Two decades of celebrating Rwanda’s towering heroes

As Rwandans mark Heroes’ Day for the 20th time today, officials have said that a panel of top academics in the country is reviewing a list of 18 people who have been fronted to be designated as heroes and heroines.
<p>Students of Nyange school in Ngororero receive the Kwibuka Flame on January 10 as the torch embarked on its nationwide lap of honour ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Nyange school (in the background, right) was on March 18, 1997 attacked by the remnants of the Genocide machinery, with the assailants killing six students after the youngsters refused to separate themselves along ethnic lines. Both the victims and the survivors of the attack are among the heroes  feted today. The New Times/T. Kisambira.</p>

Students of Nyange school in Ngororero receive the Kwibuka Flame on January 10 as the torch embarked on its nationwide lap of honour ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Nyange school (in the background, right) was on March 18, 1997 attacked by the remnants of the Genocide machinery, with the assailants killing six students after the youngsters refused to separate themselves along ethnic lines. Both the victims and the survivors of the attack are among the heroes feted today. The New Times/T. Kisambira.

As Rwandans mark Heroes’ Day for the 20th time today, officials have said that a panel of top academics in the country is reviewing a list of 18 people who have been fronted to be designated as heroes and heroines.

The National Heroes’ Day falls on every February 1 during which time Rwandan leaders and citizens pause and pay homage to specially fallen compatriots who paid the ultimate price for the greater good.

This year’s events are particularly special with preparations already in high gear ahead of the 2oth anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, due April 7.

Today’s observance of the country’s heroes and heroines will be held under the theme, “The Rwandan Spirit, Pillar of Heroism.”

This morning, the country’s top leaders, including President Paul Kagame, are expected to visit Heroes Mausoleum near Amahoro Stadium in Remera, Kigali, where they will lay wreaths on the tombs of the feted heroes.  

Also to pay their respects at the Mausoleum are close family members of the departed heroes.

Across the country, citizens are expected to converge at designated areas in their respective villages to observe the day and share ideas on how each one can learn a lesson or two from the heroes and help take the country forward.

The discussions will generally revolve around Ndi Umunyarwanda, a national programme launched last year as a rallying call for all Rwandans to pull on the same direction and discard any divisive tendencies blamed for plunging the nation into a genocide 20 years ago.

Among the country’s top heroes is Maj. Gen. Fred Gisa Rwigema, the courageous young man who spearheaded the quest for Rwandan refugees to return home and bring to an end a fascist regime and its divisive policies back in Rwanda.

He died on the battlefield on the second day of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) liberation war on October 2, 1990.  

He is in the supreme heroes category of Imanzi, alongside the Unknown Soldier, who represents all the gallant men and women of the RPA liberators who put their lives on the line for the cause of liberation and eventually defeated the genocidal regime on July 4, 1994.

The heroes who are classified under the Imanzi category are those remembered for unprecedented and highly exceptional accomplishments.

The second category is known as Imena, and is composed of heroes known for making great sacrifices, while the third, Ingenzi, is composed of men and women who have led exemplary lives.

Only departed heroes can be classified under the Imanzi category. 

Heroes who fall under the second category (Imena), include King Mutara III Rudahigwa Charles Léon Pierre (for opposing the Belgian colonialists’ divide-and-rule policy and promoting equality among the ordinary folks) and Michael Rwagasana, who was killed in the early 1960s for denouncing a Hutu supremacist ideology and ethnic differences.

Others are Agatha Uwiringiyimana, the prime minister who was killed in the first few days of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi by government forces for opposing the genocide agenda; Félicité Niyitegeka, who was killed on April 21, 1994 for graciously hosting Tutsi refugees; and the six students of Nyange Secondary School, who died on the night of March 18, 1997 after defying attackers’ orders to separate themselves along ethnic lines.

Also in this category are the former students of Nyange school who survived the attack on the Ngororero District-based school.

Both living persons and the deceased can be placed in the Imena or Ingenzi category but other than the Nyange heroes no other living citizen has been officially acknowledged as a hero under the stated categories.

The Government is keen to encourage Rwandans to draw inspiration from their heroes so they can together build a nation free of ethnic-based divisions and mistrust.

“You cannot advance heroism without promoting the notion of building a united country with one people; that’s why we are laying emphasis on the Rwandan Spirit,” Protais Mitali, the Culture and Sports minister, told Saturday Times.

He pointed to the fact that such important national events are now being observed at the grassroots level, saying it gives every Rwandan the opportunity to take stock of the Rwanda of yesteryears, and contribute ideas on “our collective bid to continue building a great nation that treats its own equally.”

Meanwhile, 18 Rwandans named during a countrywide hero-search exercise are now being vetted by a team of University of Rwanda dons with ultimate view to add them on the list of heroes.

This was disclosed on Thursday by the Executive Secretary of the Chancellery for Heroes and National Orders and Decorations of Honour, Amb. Ignatius Kamali Karegesa.

The official said the process of identifying new heroes has now moved to the scrutinising phase after the public was invited to nominate people who they thought deserved to be officially honoured as heroes and heroines.

Karegesa said that a team of academics and researchers from the University of Rwanda, led by renowned historian Prof. Paul Rutayisire, is already vetting the list.

The dons, hired through a competitive bidding process, according to Karegesa, are conducting comprehensive research on each of the nominees to ensure that they meet the kind of qualities that are expected of a hero.

“It is a rigorous exercise which may take a while,” Karegesa said, adding that the vetting process could be completed by the end of February.

Selection process

The process starts with a call for nominations whereby the Chancellery for Heroes invites the general public to propose names of personalities with a consistent track record of acts of     heroism.

The preliminary list is subject to scrutiny by the Chancellery for Heroes and National Orders and Decorations of Honour.

Then, the list is submitted to a credible research body to conduct further research and analysis on each of the nominee after which they forward their findings to the Chancellery.

The Chancellery thereafter submits the final draft list of designated heroes to the Cabinet for final review and approval.

Until the official publication of the names of the new heroes, Karegesa said, the proposed names remain under lock and key.

He said divulging proposed names might cause unnecessary speculation upon the release of the final list.

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