On October 4, 1990, shortly before midnight, when most families in Kigali were in bed, gunfire rocked the usually silent capital of Rwanda. Evariste Kalisa, now a lawmaker, was in bed in his house at the Electrogaz compound in Gikondo where he lived with his family – spouse and three children. In Electrogaz – electric utility of the time – he was head of the Kigali’s power division.
Looking back, he says, the night’s gunfire was part of “a comedy”orchestrated by the then government army who invented a treacherous lie that the city was under attack by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).
“We had all been asleep when the shooting begun. We were terrified”.
Come sunset, everyone was too scared to venture outside but Kalisa’s boss, Jotham Ntirikwendera, called and ordered him to report to work.
“I was to report to the city centre where our branch headquarters were. I told him that I did not have a vehicle and he sent one. Then he told me that there was a blackout at Kanombe military barracks and I was supposed to gather a team of technicians and we go sort the problem out”.
Moving from Gikondo to town, at around 9:00am, Kalisa recalls, he observed that the road was eerily deserted. Despite the frightening gunfire the night before, to his dismay, there were no casualties or dead bodies along the way as he had dreaded.
“I had a gut feeling that something just wasn’t right,” he recalls thinking, as the party – including a technician and the chauffeur – hurried on.
“I was curious and so alert because I thought the gunfire had claimed lives. There were no casualties; nothing”.
At Kanombe, just before the entrance to the barracks, was a military roadblock. Their white pickup truck was stopped and they were asked to explain the reason for their visit and identify themselves. Everyone presented their IDs but Kalisa was singled out for vilification, intimidation, and threats.
“They said I wouldn’t proceed because I was Tutsi yet I was the one in charge. I said. ‘Okay, let me go back and the technician stays and works and we shall return to pick him’.” But they eventually allowed him in and his crew spent the day busy.
“Clearly, power cables were shattered the previous night and it was by no one else other than themselves [government soldiers] who shot at them.”
At around 5pm, they left the compound, without incident and he dropped the technician off near the Regina Pacis Church in Remera and headed home. At home, his wife was panicking. Besides the fact that her husband had been away too long, given the circumstances the night before, she had information that her two brothers then working in Byumba [now Gicumbi] – another town about 60 kilometers, north of the Kigali – an uncle and other people had been taken into custody.
“Things were getting rougher because there had been other arrests in other parts of the country. I comforted her, and told her to be strong, because all these people were being rounded up simply because they were Tutsi, just like me. That night I kept all my clothes on. My sweater and shoes were near the bed, and I kept the radio on, prepared to be arrested”.
And indeed, early the next morning, it happened. News bulletins over and over again reported an attack on the capital, by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).
It was Sunday and their three-year old daughter ceaselessly pestered her mother. In her joy and innocence, unaware of the cruel tragedy slowly engulfing the nation, the little girl inquired about plans to attend church service, as she was used to.
All of a sudden, a military jeep was at their gates and uncivil soldiers invaded the home. His partner who had been outside dashed back. But before she could inquire about their impromptu company, soldiers forced their way in and, within no time, one hit the main bedroom’s door with his rifle butt.
“They asked me if I had a gun and I said I didn’t. They asked about origins of the shootings the night before and I told them I too heard but didn’t know.
Aren’t you the one called Kalisa Evariste?
The soldiers were enraged and turned the entire house upside down. Being the beginning of a new month, the family had, as a habit, stocked up supplies. Stocking up on food, the soldiers accused him, was proof that he had prior knowledge of an imminent attack by the RPF rebels and that was why he had prepared.
“I told them it is what we public servants do every end month after pay; we stock up food supplies to last at least a month. They didn’t seem to listen”. After finding no weapons in his house, Kalisa gathered the nerve to bid them goodbye. At that point, one of the soldiers produced a sheet of paper with names and asked him: “Aren’t you the one called Kalisa Evariste”?
Answering in the affirmative, he was hit with a gun butt and ordered to clamber into the back of the military jeep where he met two neighbours – Edward Murenzi and Mathias Kanuma (the latter is deceased). They were taken to an army post in Gikondo where they found many others.
“We got used to the terrifying idea that it was only the Tutsi being arrested. Fortunately it did not rain that day but in the evening more soldiers arrived and forced us all to lie face down while they marched on top of us, just as is done in a military parade. That night they shot and hung someone on a tree and he groaned the entire night”.
