WHEN SHE WAS about six years old, Josephine Murebwayire started experiencing the bitter and harsh thorns of divisionism and discrimination.
That was in the early 1960s when her parents were forced to flee their home village after targeted attacks against the Tutsi in many parts of the country.
A year before then, hundreds of Tutsi were forced to flee the country, houses set ablaze and their property looted. The incidents, though, had continued with sporadic cases across the country. Many Tutsi were killed in the attacks.
Murebwayire’s parents fled to Nyamata in Bugesera, in the eastern part of the country, while she remained with her grandfather in the current Kamonyi District, south of the country. She joined her parents two years later.
But she says their reunion was short-lived as her parents were again forced to flee after persecution and targeted attacks intensified.
In 1963, as she fled Nyamata together with her parents and other Tutsi en route to the neighbouring Burundi, Murebwayire was ‘lost’ within the dense papyrus swamps of Bugesera.
Ironically, those who rescued the little Murebwayire happened to be those who wanted her parents dead.
Murebwayire, now aged 60, recalls how one of the men took her to his home.
“He enrolled me to a school but yet continued to torture me morally,” he says. “I had become an attraction, like the mountain gorillas. Time and again, I was traded, paraded and shown in meetings. People used to say about me, ‘come and look at an Inkotanyi child’ as if I was not human like them.”
“They used to say that the day my parents will be captured I will be killed along with them,” she recalls, though she says she is grateful to the man who raised her.
“Although I experienced moral persecution at his hands, he gave me food and enrolled me in school. I am thankful for that,” she says.
In 1971, while a secondary school student, Murebwayire coincidentally met some of his close relatives, including his uncle. Though she wished to join them, she says it was a tricky move as his ‘adoptive parents controlled all my movements.”
“I was like their prisoner. They controlled every move, everything I did,” she says.
They opposed her decision to join her uncle, she says. After she defied their will and joined her uncle, Murebwayire said her captors [she calls them adoptive parents] launched an administrative procedure accusing her uncle of ‘stealing’ her. The case failed.
In 1973, Hutu students at her Rukoma school accused their Tutsi colleagues of poisoning them and started attacking them. Murebwayire and other student fled.
“The accusations were politically motivated. I don’t know even where they originated. We were forced to flee. That was my last time at school. I couldn’t complete my studies,” she reminisces.
The following year, Murebwayire married ‘a loving man’ and together they had six children–three girls and three boys.
In the early 1990s, shortly after the Rwanda Patriotic Front launched the war to liberate the country, Murebwayire says she was arrested alongside her husband over accusations of sympathising with Inkotanyi (RPF).
She was released later while her husband remained behind the bars for six months.
“That is when I started tasting what a life without a husband might look like,” she says. “It was like an internship.”
On the morning of April 7, 1994, a day after the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana, soldiers and Interahamwe militia attacked Murebwayire’s house.
“They told us to hand over to them the RPA troops we were hiding. We told them that we didn’t have any and that we have no links with Inkotanyi. They went inside our house, took some property and said a group of militia would come to kill us.”
Murebwayire and family had to flee Masoro to Ndera, a few kilometres away. On arrival, they found hundreds of Tutsi amassed in the area.
They took refuge at Ndera minor seminary alongside an estimated 400 other fleeing Tutsi. Another group found shelter at Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital.
They enjoyed relative security for about two to three days before soldiers teamed up with Interahamwe and launched a mega-attack on them. It was April 11.
21 days in a pit latrine
“Almost everyone was killed in that attack,” she says. “I was hit with machetes several times and left for dead. When I regained consciousness later that day, I was alone, lying among many corpses,” she recalls.
Murebwayire’s six children, her husband and a number of relatives are among those who were murdered in cold blood in Ndera.
She spent the next three weeks hiding in students’ toilets.
“I had no food, no water. It’s by God’s grace that I didn’t die,” she says, noting that she only accessed water on the fifth day, thanks to a student she knew who had also survived the killings.
“Imagine spending five days, bleeding, with deep wounds, without any food or water and yet you survive. I always say that it is only God who did it.”
On April 29, while she was hidden in a pit-latrine, a militiaman entered to respond to the nature’s call.
“He carried a club and blood-soaked machete,” she recalled. “I knew I was going to die. But to my surprise, the man suddenly ran back and yelled to his fellow killers that they should run. He yelled, ‘Inkotanyi ziratumaze’ (the RPF have arrived). And, within minutes, the militiamen had scampered away.”
“When I say that I saw God’s hand, I have reasons. I met with Him [God] during the Genocide,” Murebwayire says, shedding tears.
On May 1, 1994, RPA liberators arrived in Ndera and took Murebwayire to safety.
Today, 20 years down the road, Murebwayire says she is proud of how the country has taken a ‘new, promising and constructive journey toward peace, unity and prosperity’.
“Today we are talking about peace and light,” she says. “There is no more darkness, no more discrimination, and no more killings.”
“After I survived the Genocide, I knew I was not surviving without a reason. I survived to talk about what happened, to contribute to building a better nation. I survived to help others,” she says with confidence and a sense of pride.