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Power of Forgiveness

  • Southmont High School
  • Southmont Jr. High School
  • Southmont Schools
Samantha Cotten
Kizito Kalima Speaking

From The Journal Review

NEW MARKET — In 1994 nearly 1 million people perished in 100 days as a genocide swept through the east-central African nation of Rwanda.

Kizito Kalima, a young Tutsi tribe member, almost became a statistic.

His family was separated, and many of them, including his parents, Denis and Cecilia died. Kalima, who was just 14 and the youngest of 10 children, was hacked with a machete and left for dead in a pile of bodies. He was chased, imprisoned, tortured and then, finally, found a chance to escape. The odds were slim, but Kalima believed it was better to be shot than slowly cut to pieces by genocidaires.

Earlier this week, Kalima shared his harrowing story and subsequent message of forgiveness with students at Southmont Jr.-Sr. High School.

“What would you do?” Kalima asked the students. “Do you run? Do you fight? Or do you just freeze?”

Kalima chose to run when the Hutu genocidaires (or “killers” as he refers to them) came to his house.

He fled, but was later captured and escaped. He eventually found family members who were still alive. However, they were tricked into believing the violence was over, and Kalima’s mother was shoved into a car and driven away. He later learned she had been killed and dumped into a mass grave.

Captured again, Kalima was convinced he would die this time. However, when he saw another chance to escape he took it. Leading a few others and running as fast as his scarred teenage body could carry him, Kalima found refuge deep within the Nyanza swamps.

He hid there hungry and hurting for nearly three months before he was rescued.

“I thought I was the only person left in the world,” he said. “I was on my last breath, no family and my whole country ruined ... yet something showed up in the swamps, a higher power, if you believe in that, and gave me the courage to survive.”

Displaced by the genocide and without knowledge of surviving family members, Kalima was sent to a refugee camp, then a group home and eventually to a boarding school. There, Kalima found solace in sports.

“I played sports to keep me sane,” he said.

Eventually, he played basketball in surrounding African countries and was able to support himself.

“I was happy to leave Rwanda because it smelled like death to me,” he said.

In 1998, Kalima was offered the opportunity to travel to the United States to participate in a basketball tournament. He was scouted by many U.S. colleges. Having not yet finished high school, Kalima was offered the chance to attend high school at Providence St. Mel High School in the Chicago area. He then went on to attend Indiana University in South Bend, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2005.

“Playing basketball was like the medication that gave me life,” he said.

An injury his junior year would end his basketball career. Without an outlet for his mental and emotional pain, Kalima started to struggle again. His anger rose to the surface in the form of nightmares, migraines and depression. When he experienced a panic attack, he sought treatment at the health clinic on his college campus. There a healthcare provider asked him about any past trauma and he replied, “I was in a genocide.”

It was then he began to share his story with people, and it helped some. His anger toward the people who committed the genocide and bitterness toward those who killed his family was destroying him.

Kalima’s attitude began to change when he learned about the advocacy of Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who, along with her twin sister Miriam, was experimented on while held at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Kalima attended one of Kor’s lectures at the CANDLES Museum in Terre Haute. She encouraged him to begin talking openly about genocide and to forgive.

That is when Kalima found his cure.

“Forgiveness is for me and only me,” he said. “Once I learned to let go of the anger I was able to help myself and then help others.”

Kalima is the founder and executive director of the Peace Center for Forgiveness & Reconciliation, a public speaker and an advocate for genocide survivors. He has spoken at a variety of schools, churches, community gatherings and events. His most notable and honorable speaking engagement to date occurred in 2014 when he was invited to share his story at the United Nations 20th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda.

Kalima now lives in Indianapolis with his seven-year-old daughter, Kayza, and has two adopted adult Rwandan daughters, themselves genocide survivors, Josiane and Liliane.

“What I want people, especially kids, to know is you’re going to go through a lot of stuff in your life, but what I’m asking, what I’m hoping you will do is not keep it, and do not get angry or upset, try to let it go — the sooner, the better.

“Of course, I’m not saying cover it up, but share with your people and try to solve it peacefully. My anger and my bitterness could have lead to another genocide, but I chose forgiveness over war and it has lead me to a place I could never have imagined.”

Kalima considers himself blessed because he can help others. Through his work at the Peace Center he connects victims of injustice with resources, educational opportunities and emotional support.

He urged students to become solid leaders for tomorrow and to prevent future genocides. He added, this generation of students should use technology to spread goodness.

“His visit here exposes our students to his personal story, the pattern of forgiveness, and really the message of hope,” said teacher Tony Gonczarow. “I think it conveys to the students that you are going to experience hardships in your life, obviously not as extreme as this, but to try to persevere and get through it.”