Gishwati, where Interahamwe militiamen set dogs on Tutsis

When Tutsis were being hunted and killed for no crime other than their ethnicity, thousands sought refuge in places they considered safer: churches, stadiums, public offices, schools, hospitals and even forests.
A settlement in Gishwati area. In 1994, militia groups enlisted the help of hounds to hunt down Tutsis hiding in the forest in this area. (Louisa Esther Glatthaar)
A settlement in Gishwati area. In 1994, militia groups enlisted the help of hounds to hunt down Tutsis hiding in the forest in this area. (Louisa Esther Glatthaar)

When Tutsis were being hunted and killed for no crime other than their ethnicity, thousands sought refuge in places they considered safer: churches, stadiums, public offices, schools, hospitals and even forests.

They hoped that the killings would end sooner or that the killers would not be zealous enough to keep running after them.

But is was all akin to a drowning man clutching at a straw as thousands of individuals continued to be killed across the country, an unknown number of Tutsis, mainly from the north-western district of Nyabihu and its surrounding areas, made their way to Gishwati Forest with hope that the tree wild would be a better sanctuary.

Their hopes were dashed when militia groups entered the forest to look for them.

The killers, who looked more than determined to kill each and every Tutsi, were armed mainly with traditional weapons such as machetes, clubs, arrows, spears, among others.

More crucial for their sordid zeal were a park of dogs that helped them to hunt for Tutsis as they swept through the dense forests, according to testimonies.

It was a bitter experience for the hiding Tutsis as the hounds easily sniffed them out.

Fleeing to Gishwati

Gishwati Forest is a protected reserve in the north-western part of Rwanda straddling Rubavu, Nyabihu and Rutsiro districts. 

Once a dense forest and the second-largest rain forest in Rwanda, Gishwati covered about 250,000 acres some decades ago, but its original size decreased significantly in the 1980s and 1990s due to  encroachment, deforestation, grazing and introduction of small-scale farming, among other human activities.

At the time of the Genocide, Tutsis around Gishwati regarded the dense forest as a safe shelter and a warranted hideout for them to evade the killers. 

How wrong, they were!

To-date, the number of Tutsis who fled to Gishwati during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi remains unknown, just like the number of those killed in the wilderness is yet to be established and might never be precisely known.

Although some bodies have been recovered and buried, many more are still missing and may never be found, survivors and leaders say.

Gaetan Senyanza, a 61-year-old survivor from the rural Mukamira Sector of Nyabihu District, was a farmer before 1994.

Senyanza says he used to herd his animals around the forest before the Genocide and when the killings started, he thought taking refuge inside Gishwati was the best option.

That was April 7, 1994, a day after the death of former president Juvenal Habyarimana.

“Widespread killings had already started across this area and we were very frightened. It was hard to move and everyone feared for their lives,” Senyanza recalls.

“When the news of the death of [president] Habyarimana started spreading, sporadic gunfire started in this area and militia groups went on a killing spree,” he said.

Senyanza then fled to Gishwati Forest.

“Once in the forest, I realised that there were dozens of other individuals who had taken refuge there,” he says. “Like me, everyone hoped the killers won’t chase us inside the forest. But we were wrong.”

Bodies eaten by dogs

Several other testimonies corroborate Senyanza’s account.

The aging Genocide survivor says he saw many Tutsis being hacked to death inside the forest.

“Many of them were found with the help of dogs that the killers had brought with them,” Senyanza says. “I saw so many dogs being used to hunt down Tutsis.”

Senyanza, who lost all his four children, a wife and around 60 other close relatives, describes his experience in Gishwati as “the worst ever” and that whenever he talks about it, he struggles to find words to describe his feelings.

From time to time, the old man stops talking for a while as he struggles to control his emotions and hold back tears.

“It was a bitter experience. It was terrible,” Senyanza says. “I saw so many dead bodies being eaten by dogs. Whenever I think about that, I feel tormented and my heart is filled with sorrow.”

Senyanza says he is yet to come to terms with the tragic, dreaded, inhumane and horrendous atrocities he witnessed as he hid under the dense Gishwati Forest.

“Whenever I think about the past in that forest, I get nightmares. Sometimes I see images of militia men hunting down people in the forest. It is hard to overcome that trauma,” Senyanza says.

 

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