Model Nadja Giramata was just three years old when the 1994 genocide in Rwanda made her an orphan. In 100 days, between 500,000 and one million people — including Nadja’s mother, brother, grandmother and cousins — were slaughtered in a mercilessly swift and shocking wave of ethnic cleansing. Having survived the massacre, and a cholera-ridden refugee camp, she grew up in France before being scouted by a modeling agency in England. Today, a successful international catwalker, Nadja currently calls New York home. Here, she shares the remarkable story that landed her on the cover of “the issues issue” of fashion publication The Impression, devoted to spotlighting pressing world events, and what she’s learned about racism, division, forgiveness and healing.

”The Tutsis had been dominant for centuries and were the elite, but we were only 15% of the population. When the Belgians left after the independence of Rwanda in 1962, the Hutus feared that the Tutsis would turn against them, so they decided to take care of the matter before it got too late. So, although people only know about “the final genocide” in 1994, Tutsi extermination had started long before that.Neighbors. Most of the killings were executed by neighbors or acquaintances. That’s why they happened in such a great number, because who knows you better than your neighbor? Although Tutsis were the main target, moderate Hutus, who were openly against the killings, and Twas, another ethnic group, were also murdered”.

They shut about 600 people in a cathedral and threw grenades and shells through the windows. My mother’s cousin survived, he was one of the last to see her. He became mute for a while but told us years later what he’d seen.

We were between 500,000 and 800,000 refugees in a camp on the shore of Lake Kivu, the only source of “fresh” water. There were dead people absolutely everywhere: on the roadside, in the lake… very quickly the camp was surrounded by common graves (holes) where bodies were thrown into due to the outbreak of cholera caused by the polluted water, killing thousands of adults and children daily. We had to drink the polluted water or die of dehydration.

Division always brings destruction. We can be different, and that’s fine, but we have to understand that for our very own peace we have to be willing to accept the differences that actually define us all as the human race. I’ve learned that healing and forgiveness is an everyday challenge. It’s not only a one-time decision — every time I think about the people who killed my loved ones, I have to remind myself to forgive them in order for myself to heal.

For many years, I’d be annoyed by racism in all its forms without realizing I had my own ways of categorizing people or discriminating against other races. As human beings, we tend to make things like forgiveness, sharing and cohabitation very hard if not impossible. Whereas it’s not. We need to put more effort into being willing to understand others instead of wanting to conquer. We have to face the hard reality that at some point someone needs to compromise a little to be able to live together.

At the age of six or seven, I saw Naomi Campbell walking on a runway on TV. I’d no idea what a fashion show was, but there was so much glory and beauty about her, and I remember my sister Natacha telling me, “One day, you’ll be like her and you’ll do what she’s doing.” I’d no idea what it meant to be like her, but I liked that idea, and it stuck in my mind. So years later when I’m able to live in the US and work as a model, it’s incredibly meaningful for me. It shows me the power of faith, and of dreaming, wherever you come from.

One of my goals is to become the voice of the forgotten ones, orphans or victims of sexual abuse. These victims — women and children — are the most vulnerable of society, and maybe my life, my past, could show them that their lives do not end where they have been robbed.

GREATER GOODWomen in Africa
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