Clergyman who sacrificed life for flock honoured
As the horrors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi unfolded, there were several brave people who dared to shelter, feed, and look after men, women and children who were targets of Interahamwe militias.
As fate would have it though, those valiant individuals also became targets, and later victims in many cases- of the machete-wielding militiamen.
On April 21, 1994, just three days after the start of the killings in Cyanika, Father Joseph Niyomugabo was killed while attempting to protect Tutsis who had sought refuge at Cyanika Catholic Parish that he headed. Over 25,000 Tutsi who had sought refuge were gruesomely killed by the militia.
Survivors described horrific and shocking scenes of the death of the man of God. One of them testified how the priest was “paraded naked before being killed”, in what was described as an attempt to deride him.
Eighteen years later, the Catholic priest is still remembered and revered by a number of people, especially those who survived the killings in the area.
In honour of the priest, African Rights, an international human rights group, last Tuesday, released a report to coincide with the 18th anniversary of his death.
The report, titled “He never ceased to amaze me- A tribute to Father Niyomugabo Joseph”, describes him as someone who sacrificed his life for Tutsi whom he attempted to protect from the machetes of the killers. The report is essentially made of testimonies from Cyanika survivors.
“Given the animosity with which he was regarded by local government officials, he had more reason to leave the parish than anyone else. His fellow clergy (men), who knew the risks he ran (through) pleaded with him to accompany them to safety but he refused to leave saying ...he could not desert his parishioners at such a critical moment.
“By putting the needs of others before his own in the most terrifying circumstances, he proved worthy of the refugees’ trust in him,” African Rights wrote in a statement sent to The New Times.
Father Niyomugabo served as a priest at Cyanika Parish between 1985 and 1994. Survivors who had sought refuge at the parish told African Rights that Niyomugabo stood by them during those trying times albeit under momentous risk.
According to their testimonies, Niyomugabo was “guided by his faith and the values he held dear”, which helped him not to abandon those who expected moral and spiritual comfort from him.
The survivors told the human rights organisation that they were convinced that the exceptional nature of Niyomugabo’s courage should be recognised by the Catholic Church and the entire Rwandan and international community.
“What makes Fr. Niyomugabo particularly special is the fact that he stayed with us, at a time when all the other priests had fled to Butare. Even those who were not targeted left, but he stayed and died alongside our relatives. He could have left with the others, but he refused to abandon us,” Marianne Nikuze is quoted as saying.
“I remember him the same way I remember my relatives who died at Cyanika”.
Another Genocide survivor, Dalie Gacendeli, recalls moments she heard the priest vow to never abandon his followers.
“He often told us that he could not abandon us to save his life because God would ask him: ‘Where did you leave the flock that ran to you?” Gacendeli recounts.
The choices and achievements of those who took a stand against the Genocide are significant to Rwanda’s past, present and future. The values they fought for, and in some cases, died for ... are essential to highlight as Rwanda seeks to recover from the Genocide and build a future of justice, peace, tolerance and unity,” the statement reads.
“In identifying and honouring them, by publicising their deeds and their sacrifices, African Rights hopes they will find their special and rightful place in the history of Rwanda and in the international struggle to defend and promote human rights and to prevent Genocide.”