April 7, 2010 was another day to embrace bad memories. I travelled to the Southern province of Rwanda, to a place called Kilinda.
I went there with my friends, Senator Valens Munyabagisha and his wife Rose Uwimbabazi.
Our destination was a bridge over the River Nyabarongo one among those that join the Southern and Western provinces.
Hundreds of others joined us there, each with his or her own memories of what had been taken from us by the mud brown water slowly flowing under the yellow steel bridge.
The Nyabarongo is not just a river. It was both a symbol and a weapon. The act of throwing Tutsis in the Nyabarongo and its tributaries was codenamed by the genocidaires as hiring a bus for them to Ethiopia. A final solution!
The ideologues of Hutu Power like Leon Mugesera called for the river, which flows out of Rwanda in a north-easterly direction toward the Nile, to be a means for the deportation of Tutsis from their homes, and from the world.
In 1994, the Nyabarongo was a weapon, because many thousands were drowned in its waters or killed and their bodies thrown into it be taken by the current.
Rose was with us on the bridge in memory of her three cousins who were thrown in this ideological River.
Rose told me their names and their ages when they were “sent to Abyssinia.” She was remembering Consolee Mukamurekezi, Susan Nyiraneza, and Monica Mukakarekezi.
They were young, all in their twenties, at that stage in life when you imagine that time stretches forever ahead of you.
They had been close. “I never considered them cousins because we grew up together in the same family; their parents were the ones who took care of me ever since I was about nine years old, and we were together for more than 20 years,” said Rose.
Rose’s painful memories stretch further back than 1994. She was born eight months after the assassination of her father, Michel Rwagasana, a Rwandan nationalist and a hero.
Not having been there does not mean that she does not live with that murder. Like the many thousands of children in Rwanda who were born after 1994 and yet wake up with nightmares, suffering an unknowing anguish they did not personally experience.
Genocide, even after all the bodies are buried or carried away by the current, seems to hang over Rwanda like a shroud that descends ever closer every April-July, during the commemoration period.
Rose’s father Rwagasana was shot on December 24, 1963, on the orders or with the full knowledge of his own nephew, Gregory Kayibanda who was the President of Rwanda at the time. The campaign to throw Tutsis into the river started then. Three decades before hell came to earth.
She considers her birth a miracle because her mother was a Tutsi and was hunted before and after her husband’s murder. She told me “If my mother had not found someone to help her flee to Burundi...” Silence followed. She did not need to finish the sentence.
In March 1964, Kayibanda threatened “the extinction of the Tutsi as a race”. This was the same as Hitler’s declaration, on “the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe”, in the Reichstag in January 1939.
A Presbyterian pastor, Aaron Mugemana, is among those who annually join other survivors at this bridge to mourn the victims of genocide. “At this place, my wife and six children were drowned,” he said.
Nothing can be said about such a loss. What words are sufficient to describe such a horror, the great tear in his universe that he lives with?
Most people on the bridge were facing northwards, which is downstream. I saw two women facing the opposite way, leaning forward over the walls of the bridge, sunk deeply in their thoughts.
One was holding flowers, with fresh white petals, her face lying on her upturned palm as she looked at the water.
Their names are Yunnis Dushimimana and Julie Mukandamutsa. They are both fifty five years old. They went to the same primary school, were in the same class, and have been friends since the 1960s.
Yunnis’ parents were thrown in this river. She points to where she was told they were stripped naked, their limbs tied together with a rope, before being thrown into the river in the direction in which they are looking.
“But this problem started long ago” says Julie. “Of course yes!” Yunnis adds. I ask them why they think so. They all looked at me intently. Probing my question?
Julie tells me about a teacher who used to persecute Tutsi pupils in their primary school.
They still remember his name; they cannot forget it after all these years. He was called Mathias Nzigiye.
Yunnis remembered an incident: “The first day he came to our class, he asked every Tutsi to stand up, and I didn’t because none of my parents had told me I was a Tutsi.”
Nzigiye walked towards her and asked why she was disobeying his order. “He slapped me on the cheek and ear, and [I] lost consciousness for almost 3 hours.”
What I was witnessing brought back to my mind the nightmarish day of May 8, 1994. That was the day when General Robert Mboma, Tanzania’s Army Chief of General Staff, met Colonel William Bagire of the Rwandan Patriotic Front -- at the Rwanda/Tanzania border post at Rusumo Bridge, where the Nyarabongo becomes the Akagera River.
Among the things General Mboma said at that place and time was not a single word of sympathy for the victims of genocide, or of solidarity with those who were pursuing the perpetrators of genocide.
As if there was a border dispute, Mboma told Colonel Bagire that “the Akagera River belongs to Tanzania.” He received no response.
Then he warned that Tanzania “would not tolerate seeing its citizens, who use water from the Akagera River, continue to drink water contaminated with corpses from Rwanda.”
Horror-struck, Bagire saluted, and without a word turned back, leaving Mboma standing near a pile of thousands of blood-stained machetes which the killers had abandoned before crossing into Tanzania.
General Mboma’s words, which were broadcast on Radio Tanzania, were beyond demeaning and insensitive.
The level of Mboma’s indifference broke my brain cortex. The dead Tutsi were being blamed as contaminants, and the RPF taken to task for not dealing with pollution.
None of the Tutsis who were thrown in this River chose that path. It wasn’t mass suicide, but genocide.
I can’t forget the sight of skinless bodies, washed up here and there under the Rusumo Bridge. I can still see the powerful waves, and gashing waterfalls, taking more Tutsi bodies through to the larger Akagera River.
It is hard to grasp the enormity of the genocide, which is not one event but countless personal accounts.
Genocide is felt from the story of each individual about their loved ones. It is about what you saw, experienced, and heard.
I had come to the Kilinda Bridge to listen to such testimonies, to feel and acknowledge their awful weight.
At noon, many who had come there with flowers started throwing them in the river in remembrance of their beloved.
I stood watching as the waters grabbed at the flowers and took them downstream, reminding us of what happened to the Tutsi in 1994.