Last year, nearly 1,000 refugees settled in Maine. One of these refugees was Prosper Ishimwe, a young man from Rwanda.
This past weekend, Helmrich House welcomed Ishimwe as part of their “Whoopie Pies with Mainers” speaker series. Ishimwe was invited by Helmrich residents to talk about his experiences growing up in Rwanda during the civil war and genocide, as well as describe his perspectives on life as a refugee in Maine.
Ishimwe is a graduate student at the University of Maine, Orono, working toward a masters in global policy. He has an undergraduate degree from the University of Rwanda.
Ishimwe was born in Rwanda in the mid 1980s. His parents were both elementary school teachers, and he grew up on a banana farm. “It was a pretty good, happy childhood for me, my siblings, my friends,” he recounted.
“Then things started changing, but, as a child, you don’t realize what’s going on,” he said. While tensions escalated between the Hutus and Tutsis, Ishimwe, a young boy at the time, tried to comprehend the shifts his country was undergoing. He remembered the way the television and newspapers started dehumanizing Tutsis.
The Rwandan Civil War was largely a conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis, but Ishimwe said that the distinction between the two groups is more complicated than what most people understand. “I could not identify myself as a Hutu or a Tutsi. My family was kind of in a gray area, so we were always in the middle,” he said. This is still true today; he does not distinguish himself as part of either ethnic group.
Ishimwe was eight when the presidential plane was shot down, killing Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, which catalyzed the Rwandan genocide. “We start hearing that people are starting to get killed,” Ishimwe recalled. Although his family was not immediately targeted, the chaotic climate of the country quickly affected his village. The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was advancing and “as they got closer, we started hearing gunshots, bombs,” Ishimwe said.
Eventually, Ishimwe’s mother decided it was time to flee their home village. “We walked all night to a hill where people had built shelters,” remembered Ishimwe. But, early that morning, while he was playing with his cousin, the hill was attacked. Separated from his family, Ishimwe fled to his grandfather’s village nearby. Not long after, his grandfather’s village was also attacked. Having thought they were safe, they did not flee until it was too late, and soldiers captured Ishimwe and his grandfather. Ishimwe escaped, but his grandfather was shot and killed by the soldiers.
Separated from his immediate family, Ishimwe spent the next several years living with his uncle. His sister and younger brother survived the the war in a refugee camp in Rwanda. His father, mother and other sisters and brothers, on the other hand, were in a camp in neighboring Congo. In 1996, the Rwandan Army invaded the camp. “They shot through the refugee camp,” Ishimwe said. In the chaos, his family lost track of Ishimwe’s mother. “We never saw her again. We don’t know how she died.”
Even now, Ishimwe says he has trouble comprehending what happened to his family, his village, and his country. “The experience has influenced…how I view the world…I’m trying to understand what peace means, what justice means,” he said. In a way, he has used his education to pursue these answers, noting that he is studying global policy now. “I’m trying to understand how we are able to avoid war and atrocities,” he said.
Ishimwe said he believes that fear is the root cause of many conflicts in human history. “Fear is the only enemy. I believe people kill because they are afraid,” he suggested. Ishimwe admitted that he has faced an inordinate amount of fear in his lifetime. However, he sees the conquering of this fear as vitally important in bringing people together in peace. Ishimwe highlighted the role of personal contact and understanding in vanquishing fear. “People can come together, live together, when you overcome fear,” Ishimwe said.