noises were. They were neither human — and also at the same time, they were human. I saw people who were not breathing. I thought they were asleep. I still didn’t understand what death was, or killing in itself. When we would stop to rest for a little bit or search for food, I would close my eyes, hoping when I opened them, I would be awake.

I had no idea which direction was home. Days were for hiding and night for walking. You go from a person who’s away from home to a person with no home. The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out, and no one takes you in. You are unwanted by anyone. You are a refugee. From age six to 12, I lived in seven different countries, moving from one refugee camp to another, hoping we would be wanted. My older sister Claire, she became a young mother … and a master at getting things done.

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When I was 12, I came to America with Claire and her family on refugee status. And that’s only the beginning, because even though I was 12 years old, sometimes I felt like three years old and sometimes 50 years old. My past receded, grew jumbled, distorted. Everything was too much and nothing. Time seemed like pages torn out of a book and scattered everywhere. This still happens to me standing right here.

After I got to America, Claire and I did not talk about our past. In 2006, after 12 years being separated away from my family, and then seven years knowing that they were dead and them thinking that we were dead, we reunited … in the most dramatic, American way possible. Live, on television — on “The Oprah Show.” I told you, I told you.

But after the show, as I spent time with my mom and dad and my little sister and my two new siblings that I never met, I felt anger. I felt every deep pain in me. And I know that there is absolutely nothing, nothing, that could restore the time we lost with each other and the relationship we could’ve had. Soon, my parents moved to the United States, but like Claire, they don’t talk about our past. They live in never-ending present. Not asking too many questions, not allowing themselves to feel — moving in small steps.

None of us, of course, can make sense of what happened to us. Though my family is alive — yes, we were broken, and yes, we are numb and we were silenced by our own experience. It’s not just my family. Rwanda is not the only country where people have turned on each other and murdered each other. The entire human race, in many ways, is like my family. Not dead; yes, broken, numb and silenced by the violence of the world that has taken over. You see, the chaos of the violence continues inside in the words we use and the stories we create every single day. But also on the labels that we impose on ourselves and each other. Once we call someone “other,” “less than,” “one of them” or “better than,” believe me … under the right condition, it’s a short path to more destruction. More chaos and more noise that we will not understand.

Words will never be enough to quantify and qualify the many magnitudes of human-caused destruction. In order for us to stop the violence that goes on in the world, I hope — at least I beg you — to pause. Let’s ask ourselves: Who are we without words? Who are we without labels? Who are we in our breath? Who are we in our heartbeat?

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