The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is believed to be the most efficient killing spree in recorded history, taking the lives of over one million people within 100 days.
Hundreds of thousands more were left with injuries, many life-threatening while property of the victims were looted or destroyed.
For those who survived, it was pure luck.
Going by testimonies of survivors and convicts, the perpetrators of the Genocide wanted to ensure that all Tutsi were totally annihilated.
Domitille Mukakagoro’s survival story is a chilling one, even after 24 years. When the Genocide started, she was with her family of four children.
In 1994, her family lived in the current Rutunga Sector in Gasabo District, an area known to have been inhabited by many Tutsi, which made it a target of the militia in the initial days of the Genocide.
To signal the beginning of the killings, a gendarme (para-military police) shot in the air and then militiamen started the hunt. Many were armed with traditional weapons and immediately went on rampage.
“I remember gathering at a neighbour’s home as we pondered what to do. Fear engulfed the place and we had no one to save us as our neighbours had literally turned into animals,” she says.
Mukakagoro said they did not feel safe hiding in the neighbour’s house because it was a matter of time before they would be discovered by the militia.
“On the third day, we decided to hide in a sorghum plantation and bushes nearby. We endured the cold, rain, fear and hunger. The children would ask for food which we didn’t have, life was not easy,” she says.
Surviving a grenade attack
That same day, Mukakagoro and others left the shrubs and went to seek refuge at a neighbouring trading centre and she remembers meeting militiamen on their way, who asked where they were going but left them to be killed by the next group.
These ones were in a rush to kill other people.
When they reached the trading centre, they were all (hundreds of them) put in one place and Interahamwe militia surrounded them and hurled grenades at them leaving many dead.
Mukakagoro survived the attack with serious injuries and bled the whole day without receiving any treatment.
“I could see other people lying dead and others also injured, it was a terrible attack,” she says.
“I was seriously injured and I could barely walk. Luckily, the militia thought we were all dead. The very few people who survived the attack managed to move during the evening and I went back home. I was only treated with hot water to calm the enduring pain to avoid more infections,” she adds.
Mukakagoro remembers how at, the beginning, Interahamwe militia wanted to finish all male Tutsi, including young boys, to ensure that Tutsi are wiped out and be forgotten in the country.
“Males were the main target and we could even dress our sons in girls’ attire to confuse the killers,” she recounts.
Miraculous survival in Muhazi lake
On April 12, Mukakagoro and about 200 people were forced to go to the Nyamisiri trading centre. It was a militia base. They spent the whole night with the militia beating and taunting them.
“They (militia) would tell us that all mass graves were full of Tutsi they had killed and they just wanted to throw us in Lake Muhazi the following morning,” she said.
Lake Muhazi is a few kilometres away from Rutunga Sector and Nyamisiri village where the Tutsi were gathered.
In the morning, the hopeless Tutsi were ordered to queue towards the banks of the lake.
“Everyone said their last prayers as we were headed being led to Muhazi, when we reached the shores, they forced us into the lake, beating and stoning us as we were led to our death into the lake,” she narrates amid tears.
“I swum deep in waters and went a bit far from the killers, they kept stoning me but I went out of their reach. I kept swimming until I reached the other side of the lake and got rescued by people I met there. The lake was turning red from the blood of people who died of stoning and traditional weapons,” she says.
“I saw people drown, including my four children; I miraculously survived. Even though I knew how to swim, I had never swum in a lake but I managed to swim to the other side of the lake. Because of blisters from the stoning, I was very exhausted,” she says adding that what kept her going was the determination to be able to tell the story.
Later, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) found her and a few others who had survived by the shores of the lake and treated her wounds.
“After the Genocide, I had several checkups and I was operated on because I had fragments all over my body. Even though I still feel the painful effects and feel weak, I am thankful for the RPA soldiers who stopped the Genocide and rescued many from the jaws of the killers,” she added.
Life goes on
Mukakagoro says despite the tragedy that befell her and other Tutsi during the Genocide, leaving her with no child at the time, 24 years later she has managed to pull through together with her husband and life goes on.
She is now a mother of three and lives with her husband in the same area they lived before the Genocide.
“After the Genocide, we started from scratch. We even had no house to live in but thanks to the support from Government, things got better. We lead a normal life just like others, we till our land to earn a living. We have livestock and our children go to school. I think life will continue to get better because of the good leadership we have,” she said.
Like Mukakagoro, Édouard Habyarimana also survived drowning.
“I swam as the Interahamwe pelted me with stones. When I was out of their reach, a militia asked his colleague to kill me with an arrow but the latter said I was going to drown anyway. I survived and I am now thankful that I am alive and have a family,” said the father of three who also lives in Rutunga Sector.
“What hurts is that some people who wanted to kill us and killed our family members have shown no remorse.
‘‘They served their sentences but never approached us, we just forgave them to have peace of mind but they need to approach us and ask for forgiveness for reconciliation to take root,’’ he added.