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By KATE GURNETT, Staff writer
First published: Thursday, March 8, 2001
Living in limbo

A group of supporters is fighting to bring a survivor of Rwandan genocide to College of Saint Rose

It was a strange morning. A morning without any bird song.

Such is Eugenie Mukeshimana's memory of April 7, 1994.

She and her husband stayed in their Kigali, Rwanda, home that day, as the Hutu militia began to look for minority Tutsis. They could not have imagined the next 100 days would see the slaughter of 800,000 to 1 million men, women and children, most by machete. They heard gun shots. Mukeshimana was 22 and eight-months pregnant. They saw the militia walking outside their window.

Then, the militia came for them.

They ran to a neighbor. He said: If you ask me for help again, I will kill you myself. They hid for a week with a Muslim family, then found a trash pit behind the house. Mukeshimana fit. Her husband didn't. Before he left, he told her: If you manage to escape death, please raise my child as if I were there. After three days, she had a bad feeling. Machete-wielding Hutus had found and killed her husband, she later learned.

Then, they found her.

Seven years later, Eugenie Mukeshimana's story has sparked a grass-roots movement tied to International Women's Day, today, and uniting supporters from Rwanda to Geneva, Switzerland, to Seattle, Wash. Their goal: Help Mukeshimana leave Rwanda and enroll at The College of Saint Rose.

It began in 1998. Wendy Cue, a former Colonie High School track star working for the United Nations in Rwanda, was waiting in line at the telephone company in Kigali. "Hi,'' the woman behind her said.

"She was a very bright, beautiful young woman,'' Cue said Tuesday from her U.N. office in Geneva, Switzerland. For the first time in four years, Mukeshimana mentioned the genocide. Cue invited her to her office. As a human rights worker, she'd taken victim testimony before. She'd managed to keep an abstract relationship to the genocide. But this was personal.

"If you can't help that one person, then all that we're doing is kind of futile,'' she said. She pledged to help. But she hadn't a clue how to start.

On March 8, 1999, she e-mailed a circle of friends to mark International Women's Day. Attached to the e-mail was Mukeshimana's story. Remembering it was so painful that it took the Rwandan woman two months to write three pages.

"I took a gamble,'' Cue said. "I wanted to test the power of the Internet. I sent her story to all the people I thought might remotely be in a position to help my college network, my professional network, my hometown ... ''

In Seattle, Wash., Sue Skinner got the e-mail. Now a family practice doctor, she'd run track for Albany High and was Cue's sports rival. Skinner forwarded the message.

"Mom,'' Skinner e-mailed, "I thought you might like to read this.''

Now Marggie Skinner, who heads the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations in Albany, was reading Mukeshimana's story.

After her husband was killed, Mukeshimana wrote, the Hutus found her in the trash pit. "Some of them wanted to open my stomach and see how a Tutsi child is laying inside the mother (as if it would be different from their own mothers).''

Better to let her give birth, then make her kill her own baby, they decided.

On May 8, she sneaked into the Muslim home's kitchen in the middle of the night and gave birth on the floor to her daughter, Mystica Rose.

The Hutus returned. They raped her, then kidnapped her as a cook. She watched, helpless, as they raped a series of young girls, killing some.

When the bloodshed ended, Mukeshimana and Mystica Rose had survived. But they faced a new stigma: Any Tutsi who survived, people figured, must have collaborated with the Hutu killers. Genocide survivors were also sexually harassed as "unclean'' because they were raped by street boys.

Mukeshimana raised her daughter, now 6; she earned a high school diploma; she learned English. She considered college. With a social work degree she could help other genocide victims in Rwanda.

"By keeping myself busy in that way I will not have time at all to get lost in my destroyed past,'' she wrote.

Thumbing through catalogs for foreign social work studies, she saw The College of Saint Rose. Rose. Her daughter's middle name.

After finishing Mukeshimana's e-mail, Marggie Skinner pledged her help. "We have empty bedrooms,'' she and her husband Ken Skinner wrote, offering their home to Mukeshimana and Mystica.

The Skinners sought donors, promising to pay $12,000 of the tuition themselves as a backup. They convinced Saint Rose to offer a $4,000 scholarship.

"I am still reading your e-mail and I can't hold my tears,'' Mukeshimana wrote from Rwanda. "I cry now because I am so happy. Thanks for all your efforts to save my life.'' She took a foreign language exam and was admitted to Saint Rose.

"We tend to look for (foreign) students that are truly passionate about why they want to study here,'' Saint Rose President Mark Sullivan said. The school has also offered a scholarship to Claire Gallagher, 18, a student from Omagh, Northern Ireland, whose eyes were blown out in a bomb blast that killed 29 people. She intends to study here in the next two or three years, Sullivan said.

"We are interested in students who want to give back to the community, and (Eugenie) fits. She would be a true inspiration to our U.S. students,'' Sullivan said. "She's a very impressive woman.''

But the struggle is far from over, Sullivan noted. The U.S. Embassy in Kigali has refused to grant Mukeshimana a student visa. Officials there say there is nothing to stop her from crossing the border into Canada to seek asylum, as other Rwandans with student visas have done.

So International Women's Day 2001 finds Mukeshimana's backers including the college, the Skinners and Cue urging the U.S. Embassy to grant Mukeshimana a student visa.

Last fall, Congressman Michael McNulty wrote the embassy requesting the visa.

Mukeshimana does not have "strong enough ties to Rwanda to compel her to return,'' replied Don W. Koran, charge d'affaires at the American Embassy in Kigali, denying the request.

Part of the problem: She has no family to return to.

"What do they want?'' said Marggie Skinner. "Her husband was killed in the genocide. Her father was killed in the genocide. Her sister was killed in the genocide.''

President Bill Clinton himself, when visiting Rwanda, said Americans shoulder some of the blame for ignoring the genocide, Skinner argues. Denying Mukeshimana a visa merely compounds that mistake.

With a place to live, a college to attend and new friends awaiting her, Eugenie Mukeshimana waits in Rwanda.

"It's been over four years and she just hasn't given up,'' said Cue. "She is among the many forgotten victims of the genocide. And I believe her story needs to be told.''

Mukeshimana's new friends vow to seek more support.

"I'm the last of the optimists,'' Marggie Skinner said. "This is the perfect way to make up to one little person in the whole population.''