It’s heartbreaking how an unexpected event can tear a family apart. For some, this change is brought about by a natural disaster, illness, or accident. There are also families who are victims of horrific crimes.
For Clemantine Wamariya, the event that changed her life forever was the Rwandan genocide. Separated from her parents for 12 years, she thought that she would never see them again. Yet, in the end, her story became one of hope.
Growing up in Rwanda, Clemantine Wamariya enjoyed a peaceful life with her family, until the Hutu extremist-led genocide.
The year was 1994. Clemantine and her family were living a peaceful life in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Clemantine’s father ran a taxi business while her mother tended to a garden full of fruit and flowers. In those days, everything was calm.
Unfortunately, that peacefulness didn’t last. As a Tutsi family, the Wamariyas became a target for the Hutu extremists. Clemantine became suspicious of trouble when she noticed her parents speaking in whispers. Then neighbors started disappearing and loud thunder-like sounds filled the sky.
Mrs. Wamariya told Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, to head for their grandmother’s farm a few hours south where they’d be safe. For a few days, this seemed true, but then Clemantine’s grandma received a knock on the door. She told the girls they needed to keep running.
The grandma along with various aunts, uncles, and cousins were killed. Claire was only 15 at the time. Clemantine was 6.
Following the Rwandan genocide, Clemantine and her sister, Claire became refugees.
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“Claire and I lived on fruit,” Clemantine told The Guardian. “Days were for hiding, nights were for walking. Suddenly, we were refugees.”
For the next six years, Clemantine and Claire traveled across Africa through seven different nations. They stayed at refugee camps, battled illnesses, and made friends along the way. Yet, when Clemantine was 12, their nomadic lifestyle came to an end.
She and Claire were given asylum in the United States and moved in near family members in Chicago. In those early years, Claire held a cleaning job and Clemantine would often help out. They didn’t have their own television but there was a TV at Claire’s job site which they took advantage of.
“We discovered Oprah by watching it where we were working,” Clemantine said. “We’d always make sure we were cleaning the sitting room at 4 p.m. so we could catch her show. Claire used to say, ‘We’ll meet her one day, I just know we will.’”
As it turned out, Claire was right. Clemantine entered an essay-writing competition, organized by Oprah’s show. Her prompt was about how Elie Wiesel’s famous Holocaust book, Night, was still relevant to this day.
Clemantine wrote about her experiences with the Rwandan genocide. It obviously struck a chord with Oprah’s staff as she and Claire were later invited on her show.
“They put us up in a hotel, and we thought, ‘This is insane: we’re going to meet Oprah!’” Clemantine said. “We spent hours getting ready.”
Clemantine and Claire got invited on The Oprah Show where they received a special surprise.
In 2006, Clemantine and Claire sat nervously in Oprah’s audience. They assumed that they would talk about their experiences growing up and that would be it. But then, midway through recording, Oprah asked them how long it had been since they’d seen their parents.
In truth, it had been since the night of the attack 12 years prior. Since then, the only contact the sisters had with their family had been through phone calls. Oprah called them onstage and handed Clemantine a letter from her parents. She began to open it up.
“Oprah put her hand on mine. She said: ‘You don’t have to read it right now, in front of all these people,'” Clematine said. “… because your family is here!’”
Sure enough, the Wamariyas came rushing on to the stage: mom, dad, and a pair of siblings Clemantine had heard about but never gotten the chance to meet. They hugged and wept. It was so emotional, they had to take a 30-minute break before they could start recording again.
“I thought in that moment I’d died,” Clemantine said. “You hear about how you’re united with the people you love in heaven, and I thought, this must be heaven. I was so happy, but I was also scared: had I died?”
The sisters had been reunited with their parents live on air. Now the whole family lives in the U.S.
After the show, the family took a limo ride across the city to Claire’s apartment. During that time, they were still processing what had happened.
“Nobody talked in the car. In the apartment, nobody knew what to do, either. My mother, in her long blue dress, kept sitting down and standing up and touching everything,” Clemantine wrote in her recently published book. “Claire remained nearly catatonic: rocking, stone-faced.”
That week, they got to do some sight-seeing and hang out together, but the Wamariyas went home at the end of the week. Still, that trip arranged by Oprah paved the way for the family to immigrate to the States later on. Now they’re all permanent residents.
While most of the Wamariya family lives in Chicago, Clemantine lives in San Francisco working as a human rights advocate.
She looks back on her past with mixed feelings. She’s glad to have reunited with her family but finds it difficult to communicate with them after they had been separated for so long. Still, her on-screen reunion is a moment she’ll never forget.
“When people watch that clip they always feel something. Some feel joy, some feel sadness … But for everyone it’s a trigger-point for something, and what I think it does, more than anything, is underline the power of our stories … it’s testament to the power of the human story and the power of reunion. I feel happy about that.”