When thousands of Rwandans turned against their neighbours in 1994, hacking them to death on a scale never seen anywhere in modern times, a few people risked their own lives to save another person’s.
Jean Bosco Ndagijimana, now 46, is one of them.
Against all odds, he sheltered and helped move Tutsis to safety with full knowledge of dire consequences.
During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Ndagijimana was a 26-year old resident of Rugeshi Cell, Mukamira Sector in Nyabihu District, Western Province, was a young farmer-cum-preacher.
He was a member of a local Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Ndagijimana shared his story last Friday at a Kwibuka Flame tour event in his home district.
His emotional testimony saw many break down, while others looked on in awe.
And emotions ran high when Ndagijimana was joined on the stage by three of the several people he helped save.
One of them, Suzanne Nzarama, hugged him intimately. She broke down.
Even as those who had survived the killings felt like they were reliving that tragedy, they were evidently grateful to the man who put his own life on the line to ensure they are not killed by the marauding militiamen.
“He helped me cross the border into Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). We spent three nights trying to evade killers, finally we crossed the border,” Nzarama said.
“I was desperate. I thought I was going to die. I was convinced that the fate of Tutsis was death and that there was no escape route. But this man gave me a chance, a chance to live again.
“He struggled to help me escape the killers. I saw how he took a great risk for my sake,” Nzarama said in reference to the man he fondly referred to as ‘my dear brother’.
In an interview with The New Times, Ndagijimana spoke of his grief because of the barbaric crimes that befell Rwanda.
Ndagijimana says on the day following the death of former president Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, he came across many corpses of Tutsis who had been hacked to death in his village.
“There were pools of blood everywhere,” he recalls. “Death had struck and I knew the worst was just unfolding”.
He says he was ‘extremely saddened’ by the killings that he decided he should take the risk and attempt to save any Tutsi he would meet.
“I told myself ‘these people have not committed any crime, yet they are being hunted down and killed so tragically’. That troubled me deeply,” Ndagijimana told The New Times in an interview.
“I knew I was risking my own life but at that time death meant nothing to me. I felt that’s the best I could do,” he said.
In the days that followed, Ndagijimana struggled to help some Tutsis escape their tormentors in what he describes as ‘some of the most terrifying days’ of his life.
With almost no resources, Ndagijimana tried to hide some Tutsis at his home but, as killings intensified, it became extremely risky.
Wary that the killers would learn of his actions and storm his house and wipe out everyone there, he devised a plan: to stealthy help the survivors flee Rwanda into the neighbouring DR Congo.
So he started helping some of them flee through porous borders into the neighbouring DR Congo. He would accompany them through informal pathways which snaked through plantations and fields.
But he needed to be extremely cautious, especially with killers roaming the streets, hills and valleys, hunting for their next victim.
“I had to gather information first on which direction the killers were to avoid a dreaded encounter with them,” he explains.
On several occasions, he recalls, he would go in advance to ‘spy’ on the militia. “I would tell them (the Tutsis he hid) that in case I am not back within minutes I would have been killed and that they should look for other ways to escape.”
I would leave them hidden in bushes and warn them against getting out until I returned. “I told them that they had only to respond to my voice.”
Ndagijimana says it was not an easy task to shelter Tutsis while hundreds of extremists were hunting for the same people. “I had to do it for the sake of humanity.”
Nzarama is one of the more than 15 Tutsis Ndagijimana helped save during the Genocide.
“Whenever I see them, I get very happy but also emotional sometimes. That they survived the Genocide is the best thing to have ever happened to me. For their resilience and bravery, I’m forever thankful to God,” said Ndagijimana. “In those difficult times we stood together and managed to survive together.”
Anastase Kayisire, 47, one of the people Ndagijimana helped save, cannot be more grateful. He addresses Ndagijimana as “hero”.
He says Ndagijimana’s offer to help him escape the Genocide machinery – which would claim a million lives in a space of 100 days – helped him get away from the killers who had specifically targeted him for murder.
After the Genocide, Kayisire fell in love with Ndagijimana’s sister.
The two are now happily married. “For me she’s a constant reminder of her brother’s humanness, his incredible kindness.”
“Unfortunately, we did not have many people with such a heart during the Genocide.”