In April this year as we started the 25th commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, I realized that my 9 year old eldest, is the same age as I was then. Whenever I have tried to explain to him what it was like, it has been too difficult for him to understand. This made me wonder how I myself went through genocide at that age.
For the first time since the genocide, I tried to remember, without the benefit of the bigger picture I now have, how I understood what was happening around me. Through the eyes of my nine year old self, key moments stand out.
First day, everything changes:
It’s early morning, 7th April 1994. There is a lot of gun fire. Me, my three siblings, mum, two of my aunts, and my uncle Ignace, are at home in Nyakabanda, Kigali. My Dad is not with us, he had left to join the RPF Inkotanyi’ political wing.
I can remember clearly the expression on mum’s face. It’s strangely calm, I can’t read the emotion it’s conveying. The day is unusual. Because of gunfire none of the adults are preparing to go to work as normal.
Instrumental music is playing on national radio. This usually meant that someone important had died. So we are waiting to hear who might be. We children are playing a guessing game as to whom. I say to my older brother, “what if it’s the president who is dead.” He busts out laughing, he laughs so hard, the suggestion begins to seem ridiculous even to me.
But, a few minutes later, an announcement comes on the radio. President Habyarimana had been killed. It’s a shock for all of us. Uncle Ignace starts shouting in celebration that it was the end of ‘Kinani’ a popular nick name for then President Habyarimana. My mother tells him it is also going to be the end for all of us.
Nobody stops me going out to play, after the announcement, but I don’t go to see my friends as I normally did during the holidays, nor do they come to my house to see me. There is an unspoken understanding that it’s unsafe to leave home.
I remember my mum going out to our neighbours’ to ask what we should do, and to telephone to check on her family in nearby Kicukiro. There were no such thing as mobile phones in 1994.
She returned, looking worried, she had not managed to find news of her family. She started packing, and getting us ready to go somewhere. In the afternoon we started praying, which was unusual in our household. We were also waiting for some information from Radio Muhabura, the RPF Inkotanyi radio. We often listened to it, and my Dad would sometimes do some of the broadcasts.
My uncle Ignace had gone out somewhere. He came back in the afternoon looking agitated, nervous, and sweating, unusual for him. He said we had to leave home, and go to Gisimba, a nearby orphanage. The mood suddenly changed. There was a feeling of imminent danger, that we had to leave home in a hurry. We even forgot the luggage mum had packed, we rushed out, avoiding going through the front gate.
On the way to the orphanage we passed a bar where a number of men were drinking urwagwa (locally made banana beer). They seemed to be laughing at us. I could not understand why some people were not hurrying away as we were.
We find hundreds of people who had already arrived at Gisimba orphanage. There were about 200 in what had been designated a “women’s area.” My mum was greeting people, friends and acquaintances she found there. I remember someone telling her that there were bodies on the main road, and that people she knew had been murdered.
More people kept coming, where we were in the small orphanage dormitory. I thought we would spend only a night there, as we had done on other occasions when we had had to leave home in similar circumstances. Insecurity had become a normal part of life. Sometimes grenades would be thrown in the most unlikely places, even houses.
When night fell, food was brought for everyone. I refused to eat. It was unfamiliar, and I didn’t fancy it.
In the morning I woke up ravenous, and asked my mum if I could have some bread, but, she had none to give me. One of aunts was going to go home for some bread, but, for some reason, she couldn’t go. I know now, of course that it would have been too dangerous for her.
A man came into the dormitory, bringing some tea for his wife. He was carrying a machete. I realized that he was carrying it as a weapon, not a tool, as was normal. That was my first introduction to the machete as a weapon. But, all I could think of, was how hungry I was. Little did I know that that kind of hunger would be with me for the next three months.
The next day, we had to move to another refuge. I remember standing outside with my mum, she carried my little sister on her back and she was looking around anxiously, not sure which way to go, where to turn.
