The Sunday Magazine

At age 6 she escaped the Rwandan genocide, but the ghosts linger

Clemantine Wamariya was just 6 years old in 1994 when she and her older sister fled their Rwandan home to escape genocide. As many as a million people were slaughtered; two million were displaced. Clemantine’s story is one of fear, deprivation and horror, but also of ingenuity, resilience and ultimately, of survival.
Clemantine Wamariya's story is detailed in her book The Girl Who Smiled Beads. (Julia Zave)

She was just a tiny child when she fled her home in Rwanda, steps ahead of the genocide that tore her country apart in 1994.

Clemantine Wamariya lived on the run for years, with her teenaged sister. They bounced in and out of refugee camps and slums all over Africa.  It was a degrading, demoralizing existence. "Our mouths, our bodies, had gone mute," she writes. "I felt ripped out of the ground – not ready to be transplanted, just destroyed."

Remarkably, she survived. But the little girl whose favourite pastime had been to climb in her parents' mango tree and pester her sister with too many questions, grew up hard and fast. 

When she was twelve, she arrived in Chicago as a refugee and was adopted into a life of privilege. Still, her past haunts her.

Clemantine Wamariya chronicles her remarkable story in the memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, A Story of War and What Comes After.