Young survivors appear on `Oprah' to discuss genocide and raise awareness of other atrocities after their stories win essay contest
But then she read "Night," Elie Wiesel's wrenching account of his days in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, and suddenly the haunting events she had witnessed at age 5 in Rwanda came flooding back.
She wrote a moving 1,000-word account of her survival and last month was among 50 students across the nation to win a high school essay contest sponsored by Oprah Winfrey. Another winner, Clemantine Wamariya, 18, a sophomore at New Trier High School in Winnetka, also survived the 1994 mass killing of 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, at the hands of Hutu militiamen.
Since writing their essays, both students, who came to the Chicago area separately through charities that help resettle refugees, have used their fame to speak against genocide. Wamariya has told her story at area high schools. Rutagengwa, 17, has urged classmates to sign a petition asking politicians to stop the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, where some 4 million people have died in ethnic fighting.
"I survived the genocide," said Rutagengwa, wearing a green T-shirt that said "Save Darfur." "I feel like I'm here now and there are injustices so I can't sit back and watch without doing something about it."
Winfrey's essay contest asked students to answer the question "Why is Elie Wiesel's book `Night' relevant today?" About 50,000 students responded, and the winners won a $10,000 prize toward college tuition.
On May 25, Rutagengwa and Wamariya appeared with Wiesel on an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that was devoted to discussing "Night" and the experiences that led each student to write an essay.
"I still live it. I close my eyes and I'm back screaming," said Wamariya, who survived at age 6 by hiding in a banana tree while militiamen killed members of her family. "All I can do is share my story."
Rutagengwa's journey to activism began earlier this year when a history teacher at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she is a junior, urged her to read "Night." Rutagengwa couldn't put the book down.
"It was hard to remember that stuff and keep reading," she said. "It was very powerful."
In her essay she contrasted Wiesel's terror of nighttime in the Nazi camps with her own feelings of safety under cover of darkness. She was terrified of the daylight, she said, when the militias went out killing. At night, her family crept from place to place to keep from being discovered and killed.
Rutagengwa was particularly moved by passages in "Night" that describe Wiesel's feelings that God had forsaken his people. "I [also] felt God had abandoned us," she said. "For me, it was hard to go back to church."
Wamariya, who still has nightmares about her experiences, said she identified with Wiesel's description of nighttime. At night she felt the absence of hope most acutely, she said.
After hiding in the banana tree, she and her sister, Claire, then 15, escaped on foot to Burundi, walking for days without food to reach the border. From there, the girls bounced from one refugee camp to another, through Congo, South Africa, Zambia and elsewhere in search of a home before coming to Chicago in 2000.
At each place the sisters searched for their parents at Red Cross outposts but always came away empty-handed and assumed they had died in the genocide.
Then in 2001 a friend from Rwanda came to dinner in Chicago. The friend, it turned out, knew the girls' aunt. They called her in Rwanda and discovered their parents were alive.
Winfrey secretly flew the girls' parents to Chicago, and in a moving segment of the show, they walked onstage and surprised their daughters.
"It was great," Wamariya said. "I hadn't seen my parents in 12 years."
Speaking at high schools has helped Wamariya come to terms with her experiences, she said. Reading "Night" helped her take that step. "[The book] encouraged me to speak. It made me strong," she said.
Sometimes she speaks about the politics that led to genocide, she said. She describes how someone's physical features--Tutsis are typically tall and thin-boned, with long fingers and hands--could be used as an excuse for murder.
"It helps the [students] understand how horrible war can get and how hateful and cruel we can be if we put racism on the table in front of us," Wamariya said.
For Rutagengwa, reading "Night" gave her a new sense of purpose. Besides organizing the petition, she encourages students to buy T-shirts from agencies that aid Darfur and has written to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) about the need for U.S. aid to the region.
She would rather act to create a better future than remember a miserable past, she said. She rarely speaks of her experiences in Rwanda, where her parents and grandparents were killed.
Her surviving aunt and siblings would rather forget the terror of that time. "We don't like to remember that stuff," Rutagengwa said.
Wamariya agreed that many Rwandans choose to remain silent.
"A lot of us try to erase it," she said. She would rather speak out. "I think erasing it isn't a way to solve it. We should talk about it instead."
