Filmmaker and Rwandan Genocide Survivor Emmanuel Habimana on Trauma, Storytelling and Resilience
By Maya Kashima
Emmanuel Habimana didn’t know what to expect when he moved to Los Angeles. Sure, he’d lived in big cities before, residing for most of his life in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali, which boasts a population of 1.2 million. He’s spent plenty of time in America, too – eight months in Lincoln, Neb., a year in Portland, Ore., and four months traveling across the country. But L.A. is not like most of America. It’s hardly even a big city, really. L.A. is a sprawling metropolis, a collection of disparate communities united only in name. In almost every way, L.A. is different. That’s the word Habimana lands on when talking about the place, using it seven times in less than a minute. “L.A., it has its own way of living,” he says. “Life is different. People interact differently. People behave differently.”
He moved to the city in early 2016 to study film at the Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood. “In the beginning,” he says, “it was really, really tough for me to assimilate.” Even after two years, he still struggles. He is acutely aware of the ways in which he stands out there. He’s 6 foot 1 inch, but seems even taller. He’s a Black man in a majority white and Latinx neighborhood. He has an accent, a mix of his native Kinyarwanda, Swahili and French. He doesn’t move about the world with the kind of fluency the city seems to demand. Because of that, people aren’t always so welcoming. “They know when you are not from here. They notice in a second,” he says, snapping his fingers. For a moment, his voice takes on an intensity uncharacteristic of his normally mild demeanor. “They start to ask you questions. Or some ignore you, they don’t even want to talk to you. They think you’re crazy. Well, sometimes I think they’re crazy, too. But it’s a good experience to have in life.”
Habimana tries his best to look at the positive side of things, to extract some lesson from every struggle he faces. As a survivor of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, resilience has been his life’s work.
Habimana speaks after a screening of his documentary at Pacific Lutheran University. Photo: John Froschauer
He was only nine years old when the killings started. Extremist members of the country’s Hutu ethnic majority had come to believe a rebel group of Tutsis, an ethnic minority, were responsible for the assassination of the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. No one ever found out who was behind their deaths, but that made no difference to the Hutu. They had long harbored hatred for the Tutsis, and as if waiting for an excuse to kill, immediately began mobilizing militias and systematically slaughtering anyone they could find.
Habimana’s Tutsi family suddenly found themselves with targets on their backs. On the first day of the killings, he was out with his father in their small village of Shyrongi when a group of Hutu soldiers approached. The last words he ever heard his father speak were: “Run! Save your life!” He later returned to find him on the ground, dead.
His mother and four of his siblings were then shot four days later in a mass execution. One of his sisters, Rose, only survived because she was holding their baby sister Cadette, whose body slowed the momentum of the bullet.
In less than a week, he had become an orphan.
To survive, he pretended to be Hutu and was taken to a refugee camp in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He almost starved to death before being rescued and taken back to Rwanda, where he was raised by his sister.
“How do you learn to live your entire life without having any example of a good father, a good mother, or almost any other loved ones in your family?” he asks. At times, it felt almost impossible. As he grew up, though, he began to use activism as a means to heal. In high school, he became vice president of his school’s Unity and Reconciliation Club. He worked as a peer counselor to other survivors. While studying law at Kigali Independent University, he worked with the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center, teaching students from other countries about the conflict.
It was through his work with IGSC that he met Natalia Ledford, then a student at the University of Nebraska. She was majoring in Broadcasting and International Studies, and learned that like herself, Habimana had a passion for filmmaking. They received a grant from National Geographic to produce a documentary exploring the lives of those orphaned by the genocide. “Komora: To Heal” follows Habimana as he speaks to other orphans, former UN officials, and even Hutu perpetrators.
Difficult as it is, he forgives them. “It’s painful, it’s disgusting, it’s traumatizing,” he says, but he sees it as his duty to tell all sides of the story. “I have to cope with it. I have to embrace and make the pain my friend, make the sorrow my friend. If I don’t tell this story, somebody else will. And when it comes to the narrative of Africa, I feel the history of genocide has always been mistold.”
The desire to correct this narrative is what inspired him in 2012 to apply to study English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland through the Roméo Dallaire Scholarship, which, according to the Lewis & Clark website, is awarded to “students who demonstrate a dedication to promoting human rights in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Habimana meets with humanitarian and former Force Commander of UNAMIR General Roméo Dallaire. Photo: Remy Neymarc
“I’m not a native speaker, but I was trying to be an activist, I believed I had a message for the world, and I felt like maybe, if I could share my story in a language that many people can understand, that would help me carry the message further than just my country. And I wanted to see what the world was saying about my country, my culture, and what I went through, too. Like, okay, this is their perception of us, and I have my perception of them, Westerners. So, I always wanted to see how I could draw a sort of common ground.”
After leaving Portland for Kigali in 2013, the Dallaire Scholarship Foundation asked Habimana to reflect upon his experience of living in the U.S. “I had always assumed that it was almost always impossible to live with people with whom you did not share the same ethnicity or race,” he wrote. “This year, I have learned that we have so much in common … Our race and ethnicities, skin color and many other differences are like many types of flowers in the garden. When you look at this garden you see the beauty, not the differences.”
Habimana behind the camera at the Los Angeles Film School. Photo: Brad Toomoth
Habimana is currently writing a script for a short film project. “It’s about two guys,” he says. “One is from a poor village in Africa, and he gets a chance to travel to the United States. The other is from the United States, from an underprivileged neighborhood. They’re both struggling, and eventually, they end up being friends, trying to help each other to make it out of there. You know, they’re both going through similar challenges, just from a different perspective. So they travel, go on a journey, and then…” And then what? I ask. “Well, I haven’t written the ending, not yet, not yet. I just know I want to make it a happy one.”