I would later learn that the Interahamwe militias, had come to the orphanage and told the owner of the orphanage to throw out the refugees, or else they would come back and kill everyone, including the orphanage children, just as they had murdered people who had taken refuge at the nearby church of St André.
My mum finally decided to take us back inside Gisimba orphanage. Back inside, we were separated. We children were led back into the dormitory, my mum and unties were locked in another room.
I would later find out that as someone who was known to be married to an RPF politician, my mum knew that we would not get very far. She had asked the owner of the Gisimba orphanage if he would find some way of hiding us. So we children were to be passed off as orphans, and my mum, and aunties would be hidden in a room that would be permanently locked.
I don’t remember anyone telling me not to say where they were, but somehow, I knew that I shouldn’t say.
We were given t-shirts with the orphanage logo. We were to look like orphans to have any chance of surviving the killers. The Interahamwe duly returned to see if the refugees had been sent out. They entered the dormitory where we were, walking slowly, calmly, observing us. None of us made a sound, not even the little toddlers. I felt the terror they injected into the room.
I spent three months at the orphanage with my siblings. We knew where our mum and unties were, but, we knew we could not see them. I would pass the room where I knew my mum was, sit by the door, but I knew I could not knock, or call out to her. I understood that she could not come out, that it was a grave secret to be kept from other people, and the other children.
A few days after the Interahamwe visit, some adults begun arriving at the orphanage again. One woman our neighbour, asked me where my mum was. I told her she had left the orphanage, for another refuge. At nine years old, I had already learnt that I couldn’t trust people, even those I knew very well like my neighbours.
One day, a kid at the orphanage came back holding a notebook. It was singed on one side. He told me that it was from my house, and that our house had been destroyed. I couldn’t understand why our house would have been destroyed. It felt strange, unfair.
During the genocide, I was always hungry. I missed home cooked food. I missed having a bath, changing clothes. Water was scarce and we were very dirty. At some point all of us children had head lice and our hair had to be cut. I remember someone cutting my hair, my beautiful hairstyle was gone. I felt so upset, that someone would just decide to cut my hair, without my mum’s permission, and I knew I couldn’t go and tell her.
At least the children who called the orphanage home, could change their clothes, and had little containers for water. I had nothing. The only clothes I had were the ones I was wearing, and they were so filthy.
My little sister didn’t even have shoes. My mum had picked her up quickly, put her on her back, forgetting her shoes.
One day I saw one of my friends with whom we used to play passing by Gisimba orphanage. He was carrying my school bag on his back. I was so angry, that he could take my bag, without asking, and me there with nothing. But I understood that I couldn’t even go and get it off him. His big brothers were Interahamwe.
Life became more difficult with each passing day. I became so thin that I started wearing my little sister’s clothes, for a change. She was four and I was nine.
The food too, never great to begin with, got worse, and more scarce. Often I couldn’t eat what there was. I could not understand how the other kids could stomach those oats, drink that powdered milk, with its awful smell. At times I felt so hungry, I would just fall asleep fantasizing about food.
At the same time, I knew that everyone could be killed, at any moment, but I could not somehow imagine myself dead. Interahamwe would come to the orphanage, hunting for people to kill. On one such day when we heard them coming, my little sister and I devised a plan to enlarge our noses, supposedly a Tutsi feature, to look more like Hutu.
As went about enlarging our noses, we concluded that my little sister was luckier, her nose actually looked bigger when she stretched it. I was not so lucky, try as I could, my nose still looked too small. So I just tried to hide my face, with its little Tutsi nose from the Interahamwe.
One day, the older girls at Gisimba were angrily remonstrating with another girl who had gone out wearing a mini skirt. They were telling her not to do it again, because it would attract the Interahamwe to the Orphanage, to come after the rest of them. At the time I could not understand why they were so angry with her. Later on, it all became clear.
There were several girls, and women, who for some reason didn’t leave their beds. I avoided going where the adults were. I would later learn that some these women and girls had been raped. After the genocide, I heard that some of them had been rescued from holes, where the Interahamwe had thrown them, leaving them for dead.
