THERE IS A PLACE outside Gisenyi town, in the north-western Rubavu District, which is particular in both its historyand name.
Located about four kilometres from Gisenyi city centre, the area is known as ‘Commune Rouge’, or rather ‘red district’.
However, Commune Rouge is not a district as its name suggests. It is a former cemetery turned Genocide memorial site.
The cemetery is dotted with old tombstones, sometimes demarcated by low concrete walls and often with a cross atop.
Sources say for decades before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the place served as the final resting place for area residents who succumbed to natural death.
However, in the build-up to the Genocide the place was also known to have ‘received’ bodies of Tutsis who were brought from the mountainous Bigogwe area and killed because of their ethnicity.
According to several accounts in Gisenyi, between 1991 and 1992, a yet-to-be-known number of Bagogwe Tutsis were rounded up from nearby villages, brought to Gisenyi, killed and dumped at the place which was later named ‘Commune Rouge’ in reference to the blood that was shed there.
Innocent Kabanda, the head of Ibuka (the umbrella of Genocide survivors) in Rubavu District says among those who were killed were dozens of individuals who had been detained on “trumped up charges of being accomplices or sympathisers of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA).”
The exact number of Tutsis from Bigogwe killed in the years before the 1994 killings is yet to be established. They were killed from various places and many of them were dumped in places still unknown.
Experimenting the Genocide
Eyewitnesses recounted to The New Times chilling tales of targeted killings against Tutsis particularly those in Bigogwe and described them as a precursor to the Genocide.
They say torture, abuse and murder of Tutsis became common place in the early 1990s when Tutsis started being labelled enemies of the state.
Anastase Kayisire, 47, a survivor and resident of Nyabihu District says he will live to remember the killings of Tutsis in Bigogwe.
Kayisire says that years before the Genocide, he was blacklisted and labelled an accomplice of the RPA by then leaders.
“I was tortured for a crime I never committed,” Kayisire says.
Kayisire says he witnessed dozens of Tutsis being dragged to their death and still remembers names of his colleagues who were killed around 1992.
“They were either taken to Mukamira military barracks or the former Nkuli Commune offices. We never saw them again,” Kayisire says.
“Others were taken to Nyaruhonga Cave where they were killed and dumped,” he adds.
Kayisire says the killers initially targetted intellectuals but later extended their terror machinery to the entire Tutsi population in what he describes as “an experiment of the Genocide plan.”
Anaclet Niyonsaba, another survivor living in the northern district of Musanze, also narrates how he saw Tutsis taken away on orders from the local military and political officials.
Niyonsaba says the killings were extensive in the former Kinigi, Mukingo, Nkuli and Kibirira communes, now Musanze and Nyabihu districts.
He recalls an incident around 1991 where 380 Tutsis were killed and their 550 houses burnt.
“It was horrific. Everyone feared for their lives,” Niyonsaba says.
Esther Kazuba, 83, who managed to flee to the neighbouring Uganda shortly after the 1992 Bagogwe killings, says Tutsis there lived under the shadow of death.
“We had nowhere to hide. There was no one to protect us as the ones supposed to do so were the same people hunting us,” Kazuba says.
In its 1992 annual world report, Human Rights Watch condemned the killings of ‘Bagogwe’ which it said were ethnically motivated. The report speaks of “over 300 civilians of a Tutsi sub-group known as the Bagogwe people” killed between January and March 1991.
As pressure mounted, the then government acknowledged that “a massacre of Tutsi civilians had occurred in the (Bigogwe) region”, according to the report.
But killings never stopped nor were those behind them prosecuted, it added.
The targeted killings continued until April 1994 when Genocide proper started, leading to the death of over a million people throughout the country in 100 days.