WHEN ATHANASE MAZIMPAKA was still a child, his parents were forced to leave their home village in the then Gikongoro prefecture and found their way to Rukumbeli, in the eastern part of the country.
At the time, this region, which borders the current Bugesera District, was not inhabited and looked hostile to human settlement. Like Bugesera, it had only dense forests, gigantic savannah, wild animals and tse-tse flies.
In the early 1960s, hundreds of Tutsis were forced out of their home villages mainly in the southern and northern parts of the country. Many of their relatives were killed, their houses set alight and properties looted.
Escaping the intimidation, torture, persecution and murder, some of them found refuge in neighbouring countries, mainly Burundi and Uganda.
However, others were “exiled within the country.”
They were ‘replanted’ in an area with dense forests and populated by several species of wild animals in a zone that encompasses the current Bugesera District and Rukumbeli Sector in Ngoma District.
Mazimpaka’s parents were among those who found their way to Rukumbeli after spending months trying to find refuge in churches in Gikongoro, Butare and Gitarama prefectures.
Struggling to adapt
Mazimpaka, who was about three or four years old then, says he came to learn of his family’s fate as he grew up.
He says for the many Tutsis who were forcibly moved, life became a nightmare; it was starting a new life from scratch in inhumane conditions.
The 55-year-old says after arriving in the area, the Tutsi lived under makeshift circular all-grass-huts that were erected in the dense forest.
“Life was particularly complicated for elders and children. Many of them died,” Mazimpaka says. “In the beginning the government pretended to offer support by supplying a limited quantity of food but the assistance didn’t last for long. So people were left on their own. Many died of hunger and diseases.”
Alexis Habarugira, whose parents were in 1959 forcibly moved from Ruhengeri to Ntarama in Bugesera, narrates the events with sadness. Habarugira says they were settled in a camp in Nyamata and later given a small plot of land.
“Life was a struggle. It was not easy,” Habarugira says.
Moving on with life
Habarugira says in the years that followed their forced resettlement, Tutsis in the area continued to be victimised against and to endure years of persecution until the 1994 Genocide.
However, despite the harsh living conditions and lack of basic necessities such as water, schools, hospitals and roads, the ‘interior deportees’ progressively adapted to the area and started farming to improve their livelihoods.
“From a humble beginning, many eventually became established farmers and cattle keepers. Some even prospered and owned cars,” Habarugira says.
“People were resilient enough that they decided to take their fate into their hands and never let the troubles win over them.”
Citing his own example, Habarugira says although he was denied a chance to continue with education, he managed to acquire driving skills that helped him land a driving job in 1983.
“We were determined to live despite the discrimination and persecution we continuously endured. We never resigned to fate,” he says.
Around 1992, thousands of Tutsis were massacred in Bugesera and surrounding areas in what was later seen as an experiment of the Genocide that was later committed in 1994.
Apart from Bugesera, early killings were also carried out in Bigogwe, Kibilira and Gitarama, among other places.
Observers say these massacres by the then leaders were apparently testing the reaction of the international community before they would execute the genocide plan on a large scale.
“The massacres in Bugesera made it obvious that the genocidal government was preparing something horrible,” Laurent Nkongoli, a lawyer and human rights activist, told The New Times.
In 1992, large-scale killings were carried out in this area which was predominantly populated by Tutsi.
It is estimated that five out of every six Tutsi that lived in Bugesera area was killed in the Genocide. Remains of more than 65,000 Genocide victims are buried in the four memorial sites around the district.
In the neighbouring Rukumbuli area, only less than 750 Tutsis survived the Genocide out of the estimated more than 35000 Tutsi that lived in the area at the time.