More than 300 people learned about genocide and the challenges to establish a democratic government in the small African country of Burundi from two distinguished speakers during a presentation June 22 at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Sponsored by the UTPA Student Union, UTPA's Summer Forum featured Dr. Robert C. Krueger, former U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from Texas and a former U.S. Ambassador to Burundi (1994-95) and Botswana (1996-97), and Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, a Burundi native and his country's onetime foreign minister and chief peace negotiator, now a visiting scholar in residence at Texas Lutheran University.
Highly educated and of royal lineage, Ngendahayo early on served in his country's government and became a strong advocate for democratic elections. He became a member of Parliament and a cabinet member in 1993 under the country's first democratically elected president, who was assassinated only 100 days after his election. In a coalition government put together by the United Nations, Ngendahayo became foreign minister and Burundi's chief negotiator for peace.
As the newly appointed ambassador to Burundi in 1994, Krueger joined Ngendahayo to become an outspoken critic regarding the violations of human rights in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda at that time. To personally experience the suffering the people of Burundi were undergoing, Krueger said he tried to travel out into the country twice a week and described personally digging up the graves of genocide victims.
"One hundred people were being killed every day but no one was paying attention because citizens of Burundi were isolated, poor, uninfluential and black. It is important for you to realize the extraordinary privileges we have in the United States compared to other areas of the world," Krueger told the crowd of mostly college and high school students.
While investigating the genocide by the Tutsi army of Hutu villagers in 1995, Krueger and Ngendahayo survived an assassination type attack on their convoy by the Burundi army in which two died. Fearing danger to his family, Ngendahayo fled into exile but continued to work toward peace and a democracy in his native country. After helping to negotiate a new democratic government in 2005 alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, Ngendahayo returned to again become a member of Parliament but was soon stripped of his seat and authority along with 19 other members for speaking out against corruption within their new government. Once again he was forced to flee Burundi, coming to the United States in October 2008.
During his talk, Ngendahayo described some of the history and values of his civilization as well as some of the oppressive results of colonialism there.
"We were denied speaking our language, for example," he said.
He said he became a political activist when he decided to stay in his country and fight the oppression and injustice there by making a difference. He and Krueger continue to speak out regarding the genocide and government corruption still going on in a number of African nations.
"Wherever you are ... each of us has to be a hero in his life for himself. You have to create a personal vision of what you are intending to do. You have to decide that whatever I am or become, I will make a difference. I will be the best I can be," he said. "You have to be proud of what you are. But to do that you have to know who you are."
UTPA student Stephanie Gallegos, a junior majoring in biology, thought the speakers' messages were very inspiring.
"Mr. Ngendahayo's message that was most influential to me was to be the most excellent person that you can be now which might enable you in the future to help out in other countries and to make improvements for the betterment of humanity," she said. "I think it is important that we all educate ourselves on the issues of the world and in our own community."
Student Union Director Edna Zambrano said the event provided an opportunity for the University community and the public to hear from and interact with distinguished leaders representing a variety of worldviews and backgrounds.
"These speakers were chosen to bring attention to genocide and government oppression still going on in Africa as well as to highlight those who speak out against these practices, often at great personal risk. Young people, especially in the United States should learn about genocide and its practice throughout history," she said.
For more information on future Student Union presentations and events, call 956/316-7989.