Bisesero: Survivors have moved on but French shame has not gone away

Fifty-year-old Louis Ruzindana is commonly known in Bisesero as Ludoviko, a name that has become popular in the area because revellers here have found at his newly-established bar a place to meet, drink and talk.
Mukagatare feeds their cow as her husband, Ruzindana, looks on. The two Genocide survivors have picked themselves up and moved on. (Eugene Kwibuka)
Mukagatare feeds their cow as her husband, Ruzindana, looks on. The two Genocide survivors have picked themselves up and moved on. (Eugene Kwibuka)

Fifty-year-old Louis Ruzindana is commonly known in Bisesero as Ludoviko, a name that has become popular in the area because revellers here have found at his newly-established bar a place to meet, drink and talk.

Twenty years after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, in which over a million Rwandans were killed, those who survived it have forged life out of their agony and live in the same villages with some of their former tormentors and killers of their lovd ones.

This is the story of Bisesero, a hilly lush farmland found in today’s Karongi District, Western Province, which is known for the successful resistance by the Tutsi in the area from attacks by Interahamwe militias during the Genocide, until coordinated efforts from the fleeing government of Génocidaires defeated them.

It was between May 13 and 14 in 1994 that a major attack was launched on the resistance hill of Muyira in Bisesero, leading to the death of more than 40,000 Tutsis.

It is in that particular attack that Ludoviko lost everything he loved most, including his wife Speciose Uwitonze who then had a seven-month pregnancy, and their first born Pascal Nshimiyimana.

“We were defeated and killed helplessly. The entire hills here were full of killers looking for us,” he said, pausing as if to reminisce those two days that survivors in Bisesero tend to describe as ‘doom in Bisesero’.

Twenty years later, Ludoviko displays both humility and surprise as he takes stock of what he has achieved since the end of the slaughter, such as marrying Félicité Mukagatare, a fellow Genocide survivor in the former Kibuye Province, with whom he has an 11-year old child who is in school in the capital Kigali.

Like his fellow survivors, Ludovic is humbled by the story of reconciliation in this country, saying that in the immediate aftermath of the Genocide, he could not fathom an idea of having to be able to live in the same community as those that attacked them.

“The current government did not allow revenge; I think that’s why we can live together today,” he said, pausing as if to make sure that he is well understood. “It’s just incredible that today we can share with our killers. Some of those who are our neighbours today would spend the entire day hunting for us but today we are together again”.

Ludoviko is specifically surprised that today he can peacefully walk in the main paths in Bisesero and major trading centres in the area, something that would have meant his death when the Genocide unfolded.

That surprise of feeling free and safe, twenty years later, is shared by Félicien Nzabamwita, another Genocide survivor from the resistance hill in Bisesero who is now 33 and married with two children.

“It was surprising that those who were our best friends were the ones who killed us and destroyed our property. It is also the most surprising thing today that we live together. I didn’t think it would happen again,” he said.

He added: “Trust is not 100% but you can see that we live together. We invite each other at events and it’s something no one could have imagined.”

French shame 

There are certain days in 1994 that Genocide survivors in Bisesero simply never forget; that attack of May 13 and 14 that undid their defence on Muyira hill, the first encounter of the attack’s few survivors with ‘white men’ on May 27 that they were later to identify as French soldiers, two days after that encounter with the French, and a third day when French soldiers came back.

After the attack of May 13 and 14 killed thousands of Tutsi refugees who had gathered on Muyira hill, those who survived ran everywhere in the hills around Muyira and hid in the bush.

On May 27, after nearly two weeks of hiding and dying one after the other depending on when the killers got their victims, the remainder of the survivors saw a convoy of cars that didn’t look like those that their killers used to drive.

One of the survivors, Eric Nzabihimana who is described as one of the few who spoke French, approached the “white men” and asked for their protection from the Interahamwe militia..

“That day they asked us why we carried traditional weapons and we told them that the Hutu were hunting us and killing us,” Ludoviko said.

His young brother called Munyandinda had just been shot dead and his bleeding corpse was shown to the French soldiers to prove that the Tutsi were in danger.

But the soldiers, part of a UN-mandated French contingent that constituted an exclusive French mission dubbed ‘Zone Turquoise’ that was hurriedly deployed in western Rwanda at the climax of the Genocide, chose to abandon the refugees by promising to come to their rescue three days later.

The survivors were later to regret their gathering at a hill called Gitwa to meet the French because killers had monitored the situation and lay in waiting. Indeed they attacked them immediately after the French convoy left.

“In the three days, a lot of attacks were conducted and many people died. I wish they (French soldiers) had arranged to protect us at the area where we had met them (Gitwa) on the 27th,” Ludoviko said.

While the two days after the French soldiers drove off remind the survivors just how many more people they lost at the hands of their killers and the French soldiers’ abandonment, the third day reminds them of their rescue.

It’s on the third day when the French soldiers came back and took the remainder of the very few Tutsi survivors in Bisesero either to Zaïre (Current Democratic Republic of Congo) with other Rwandans who were fleeing the advance of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) or to the latter’s camp for safety.

In Ludoviko’s case, the French soldiers delivered him to the RPA’s camp because that’s what he had begged them to do.

Nzabamwita was hastily flown in a helicopter to Goma, a Congolese city neighbouring Rwanda .

Though they were facilitated to their safety by French soldiers, Ludoviko and Nzabamwita as well as many other Genocide survivors in Bisesero say that the ‘white soldiers’ were facilitating Interahamwe to exterminate Tutsi..

They say their hasty transfer of the Tutsi refugees to safe areas was a result of international pressure as the world learnt more about the fate of Tutsi refugees hunted by the killers as well as the advance of the RPA soldiers.

“The French soldiers and their allies in the genocidal government had no option but to stop their violence and flee or face the tough fight from the RPA,” one of the survivors said.

That sense of panic as RPA advanced was witnessed by Ludoviko in Rwirambo area in Bisesero at a camp of internally displaced persons as he saw many of those who were his hunters and killers in the Genocide such as Interahamwe militia and ex-FAR flee to Zaïre along with French soldiers.

“They (Interahamwe militia and ex-FAR) were very angry and they would point fingers at us saying that they would come back soon and finish us off,” Ludoviko said.

Survivors’ testimonies estimate that 50,000 Tutsi who lived in Bisesero area were killed in the Genocide, while only 1,000 people from the region survived.

A report commissioned by the Government of Rwanda and conducted by an independent commission, the the Mucyo Commission, accused some members of the 1994 French government and military under former president François Mitterrand of complicity in the Genocide against Tutsis.

Without any attempt to answer the specific charges contained in Mucyo Commission’s report, some of the indicted officials, including former foreign minister Alain Juppe, rejected the accusations and described the report as an “unacceptable” attempt to rewrite history.


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