Alice Muhimpundu was a nine year-old child when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda begun. She did not completely grasp the gravity of the Tutsi slaughters’ until four years later, when she took up the roles of her murdered mother and father to patch up her already shattered life and that of her remaining siblings. The New Times’ Gloria I. Anyango unveils her story.
What was your life like before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi?
Before the Genocide, we lived in Gikondo. Mum was a business woman called Ann Marie Nyirasafari and Dad was a lawyer called Damien Kimonyo. I was the 5th child out of 9 and I was in P.3 in a school in Gikondo.
What I mostly remember about my parents is that they loved each other and loved us too. They put us in schools and provided for our needs every day.
Before the Genocide, I did not understand much of what was happening, but I remember my mother crying and going to visit my father in prison.
That was in 1992 when the police of that time came home and took our daddy away. He was jailed for two months in Gikondo prison because the police said he was a cockroach working with the Inkotanyi (RPF soldiers).
After two month, they decided to transfer my father to Gitarama prison where he was to be prosecuted. Life was very difficult for us but later in 1993, he was released.
He decided that we shift to Gitarama because it would be easier to get proper documentation to cross over to Burundi, like other Tutsi’s were doing.
When we got there, the authorities rejected our applications and the Genocide found us in Gitarama.
How did you know about the Genocide, since you were a child and didn’t understand what was happening?
I heard that the plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down and that people had started killing the cockroaches. We lived in a village in Gitarama and my parents were very afraid.
How did you escape?
One morning at around 10:00 a.m we looked over one hill and people and houses were burning. They were killing the Tutsi’s.
Together with some of our neighbours we went and lived in a nearby forested area, we ate and slept there until the following evening when the interahamwe reached that area.
While we were hiding, they attacked the forest and people scattered. We were separated from my father and I remained with my mother and six month old baby sister whom she carried on her back.
We kept running and we were very tired, I asked mother if I could help her carry the baby and she handed her over to me.
When I was tired I gave her back the baby and my mother walked a head of me as I trailed behind. We reached a place called Manyana and that is when the interahamwe ambushed her.
They did not see me since I was far back. I hid on the ground in the bushes and I watched as they completely undressed her…after a while, they cut and killed her.
I heard them arguing about the baby’s life. Since she was a girl, her life was spared. During the Genocide, boys were killed while the girls were spared because they said they would later grow up and become useful in homes and gardens.
They spared my baby sister’s life but one interahamwe grabbed her and threw her away into the bushes. Then they left.
I was very afraid but I followed the sound of the baby crying and picked her up and went back to hide. I reached a big banana plantation and rested. I broke off some banana leaves and squeezed out the liquid which we drunk.
We were very hungry and we ate leaves and drank water from the plants for days. There were other Tutsi’s who hid in the banana plantation.
Did you have hope that you would live?
No I didn’t. My mother had been killed and I didn’t know where my father and siblings were. The interahamwe came and found us hiding, they killed some people. While we ran a man threw a club with nails which hit my leg. A nail entered deep into my ankle and I couldn’t pull it out.
I later heard people saying that the RPF soldiers had captured a place called Musambira, so we started moving towards that direction.
Then I heard announcements made over the radio that the remaining Tutsi’s who survived should go to a place called Kabgayi where they would be protected because the Inkotanyi had taken over Rwanda. Many people went to Kabgayi believing they would be safe.
On our way there, I met an old woman who felt sorry for us and helped me to carry the baby. We were very hungry and I was in a very bad state.
We spent three nights at that place and while there we drank blood stained water to quench our thirst because the sources were contaminated with blood, the interahamwe also cleaned their machetes in the water bodies.
More Tutsi’s people kept coming to Kabgayi but did not know that it was a trap. Many were shot and killed by Habyarimana’s soldiers while the interahamwe who had surrounded the area used their machetes to slaughter those who tried to escape.
We survived again because the RPF soldiers came and stopped them.
Did you ever find your siblings and father?
The Inkotanyi came and took the survivours from Kabgayi back to Musambira, in Gitarama when the Genocide was over.
There were gatherings where they made announcements of people’s families so that they would know if they had survived or not.
I stayed there for days and found my two brothers—one was 12 years old and the other was 6 years—who had survived after separating from my father.
A certain good hearted lady took us up and wanted to raise us in her family when she learnt that we were orphans. We stayed with her but we were not comfortable because we wanted to go back to Kigali and look for our relatives, and hopefully to find our father.
