THE NIGHT OF APRIL 6, 1994 was nothing like others. That night, Johnson Mutibagirana, then a pupil, recalls listening to a radio communication banning public gathering.
The only public gatherings allowed were those of the regime supporters and the Interahamwe militia they had helped train.
The news of the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana had started filtering and the next morning, killings of Tutsis were being committed throughout the country.
Mutibagirana was at the time just nine years old. His family lived in Nyakabanda suburb of Kigali, just down the road from Nyamirambo regional stadium.
“You could hear gunshots and high-pitched whistles from everywhere. The state of affairs had taken a dramatic twist. Militiamen and soldiers were everywhere. They were so many,” he says.
Around April 11, Mutibagirana’s mother and aunt were killed. His father and other family members were also killed.
He lived in fear knowing he had a borrowed time on earth. But while he was still fighting with the thoughts, his ears caught on what sounded as good news: there were reports that there was at least one place that remained safe. That place was no other than the Gisimba Orphanage.
The Gisimba Orphanage, which operated in a modest building, had been set up during the 1980s by the Gisimba family, who opened the doors of their home to dozens of vulnerable children.
At a time when ethnic divisions had been escalated by discriminatory and divisive government policies, the orphanage remained ‘watertight’ taking in children of all background without any discrimination.
That legacy was as well maintained when massacres of Tutsis were being committed at a large scale in April 1994.
After the murder of his mother and relatives, Mutibagirana made his way to the orphanage with his cousin, aged five, and a 13-year-old aunt. Gisimba took them all in.
“On arrival, we were received with a welcoming heart,” he recalls.
No easy life
At the time, hundreds of residents had taken refuge at the orphanage, although children remained the majority.
“Water was scarce, there wasn’t enough food. The little available was reserved for children while older persons rarely ate,” Mutibagirana recalls. “We spent days and weeks without washing because there wasn’t enough water.”
“Life was not easy. The orphanage was struggling to cope with so many individuals and it was really challenging to feed all of them.”
Damas Gisimba Mutezintare, 53, was the man who ran the centre at the time of the Genocide. He remembers how so many people came to him seeking shelter.
“I had no choice. I couldn’t refuse to help those who were running to us,” Gisimba says. “I used to tell them that they should not despair, that they should not be afraid.”
But things worsened when the Interahamwe militia started launching attacks on the orphanage. Mutezintare himself became a target of the killers for protecting the “unwanted.”
“RTLM [Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines] was broadcasting messages saying I was sheltering the Tutsi. They openly encouraged militia to come to the orphanage and pick the Tutsi. So they came,” he says.
One time, Gisimba says, he watched helplessly as Interahamwe militiamen took Tutsis he had hidden in the ceiling. He pleaded with the killers to leave them but they refused.
“They killed them in front of the orphanage,” he says.
An American expatriate, Carl Wilkens, later joined the Gisimba family in their efforts to protect those who were being hunted down and killed. Wilkens is said to be the only American to stay in Rwanda throughout the Genocide.
He is said to have tried to contact the then authorities and international actors pleading with them to guarantee the security of those who had taken refuge at the orphanage though many times his words fell on ‘deaf’ ears.
Father and son
Later, a decision was taken to kill both Gisimba Mutezintare and his brother before slaughtering all the people he sheltered. Realising that his life was in danger, he fled to St Michel Church where he lived until the Rwanda Patriotic Army took control of Kigali.
His brother, Jean Francois, remained in charge of the orphanage.
Wilkins is said to have played a key role in preventing the killings.
Survivor Mutibagirana still remembers that one day, Mutezintare, whom they considered their protector, was nowhere to be found.
“We didn’t know what happened to him. We didn’t know where he had gone,” Mutibagirana says.
Mutibagirana and his relatives spent about three weeks at the orphanage before seeking refuge at the St Michel Church.
“Once we got there, we saw him [Mutezintare]. That is when we learnt he was still alive. We were so relieved to find him alive,” the law graduate says of the man he calls ‘my father’.
Even after the Genocide, Mutibagirana was among those who were supported by the Gisimba orphanage. Today, he holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Independent University of Kigali.
“I am always grateful for what he did for me and others,” he says.
On his part, Mutezintare fondly calls Mutibagirana ‘my son’ whenever he refers to him–and of course the many more individuals who survived by taking refuge at the orphanage he ran.
Indeed Mutibagirana was not the only Tutsi who was saved from the machete-wielding militiamen; more than 400 lives were saved at the Gisimba Orphanage.