On the third day they were piled into buses and moved to Kigali Central Prison, also called ‘1930 prison,’ because of the year in which it was established.
“They spent the whole day bringing in others. We were very hungry and crushed. For three days we hadn’t eaten or had water. Some were near death. There was overcrowding. It was horrific. The human rights that we speak of nowadays did not exist”.
That day they were given water in an unclean bucket and “drank like cows do” when taken to the well. In the evening porridge was given and some used their shoes to take it as there were no options.
They spent days sitting on cold cement floors, the same place they slept at night.
Life in prison was hell: The Archbishop cursed us
Kalisa never forgets a day when the Pope’s envoy visited accompanied by Vincent Nsengiyumva, Archbishop of Kigali, and others.
The Archbishop did something that deeply troubled the inmates. Normally, Kalisa said, an Archbishop waves, palm outward, to people, as a sign of wishing them peace but that was not what Nsengiyumva did during his brief visit.
“He waved to us with his inner palm turned to his face. In that form, it is said to be a curse. That was a strong signal from the chief bishop who, instead of wishing people peace, the Archbishop cursed us”.
Knowing that Nsengiyumva was – despite being clergy – a member of the Central Committee of the then ruling National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND) – the political party which masterminded the Genocide against the Tutsi – Kalisa was not surprised. Nsengiyumva was a personal friend of President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose portrait pin he often sported while saying Mass.
Life in prison was hell, Kalisa recalls, painfully calling to mind excruciating human rights abuses including summary executions, torture, beatings and deprivation of care, which Tutsi inmates suffered.
Kalisa’s eyes give away his emotions, when he is made to recall, how hundreds of inmates were at first forced into a small chapel fit for not more than 100 people, as their lodging.
One of the many methods of torture used in the infamous ‘1930 prison’ was denying Tutsi inmates food and water for days on end. Pregnant women, among the hundreds of Tutsi women inmates, were not spared the horror. Besides being forced to spend nights in a tiny chamber, women inmates had no direct access to toilet facilities and were forced to use basins as toilets.
“We had very many women with us but it is pregnant ones that suffered the most unbearable pain.”
Diseases, especially diarrhea, and starvation played a big role in long-term psychological effects to those who survived. Throughout the day, there was always a long queue as inmates unbearably waited for their turn to use the only toilet available.
“They would take people out to be interrogated by [Pascal] Simbikangwa and they came back beaten to pulp. Some didn’t return alive. We knew we would all die and we wished it to come sooner”. Simbikangwa, an Intelligence Officer in the genocidal government, was in 2014 found guilty of Genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity and is serving a 25-year sentence in France.
“Most often they brought a dead body bundled in a blanket. It was not a prison. Normally, a prisoner has a way of life, or has rights; is visited, given clothing, and others. There was hardly any food. People died but this cruelty is never mentioned. Whenever I see prisoners today and how they are treated; especially those who committed the worst crimes of Genocide, I am baffled”.
Later on, Kalisa was accused of having been caught with copies of the city’s electricity plan; contention being that he planned the shootings to disrupt power supply so that the RPF/A rebels would attack when he had put the city in darkness.
By then, he had turned defiantly daring.
“I told them that I know the city’s electricity network off head and I don’t need any plan whatsoever but if, instead, any of you would want to disrupt the city’s power supply they would need it to know where to go, but for me I don’t need it”.
Kalisa was among the first to exit prison – after three abnormally extended months of misery – thanks to the pressure put on the Genocidal regime by the advancing RPF/A rebels and the N’sele ceasefire agreement between the government and the former which established a cessation of hostilities and provided, among others, for the release of prisoners of war.
When he got out, like all his other former inmates who survived the prison, he had been fired from his job. The homes of all freed prisoners were marked, he recalls. Later, not more than 30, would survive the mass killings that targeted the Tutsi.
Then, Kalisa – like most other Tutsi inmates – who were now hardened by a cruel experience, actively joined opposition politics and was not only a member of the Liberal Party (PL) but also became a human rights activist.
“Those who survived only have the RPF/A to thank, not only for liberating us from prison, and most importantly, for stopping the Genocide.”
Kalisa’s one wish, and message, to the country’s youth, today, is: “They should keep in mind RPF’s great patriotism because that is what this nation requires of them.”