A Survivor Learns to Thrive

I met Dydine Umunyana on my flight back to New York. We started talking before liftoff, and she said she was going to speak at a synagogue on Long Island. She said she gives talks around the country about her book, a memoir entitled Embracing Survival. She said she plans to adapt it into a one-woman show.

I said I work in theater, and that I was happy to read her book. I love reading, but I especially love reading historical nonfiction. But what does the title mean?

In 1994, the Rwandan genocide tore the country apart. After decades of tensions, Hutu militias — emboldened by the government — took matters into their own hands, and hunted down and slaughtered one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Nearly 20% of the population was killed, as were 70% of all Tutsis in Rwanda.

Dydine was not even four years old when Hutu militia members rounded up her and her family friends. In a neighbor’s backyard, the Hutus began hacking people to death with machetes. She happened to be clutching a glass of milk, and before the attackers swung at her, she asked permission to drink her milk. This simple statement, from a three-year-old, saved her life.

To give a quick explanation, you must watch Dydine’s Google Talk. She said a Tutsi asking to drink milk was like a Jew asking Nazis to eat bagels. “It was a confirmation…so when I asked for milk, culturally, the Tutsis owned cows…so they said, ‘Oh, you would not be a child of Tutsi if you did not ask for milk. You would not be a cockroach or a snake.’” An older Hutu man heard the commotion, intervened, and saved Dydine’s life.

In the dark days following the genocide, Dydine was reunited with her parents and siblings, who miraculously all survived. But her father — a military hero within the Tutsi resistance — was deeply traumatized. Most nights, he’d get drunk and beat the family. One night, he smashed their home’s windows. Another night, he took out his service pistol and tried to shoot Dydine. He thought he was saving his family by killing them, saving them from the same fate of so many others.

After years like this, Dydine’s mother finally escaped with her children, and Dydine entered a new phase in her life: boarding school. She applied herself, and through it all, she helped her mother raise her two brothers and sister. So what does “Embracing Survival” mean for Dydine?

In one chapter, Dydine remembers falling asleep with her siblings, one night where her father ddin’t come home drunk. “I was so grateful for that one night of tranquility and for the first time grateful that I could do this and be there for them and I could do this for myself. Indeed I had to embrace this life and even love it. If I did so there just might be ‘Embracing Survival.’”

Dydine survived her father’s abuse, and graduated from boarding school. She started a non-profit that helps female survivors tell their stories on film. Through Aegis Trust, she moved to America. And her mother became one of Rwanda’s most famous actresses. But in her bed that evening, all she had were those words: Embracing Survival.

Dydine perseveres, but she’s also lucky. Thanks to family support and a demanding attitude, she is also careful not to waste any opportunity or human kindness that comes her way. Through her journey, she learns how precious morality and decency really are. I asked her recently in an email whether the words still resonate with her. She wrote back:

“The idea of Embracing Survival resonates with me [from] time to time but not as much as before. I resonate more with thriving. But [only] because I have lived almost my whole life surviving. I have to remind myself that it is not the case anymore. The tool of Embracing Survival served its purpose. And now I thrive.”

If you would like to learn more about Dydine, you can find information on her website. And if you’d like, you can send support to Aegis Trust, a non-profit dedicated to helping survivors of genocide.