One day, I heard from the other kids that six babies at the orphanage had died of diarrhea. I used to play with some of those babies. I felt so upset. The other children went to see them being buried, but, I didn’t want to see six babies being buried in one day.
There was a particular child, about two years old, still couldn’t speak well, but, she seemed to have a lot to say for herself, which she kept repeating. She would repeatedly say how the Interahamwe had come to her house. I was puzzled by that kid, until later on, after the genocide, at boarding school, I saw for the first time, other traumatized children.
Sometimes rumours that Inkotanyi would come in the night, and rescue us would circulate. We would sit up and wait long into the night, until I fell asleep, only to wake up still at the orphanage. For me being evacuated by Inkotanyi meant a great deal. My big brother had explained that we would meet our father, who was with Inkotanyi and he would take us out of the orphanage and life would be good again.
But instead, life got worse. I was sleeping on the floor. I realized how thin I had become, when my protruding bones pressed painfully against the floor.
There came a day we heard that Gisimba, who owned the orphanage had had to take refuge elsewhere. Panic set in among us. He had been our protector. A girl who normally lived at the orphanage declared she wasn’t about to die on refugees’ account.
She said if the Interahamwe came, she would even tell them about the locked room, where my mum was hidden. I was shocked, I had been under the impression that no other kid knew about my mother’s hiding place. And I was furious with the girl. It was the first time I had felt someone wishing me ill, and was helpless what to do what to do about it.
Soon after that, one day, busses arrived, and parked on the main road, and we were told that everyone had go somewhere. Everyone ran to the busses. Once inside, I saw someone who looked like mum, hurrying to get into the bus.
The buses took us to St Michel Church, in the commercial district in the city centre, not too far from where we had been. It had all been the work of Gisimba. After he had had to flee to St Michel, Gisimba had met up with Carl Wilkens, an American who had made the decision to stay in Rwanda, to help however he could, and together, they organized the rescue of the orphanage.
We now know that Wilkens, whose story is told in his book, ‘I am Not Leaving’, had used his privileged status as an American, to go to the leaders of the genocidal government, to ask for the lives of the refugees at the orphanage.
And he was one of the people who earlier this year, was awarded one of Rwanda’s highest civilian honours, Umurinzi Wighihango, for his role in protecting people during the 1994 genocide against Tutsi.
We not only found Gisimba at St Michel when we arrived, but, I was also able to see my mum, for the first time in three months. She too had lost a lot of weight. When she saw me she looked visibly shocked by my appearance. Later, she would say that she say that so thin had I become, that she had heard me calling for her, but could not recognize me at first.
The end of the ordeal, life begins again.
One night there was a lot of noise from people walking outside St Michel church.
In the morning people were shouting excitedly that they had seen Inkotanyi. They had come in the night to see us. It was the 4th July, when Inkotanyi captured Kigali.
Everybody was deliriously happy, immeasurably relieved. We had all waited so long for them. I could barely walk by this time, and didn’t go out to celebrate with the other kids. I had no injuries, nor was I sick, just terribly weakened by hunger.
But, I slowly made my way outside to look at the Inkotanyi. I had seen them before, at ‘CND’, now the national Parliament, when the now famed 600 RPF soldiers were stationed there, as part of the Arusha agreement, which of course would be broken by the genocidal government. Seeing them this time however was different. I wanted to see people who had defeated the Interahamwe.
When I got outside I remember seeing a very thin looking young soldier, with an African fabric wrapped around his neck. He didn’t look as frightening, powerful, and strong, as Interahamwe had seemed, yet his presence meant that we were delivered from them.
He didn’t look like Rambo or Chuck Norris, the movie heroes we used to watch as kids before the genocide, and yet, he was the hero.
Looking back now, I didn’t really understand what was going on around me. I was just taking each day as it came, trying to survive, feeling utterly helpless.
I thank God that I survived, with my mum, siblings and my two aunties. My uncle Ignace however was murdered, somewhere in Nyamirambo. We never found his body to give him a proper burial.