At four years old, Yannick Tona saw people being hacked to death with machetes, women raped in the streets, and was hunted by people trying to kill him. He was targeted during the 1994 Rwanda genocide because of his ethnicity. He is a Tutsi.
During the genocide Yannick’s one-year-old brother had been beaten to death against a wall by Hutus. They made his grandmother drink his dead brother’s blood and then killed her as well. His sister had been living in a hole for three months and his grandfather was thrown down a toilet (in Rwanda they are long tubes that go into the earth) and was left there for weeks before he died. In total, Yannick lost 86 close family members.
Yannick is now a 21-year-old activist working in the city of Kigal in Rwanda. He speaks publicly in Rwanda and around the world to prevent future genocides.
He spoke at St. Thomas University as part of the Ripples of Change tour sponsored by AEGIS, a genocide prevention charity.
Yannick was sitting on his grandmother’s porch when about 400 Tutsis started running past her house. The Hutus were murdering Tutsis in the street.
“I saw my mom’s face changing and I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” said Yannick. “That was when my family started to panic.”
His family rushed inside his grandmother’s house and worked out a plan to escape the country. They decided to split up into pairs.This way more of them had a chance of surviving.
Yannick was chosen to escape the country with his physically disabled mother who needed a cane to walk. They quickly parted ways with the rest of his family.
“That was the last time I saw many members of my family,” he said. “I did not know what a horrible journey was waiting for me out there.”
Yannick and his mother walked on foot for three weeks as they journeyed to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The trip would have taken seven hours by car. But road blocks were set up by militias that were trained to kill Tutsis on sight, so they were forced to walk in the African bush.
The Rwanda genocide started on April 6, 1994 when the plane of President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Violence broke out immediately and the government released its plans to exterminate all Tutsis. The militia called Interahamwe was 30,000 strong and did most of the killing.
However, once the genocide started many Hutu civilians started killing Tutsis as well. According to the United Human Rights Council, it is estimated that over 200,000 people participated in the killings.
“Kids I used to play with were killing each other right in front my eyes. I was four years old. I saw women when they were raped in front of my eyes.”
Yannick said people changed when the media and government were telling Hutus to kill Tutsis. For many Hutu, it no longer mattered that they were friends.
“This guy, from the Hutu ethnic group, when he was a child my family supported him. They paid school fees for him and raised him until he finished high school. I called him my brother.
“During the genocide he found me and my mother and tried to kill us. My mom said ‘Why you want to kill us? I raised you as my own child.’ He said ‘Because you are a Tutsi, you are an enemy of the country. You need to be killed.’ This is a guy I grew up seeing every day.”
Yannick’s mother begged him not to kill them and he eventually let them go. As they journeyed through the bush, Yannick endured severe physical challenges.
“We were walking everyday without food. I had never missed a meal before in my life,” he said. “We had no food because if we went out to buy food they would kill us. Just walking without food, that would have been enough. But there were people trying to kill me and my mother.”
The sights he saw as a four-year-old child traumatized him.
“There were bodies everywhere,” he said. “They killed every part of Rwanda. Women, men, children, one week old babies–they killed them. Pastors who teach us every day in church were killing their neighbours inside the church, teachers killing their students.
“There were bodies in every street in Rwanda. There were bodies in the rivers, in the toilet, in the church, in school–everywhere.”
Yannick paused before saying in a low, angry voice, “All this happened and the world did nothing.”
The international community was aware of the genocide. International media covered stories about the killings and the UN Security Council was informed by Canadian Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire of the situation, but no action was taken to intervene.
More than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus who resisted the genocide were killed in 100 days—that’s seven people a minute. Yannick and his mother were lucky and made it to DRC after three weeks.
Yannick wants youth around the world to take his story and the story of Rwanda as a precautionary tale. He wants youth to take action in the world around them to make it a better place for everyone, to ensure atrocities like genocides never happen again.“I talk to young people to educate students about the genocide,” he said. “Because we are the next future of our countries.”
“You don’t need to be rich and you don’t need big experience to change someone’s life. You only need one thing, to make a choice, to do something to help someone. Everywhere you look, something can be done.”