How did you reach Kigali?
I had no peace of mind not knowing where my father was. I always saw people being transported in trucks that I was sure went to Kigali.
Since we didn’t have any relatives in Gitarama I explained our situation to the Inkotanyi soldiers who were at Baracks 12 at Gitarama. The following morning, they got us a ride on a white pickup truck that took us to Nyabugogo market.
We sat by the road hungry and together with other street kids we started begging traders for food.
Were you a street kid?
Only for about a week. My auntie—the sister to my mother bumped into us at the market and she was surprised to see us. She delivered the bad news about the death of our father and our 4 brothers and sisters who were with him.
However, we later reunited with one younger brother in 1995; he was found living in a trench somewhere in Gitarama, he was wounded, and left for dead by the interahamwe.
We lived with our auntie for about a month but she was terrible. She treated us very badly, made us do a lot of manual work and she very abusive.
As a child, I wished I had died during the genocide like my parents than live with her. Luckily, a cousin took us away from her to RPF Orphanage in Ndera where other orphans and separated children were looked after.
How did you feel when you left her home?
I was relieved but still traumatized by all the dead bodies lying along the roads. People had not yet been buried since they were still being retrieved from various places.
At that time, the air was full of the stench of rotting bodies and the sight was not pleasant.
Tell me about the RPF Orphanage?
RPF Orphanage was established by the Inkotanyi who brought many lost children to find shelter, food and stay protected from any lingering danger.
Other people in the villages also brought roaming children to the orphanage. There were so many children with no parents. The Inkotanyi soldiers looked after us; they went to the gardens and came back with food like maize, bananas and potatoes and brought water because there were no shops selling anything.
They looked after us until international volunteers started coming to Rwanda. The Inkotanyi guarded the place all the time but some of them eventually left because they had other duties to fulfill.
We had electricity problems and we got a generator from volunteers that supplied power. I also remember a lady called Rika, an Armenian from Holland who was left to manage the orphanage.
She was very friendly and loved us all. Some volunteers photographed and printed our photos so that parents and relatives could easily find us.
Did you feel at the Orphanage?
I felt safe and protected but it was not home. During the four years we stayed there, I missed my parents so much. I was young and I felt so hurt when I saw other children re-uniting with their parents who found them. I felt like I had no future without my parents.
How did you manage?
In 1998, under ‘Tumurere’, organization all orphans whose parents didn’t show up, were integrated into other families. I was 12 years old and we were five children left. There was no family willing to adopt 5 of us all together. We did not want to be separated again.
Our request was granted and we were given a mud house in Ndera. We still live there today and being the oldest girl, I had to look after my three brothers and 3 year-old sister.
We were given 10kgs of maize flour, 2kgs of salt, 2 beds, 1 table, 2 chairs and 2 saucepans. There were volunteers who came and donated a cow for milk, but the people in charge never gave it to us.
After that they left us alone and never came back, so we started growing food in the garden.
How about your education?
We are all beneficiaries of FARG- the Fund for Support of Genocide Survivours, which was established to help survivours. I studied until I completed my O-Level secondary school education.
I missed classes a lot because I had to go home, look for food and cook. In Senior 3, I got 2.5 points, a mark below the FARG cut off points.
I could not continue with my A-Level education. I started doing biraka (odd jobs) and learnt basic computer skills.
What do you do today?
I work as a secretary in a small stationary shop in Ndera. With my computer skills I managed to do various jobs and used the money to help my siblings at school and buy cement for the house.
I later saved up to Rwf200,000 that I used to acquire a loan of Rwf600,000 to buy two computers and a printer. I now manage a small rented secretarial bureau in Ndera that trickles in some money.
I still have Rwf275,000 to clear but the business is so slow making it difficult for me to clear the bank loan.
What future plans do you have?
I want to change my business and do something more profitable once I clear the bank loan. I would like to continue to university, but having a business is important for me so that I can pay off my sibling’s tuition.
What other responsibilities do you have?
I am the head of the ‘Hope Family’, which is comprised of all the children who were in RPF Orphanage until 1998. With four others, we got the idea of meeting to find ways solving our problems as children who were orphaned by the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Last year we were 125, but we are now 135 members. We are still searching for others to join as we work hard towards solving our numerous challenges.