Breckenridge speaker series welcomes survivor of Rwandan genocide
If You Go
What: CMC Speaker Series presentation by Frederick Ndabaramiye, survivor of the Rwandan genocide and founder of I Am Able; showing of documentary and Q&A session
When: 7-9 p.m. on Thursday, June 4
Where: Eileen & Paul Finkel Auditorium, Colorado Mountain College, 107 Denison Placer Road, Breckenridge
Cost: Free admission
More information: To learn more about Frederick and his I Am Able foundation, visit www.IamABLEucc.wordpress.com
When rebels cut 15-year-old Frederick Ndabaramiye’s hands off with a machete in 1998, they intended to send a message. Now, 17 years later, Frederick travels around his native Rwanda and the United States preaching a different kind of message — one of forgiveness and hope.
He will be sharing his story with Summit County on Thursday, June 4, at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Breckenridge.
A DARK TIME
Frederick was barely a teenager when the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994. Following the death of president Habyarimana, the country fell into violence, with the main rift occurring between the two major ethnic groups — the Hutus and Tutsis. Yet, being one or the other was no guarantee of safety, and citizens of both sides suffered at the hands of the violent Interahamwe militia.
Frederick and his family, along with thousands of others, fled to refugee camps in the neighboring Congo, only for horrific conditions to force them to return home. They lived in fear, with constant news of relatives, friends and neighbors killed or disappeared. In a 100-day period, it’s estimated that up to one million Rwandans died.
Several years later, the Interahamwe were being pushed out by the Rwandan Patriotic Front but still lingered in certain areas of the country. It was a group of these remaining militia members who stopped the bus Frederick was on, taking him and the other passengers prisoner. A series of horrific events followed, culminating in one of the Interahamwe holding a machete out to Frederick and demanding that he kill the other prisoners. When he refused, the people were slaughtered in front of him, and then his arms were mutilated as punishment and as a fearful example to others.
Against all odds, Frederick survived and woke up out of a coma six months later in a hospital. With several surgeries, both arms now end a little ways below the elbow.
In his book “Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope,” he describes the helplessness and despair that followed as he dealt with the physical and emotional pain of his loss.
“No one had to say it. I knew it as soon as the machete struck: the loss of my hands would forever change my life,” he wrote. “From the moment I woke up until I fell asleep at night — every single day — I was so painfully aware of what those men had taken from me.”
Frederick has come a long way from those months in the hospital. From despair, anger and helplessness, he turned to hope and forgiveness and sought to discover his purpose.
That purpose has manifested itself into an organization … and a message. I Am Able is a handicapped cycling team based out of Gisenyi, Rwanda. The team is an extension of the Ubumwe Community Center, which offers classes and assistance to children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. Both were founded by him and his friend Zacharie Dusingizimana. Frederick has traveled around Rwanda and the United States promoting his organization and telling his story.
“God (has) left me for a reason, to be here to tell (my) story, to share stories, to make a difference,” he said of the question he struggled with for a long time — why he survived and so many others did not.
Through UCC, he has given handicapped Rwandans a place to learn and a chance to acquire skills that will help them gain independence, find work and inspire others like them to do the same.
With the I Am Able cycling team, he reaches beyond the borders of the city that UCC serves and into the rural villages, where ideas of disabilities are outdated and knowledge is limited.
“The parents, they feel the shame. It’s a punishment to have the child to have the disability,” he said of a common attitude found in rural villages. His job is to prove this attitude wrong, and he tackles it with a smile on his face.
“The looks that we got were pretty amazing,” said Frisco resident Christie Abel, who joined Frederick’s first ride into the villages with I Am Able. The ride also featured other handicapped riders, including a girl with one hand and a man with one leg.
Adults and children, alike, gather around Frederick when he rides into a village, expertly manipulating the handlebars and modified brakes with the ends of his arms. They marvel and clap as he unscrews a water bottle lid, feeds himself and writes with pencil and paper.
“What else do you think I can’t do?” he asks them and takes on each offered challenge, proving to the onlookers that “disability is not inability.”
“Sometimes, people think I’m crazy (that) I do that. They say it’s dangerous to ride the bicycle, especially (with) no hands,” he said. “I really want to do it because it was one of my goals to inspire people and teaching even other kids to never give up.”
FORGIVENESS AND FREEDOM
Years after Frederick got out of the hospital, right before he founded the UCC, he had an unexpected confrontation. In a local coffee shop, a man came up to him and identified himself as one of the militia group that had attacked the bus.
Frederick’s response, a mix of fear and anger, nevertheless boiled down to one simple sentence — “I forgive you.”
“For my heart to forgive him, it gave me more (freedom), free life, to be able to share even this story,” he said, recalling the incident. “When you are forgiving, you give away the things (that were) working on you and making you stuck, thinking (in) the past.”
He has now told his story hundreds of times, each time re-living the most horrific experience of his life. While that’s not an easy task, he says it’s something that he can do because of that forgiveness and what it could mean for others.
“When you tell your story over and over again, it move(s) all that (negative emotion) because it’s another chance to get medicine by sharing a story, and because you don’t want to keep it,” he said, pointing inward, to his chest. “When you’re lucky, the people understand you, hear you. That’s the way you move that, by sharing.”
Last week, Frederick shared his story with students from Frisco Elementary and Dillon Valley Elementary. He showed them videos of himself brushing his teeth, riding a bike and moving rocks for construction of his house in Rwanda. He answered questions about Rwanda and his abilities, showed off his paintings and gave a writing demonstration — all of which drew applause from the crowd. Afterward, the students filed past, and thank you’s for the presentation turned into a string of hugs and smiles.
Leaving Frisco Elementary, a young student dashed past into the hallway, excitedly announcing, “I met a guy who can ride a bike with no hands!”
That’s exactly the type of news and enthusiasm that Frederick aims to spread, and he’s willing to do it however necessary — from physical demonstrations to re-telling his story again and again.
The CMC presentation Thursday will begin with a documentary video about him that was recently shown at the Telluride Film Festival, followed by a question-and-answer period with Frederick. His book and several of his paintings will be available for sale, with proceeds going toward I Am Able. Those who wish to are encouraged to ride their bikes to the event.
“Every Rwandan have the story to tell, but not everyone have the chance to come and tell the story,” he said. “So, I’m here for all, to share what happened before and what happens today.”
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