Anchor Marco Werman talks to a Rwandan-American woman who is about to graduate from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. After witnessing four wars and serving in the Navy, she is now committed to conflict resolution in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region in Africa.
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MARCO WERMAN: Monique Tuyisenge-Onyegbula knows what it’s like being in a country at war. She graduates next week from Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs in New York with a degree in International Security Policy. Monique was born in the U.S. to Rwandan parents. They moved back to Rwanda when she was a baby and that’s where she spent most of her childhood. In 1994 Monique was in Rwanda when the genocide broke out. She and her family fled. After attending boarding school in West Africa, Monique returned to the U.S. And Monique, that’s where I’d like to pick up your story. At 27 years old, you’ve seen a lot of conflict that many of your peers at Columbia have only read about I’d imagine. What was the reaction from some of your fellow students when they found out you had, for a candidate in International Security Policy, all this real life experience.
MONIQUE TUYISENGE-ONYEGBULA: Well the reaction was they were shocked that I have witnessed about four conflicts in my short lifetime span, but that’s what makes the conversation interesting.
WERMAN: Now you’d think someone who’d seen the ravages of war like you would want to stay away from it, but you served in the U.S. Navy for six years. Why did you join and what did you do precisely?
TUYISENGE-ONYEGBULA: I was a machinist mate, engineering. I joined in 2000. My parents had just arrived in the U.S. After having gone through DRC, Kenya, Haiti, they arrived in 2000 and that’s when I was graduating from high school. They didn’t have financial means, so that was one reason. I think the other reason I was still bitter about my experience during the genocide and in the refugee camps in DRC. I was 17, so in my mind I was thinking okay the military would be a way for me to go and learn some tactics as funny as it might sound right now, to go back and I don’t know revenge? I don’t know what I was thinking, but it was bitterness that drove me there.
WERMAN: And where did the bitterness come from? Did it come from the way you were treated when you were fleeing Rwanda or was it what you saw and the way other people were being treated?
TUYISENGE-ONYEGBULA: It was combination of both. I felt it was unfair. I kept asking what did I do to deserve this? What did my family do to deserve this? Having grown up in a very privileged family and one day, in a blink of an eye, we lost everything, had to run without anything on our backs. To see people being killed, being chopped, being left over at the side of the road, the despair, the sadness that people had in Rwanda during that time, it was too much. Too much for me as a young child. And then of course what I experienced in DRC was even worse. Yes we weren’t ducking bullets, we weren’t hiding from machetes, but people were dying left and right, children dying of preventable diseases, cholera, and so for me it was too much. So I think that’s where the bitter came from. And at that age I didn’t know what caused the conflict.
WERMAN: What did being in the Navy for six years do for you to bring kind of closure to the bitterness and push you to a kind of more constructive view of how to live your life? You’re going back to Rwanda soon, we’ll talk about that in a moment. But what did the Navy do for you?
TUYISENGE-ONYEGBULA: I think it kind of woke me up in a way. Boot camp was an experience. It shaped me. It shapes your thinking. It gives you ethics. I think it gave me clarity and of course I was in from 2000 to 2006 so I was active in both Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. And so I think it was a turning point because I thought hm, I was very young, four wars, and then I started thinking about it that guns do not solve anything. I started looking for alternative ways to approach conflict resolution. I think I had seen enough death in my lifetime and I didn’t want to continue with that. I had experienced enough having lost some of my shipmates that had left and went underground and didn’t come back. I think it just shocked me. I wakened some memories that I had repressed from the genocide so that’s when I started looking for alternative ways.
WERMAN: So you’re basically saying that after seeing Rwanda, what happened in the DRC after the genocide in Rwanda and then the conflict in – - you were ready to learn how to use guns. And then after being in the Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan you realized that that wasn’t the way.
WERMAN: Where are you going now? Back to Rwanda? Is that home for you?
TUYISENGE-ONYEGBULA: Actually I enjoy both citizenships. I was born in the U.S. as you mentioned, so for right now I’m going to give birth, but I’m looking to stay either in the U.S. or go back to the Great Lakes region, either Rwanda. But my main goal is to work towards affecting change in the Great Lakes region in general, because I think our conflicts are very much interconnected.
WERMAN: And as a mother to be, eight months pregnant, from what I’ve heard, this is one experience that is actually making you a little nervous.
WERMAN: The most frightening experience for you yet? I find that hard to believe.
TUYISENGE-ONYEGBULA: Yes. Yes. It is. I feel I can handle guns. I feel I can handle diplomats or anything, but I don’t know. I’m not a kid person, I think that’s my problem, I’m not a kid person. But I have a wonderful husband who has allowed me to go back and stay a few months with my mother, so I feel like it’s very, very complicated. I would not know what to do.
WERMAN: Well Monique Tuyisenge-Onyegbula, congratulations on your degree and your baby on the way. I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
TUYISENGE-ONYEGBULA: Thank you Marco. Thank you for having me on your show.
WERMAN: I also asked Monique about brain drain in Africa, young people who come to the west to study and don’t return home to make their mark. You can hear what she had to say about that at the world dot org.
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