WNBA Writing Contest 2018
The 2018 Writing Contest is open for submissions until March 15, 2018. A new category is available this year – Young Adult Fiction. Entries are accepted from women and men at least 18 years of age.
Submission fees, guidelines & entry submission – click here!
$250 cash prizes for the winner in each category and publication in The Bookwoman.
Categories and Judges
Carol Smallwood will judge the poetry submissions. One of Carol Smallwood’s over five dozen anthologies, Women on Poetry: Tips on writing, revising, publishing and teaching, is on Poets & Writers Magazine’s List of Best Books for writers. Her latest is Library Outreach to Writers and Poets: Interviews and case studies of cooperation (McFarland, 2017). A multiple Pushcart nominee, she has served as reader, reviewer, interviewer, and judge and has received various recognitions such as a National Federation of State Poetry Societies Award.
Regina Marler will judge the fiction submissions. After Editing SelectedLetters of Vanessa Bell, Ms. Marler wrote Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom, and edited Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America on to Sex. Her fiction has appeared in North American Review,Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her story, She has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, Amazon.com, and the Advocate and currently contributes to the New York Times Book Review, the TLS, and the Signet Classics series. Recent essays include the Cambridge Companion to Bloomsbury, Queer Bloomsbury, and forthcoming: Oxford Guide to Virginia Woolf.
Katie Hafner will judge the nonfiction submissions. She has been writing for The New York Times since 1991. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, and O, the Oprah Magazine. Her books include Cyberpunk: Outlaws and hackers on the computer frontier (with John Markoff), Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The origins of the internet (with Matthew Lyon), and others. Her most recent book Mother Daughter Me, a memoir about multigenerational living, was published in 2013 by Random House.
Tanya Egan Gibson will judge the Young Adult fiction submissions. Her debut novel, How to Buy A Love of Reading, was published by Dutton in May 2009. An alumna of Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she is mother to a four-year-old who produces countless construction paper “books” that she insists Mommy “get published” and an infant whose favorite teether is HTBALOR, and wife to the most patient man in the universe.
2017 WNBA Writing Contest Winners
1st Place: Stacey Balkun, “”When I am Red and the Moon Full”
2nd Place: Alice Osborn, “Southern Ice Storm”
3rd Place: Andrea Young, “Aleppo”
Honorable Mention: Anna Hernandez-French, “At Sea”
1st Place: Robyn Corum, “Coffin-Maker”
2nd Place: Karin Fuller, “Dancing on a Stump”
3rd Place: Christine Eskilson, “Taking Care of Harry”
Honorable Mention: Patty Somlo, “Since Letitia Williams Saw Jesus”
1st Place: Jean Choy Tate, “White Woman Passes”
2nd Place: Nicole Ayers, “Pink Hats”
3rd Place: Sarah Birnbach, “Climbing Back Up”
Honorable Mention: Joanne Godley, “Doubling Back”
Congratulations to all the winners, and thank you to all who submitted their work!
And thank you to our distinguished panel of judges.
2017 WNBA Writing Contest Judges
Brenda Knight began her career at HarperCollins, working with luminaries Marianne Williamson,Huston Smith and Paolo Coelho. Knight served as publisher of Cleis Press and was awarded IndieFab’s Publisher of the Year in 2014. Knight is the author of Wild Women and Books, Be a Good in the World, and Women of the Beat Generation, which won an American Book Award. Publishing Advisor to Mango Media, she also serves as President of the Womens’ National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter.
Ellen Urbani is the author of the novel Landfall, a Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads selection set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Her work has been profiled in the
Oscar-qualified short documentary film Paint Me a Future. A Southern expat now residing in Oregon, her pets will always be dawgs and her truest allegiance will always reside with the Crimson Tide.
Linda Joy Myers is president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. Her memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness was a finalist in the ForeWord Book of the Year Award, a finalist in the IndieExcellence Awards, and won the BAIPA Gold Medal award.Linda offers workshops internationally, and helps people capture their stories through coaching, editing, and online workshops.
The WNBA Annual Writing Competition Chairperson is Joan Gelfand, founder of the contest and contest Chair. Joan is a poet with three volumes of poetry, winner of a short fiction award and novelist. She blogs for the Huffington Post and is a member of Bay Area Travel Writers. If you have an interest in advertising the contest to your English department, journal or group or would like to participate as a judge, please contact Joan Gelfand: [email protected]