The Current

Saving Léo: A Rwandan teacher, an Ontario teacher, and the lie that saved his life

On the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, an Ontario school teacher and the Rwandan teacher she helped save reflect on his escape from one of the worst massacres in human history.
Twenty-years ago today, the start of what would become the Rwandan genocide unraveled. World leaders, the UN ... even, frankly news organizations were slow to understand what was happening. But years before the genocide accidental friends, a Rwandan man and a Canadian woman each understood it was inevitable. They share their story of friendship and survival.


Genocide memorial site guardian, Danielle Nyirabazungu in the church of Nyamata, Rwanda. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty)

"The slaughter continues in Rwanda. In the capital, Kigali, drunken soldiers and civilians are reported to be roaming the streets, murdering at random. The anarchy has spread to the countryside now. Refugees who have made it to safe havens report that gangs of men are rampaging through villages, pulling people from their homes and hacking or beating them to death." CBC report on The World at Six , April 11th, 1994

That haunting CBC report aired twenty years ago. The Rwandan genocide lasted 100 days, and took the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Before they were killed, they were dehumanized. Called snakes, and cockroaches.

But the ethnic tensions between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi had been growing for years -- long before Hutu leaders took to the radio waves and called for the death of Tutsis.

It's a time a Rwandan schoolteacher named Léo Kabalisa remembers well. But luckily for him, he's remembering those years here in Canada. Safe today... but still living with the memories and the loss. It was a chance meeting with an Ontario teacher named Shyrna Gilbert in 1988 that saved his life.

Today, the two remain close friends and work together at a charity they created that raises money for Rwandan orphans.

Léo Kabalisa and Shyrna Gilbert are teachers with the York Region District School Board and board members of the Hope for Rwanda's Children Fund. They were in our Toronto studio.

Share your thoughts on this discussion and the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar


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