Kibeho: When the ‘Holy Land’ was turned into ‘butcher land’

THIRTEEN YEARS  after the famous Kibeho apparitions, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi swept across the country, leaving more than a million people dead in its wake.
Today, part of Kibeho church has been turned into a memorial site to honour the memories of those who perished during the Genocide against the Tutsi.  Inset is Genocide survivor An....
Today, part of Kibeho church has been turned into a memorial site to honour the memories of those who perished during the Genocide against the Tutsi. Inset is Genocide survivor An....

THIRTEEN YEARS  after the famous Kibeho apparitions, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi swept across the country, leaving more than a million people dead in its wake.

Kibeho, which had since the apparitions become a ‘Holy Site’ for Christians, was not spared once the killings erupted. It soon turned into a major site of massacres.

Located in Nyaruguru District in the Southern Province, Kibeho village is approximately 30 kilometres from Butare town.

It is said that  in 1981, the Virgin Mary appeared to three school-girls in this village. Mary apparently warned church and government leaders that Rwanda would become “a river of blood” if the hatred that was being spread was not quickly quelled. However, very few believed in what the Kibeho school girls were saying. But it looks as if the prophetic and apocalyptic warnings tragically came to pass during the 100 days of killings later in 1994.

Since the apparitions were reported about three decades ago, Kibeho became a popular place for worship,  and destination for thousands of pilgrims around the world.

The apparitions were later recognised by the Roman Catholic Church in 2001 after scrutinising the results of two commissions comprising doctors and theologians.

Kibeho is also known to have experienced one of the worst massacres of the Tutsi during the Genocide.

When the killings erupted throughout the country in April 1994, thousands of Tutsis fleeing their home villages gathered at a catholic church in Kibeho, with hopes that the ‘Holy Land’ will be spared.

“When we fled from our home, I thought we could return home in a few days. However, as days went by, the situation deteriorated,” recalls Angelique Uwase, a survivor who was among those who took refuge at the Kibeho church.

She was 15 during the Genocide and remembers fleeing together with her relatives to seek refuge at the church with hope to escape the killings. Many other people had sought refuge at the church.

‘Scrub of killers’

The exact numbers of people who had gathered at Kibeho church and those who perished remains unknown.

Testimonies from survivors and area residents however indicate that the church was full of people and others had gathered in its compound. 

Thousands of Tutsis were fleeing from machete-wielding killers. Their hopes were however dashed just a few days after their arrival, Interahamwe militias attacked the church.

This was shortly after the death of former President Juvenal Habyarimana, on April 6. The occupants of the church repelled the aggression using stones that they pelted their attackers.

Little did they know that this was the beginning of a long journey that would end so painfully.

Eyewitnesses indicate that a major offensive was launched on Kibeho church around April 13 and this time around, hundreds of Interahamwe militia had joined hands with Gendarmes, police officers and soldiers and were determined to exterminate those who had gathered at Kibeho Church.

Bertin Muhizi, a survivor, and the Nyaruguru District head of Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of survivors’ associations, says the attack was well coordinated.

“It left so many people dead,” Muhizi recalls.

Uwase recalls with precision the moment Interahamwe attacked the church.

“They attacked from all directions. They were so many and the majority of them covered themselves with banana leaves,” she says, adding that the killers surrounded the church to prevent anyone from escaping.

Church burnt

“When we got there, we indiscriminately fired bullets into the crowd,” recalls Athanase Nsabimana, a former Communal Police Officer, now serving his sentence for his role in the  Genocide, especially for the killings in Kibeho and the neighbouring area of Munini.

“The Tutsi tried to resist by pelting us with stones but we overpowered them and they defencelessly ran back into the church. Later, Interahamwe militia stormed the church to kill,” the Genocide convict narrates, as he struggles to gather courage to narrate what he calls his ‘villainous acts’. 

Uwase was among the few lucky Tutsis who managed to flee the church as the killers continued to execute them.

“I fled the place with a few other Tutsis but as we were fleeing, we  heard ‘bursts’ and on looking behind, a huge plume of smoke billowed from the church.

“It had been burnt down to make sure everyone there is dead,” she narrates.

“The church totally burnt and its roof collapsed. Killers used gasoline to burn it,” Muhizi says.

Today, part of the Kibeho church has been turned into a memorial site to honour the memory of those who perished there. The remaining part is still used by Christians for mass.

Outside the church, stands a memorial which officials say is home to over 28, 000 people killed at Kibeho.

When eyewitnesses recount what happened at Kibeho, the few survivors of the killings there burst into tears as they remember how 20 years ago, this ‘Holy Land’ was turned into a den of death.

 

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