When the genocide started on April 7, 1994, Mathieu Mfashingabo was serving as assistant Bourgemestre in Rusumo commune in current Kirehe district.
He was preparing for the day’s job, but before he left his home, he heard an announcement on national radio urging everyone to stay in their homes.
The announcement had been aired on the national radio shortly after a plane carrying former President Juvenal Habyarimana had been shot down.
Mfashingabo remained inside the house with curiosity to know what would happen.
Between April 10 and 14, thousands of Tutsi from Rukumberi and Rurembo flocked to Kabakobwa Sector – Mfashingabo’s native area in an attempt to seek refuge before crossing to Tanzania.
In the afternoon of April 14, as killings escalated in many parts of the country, Interahamwe militias attacked Tutsi at Nyarutunga trading center.
As the attack went on, a section of Hutu mixed with Tutsi to confuse the militias. However, “It never succeeded. Killers noticed it and started to separate Hutu from Tutsi and this was the official start of the killings,” Mfashingabo told KT Press.
Suicidal mission to save Tutsi
That same evening, Mfashingabo decided to take one of the deadliest decisions no one would ever think about.
Mfashingabo, a Hutu, started saving lives of Tutsi colleagues with whom he worked at a fishing cooperative. He immediately consulted his fellow members and agreed to help some Tutsi cross over to Tanzania.
Around 2am on April 15, Mfashingabo and his rescue team started a grueling journey together with priests from Nyarubuye Catholic church and other neighbours that were hunted down to be killed – reaching Akagera River around 7 am.
“People wanted to flee but they were scared as they saw Matayo (Mathieu Mfashingabo), a commune officer and said ‘he has no other motive of coming here except to kill us,” he told KT Press.
In a powerful testimony during the commemoration of Genocide against Tutsi at Nyarubuye Memorial Center on Saturday, Mfashingabo said he switched to plan B using canoes to ferry Tutsi across Akagera River.
“The operation was not easy. To take Tutsi across the river required me to convince other Tutsi from Kabakobwa area to get their fellows crossed,” Mfashingabo told mourners.
When the fear of being killed faded away, Mfashingabo and his colleagues that he had used eight canoes all day to ferry Tutsis across Akagera River.
The rescue work lasted 12 hours for the first day from 5 am to 5pm. Mfashingabo added that on their way back home, they met other Tutsi seeking to cross to Tanzania and decided to spend a night with them as cruel militiamen were roaming nearby to kill every Tutsi in sight.
“We spent a night with them and around 4pm, we headed to Akagera River and took them across to Tanzania. Fortunately all went well without any incidence,” said Mfashingabo.
Antoine Mpagaje, a primary teacher of Mfashingabo was being hunted down like other Tutsi. When he was at Akagera River together with four priests in preparations to cross to Tanzania, he saw the assistant Bourgemestre and got scared.
“When Mfashingabo got to the river, four priests got very afraid- how comes assistant Bourgemestre can come here? I am his teacher and fathers pushed me to know why he was there. In our exchange, he told me that he is supervising to see how Tutsi are crossing to Tanzania,” Mpagaje told KT Press in an interview #Kwibuka23 .
When the killings had reached peak level across the country, saving Tutsi was a do-or-die.
Clad in grey suit with a medal of Umurinzi w’igihango on the right hand and white shirt, Mfashingabo said that the operation to save Tutsi lives became dangerous when the Gendarmes from the commune got information that some Tutsi had crossed to Tanzania.
When Gendarmes arrived at Akagera River, smashed all our canoes and killed all Tutsis found there. They proceeded to kill Ruhara- canoe operator and his entire family for helping Tutsi to cross to Tanzania.
Mfashingabo said he was ready to face the same fate as his colleague that was killed for saving Tutsi but fortunately the Rwanda Patriotic Army rebels liberated the area from killers few days after the saving-life operation ended.
Mfashingabo together with his fellow members rescued between 800-1000 Tutsi in two day-saving life operation.
When Mfashingabo was at Nyarubuye Primary school, he personally witnessed segregation against three Tutsi colleagues, called them “Snakes”.
The recognized recipient of umurinzi w’igihango award said he remembered that Tutsi were denied rights to travel documents to go Kigali without any tangible reason but just because they were Tutsi.