MIBILIZI is perhaps known for the legendary mourning song of the same name that narrates the history of the cruel massacres of Tutsi in the area during the 1994 Genocide.
Composed by renowned singer Dieudonne Munyenshoza, it tells the story of how the “beautiful Mibilizi, which was populated by beautiful people who lived in beautiful nature” was demolished and reduced to ashes until there “only remained orphans, ruins and uninhabited places.”
The sad song, which earned its composer the moniker of the same name ‘Mibilizi’, portrays well the image of the place and how its population was decimated during the Genocide.
Testimonies indicate that when widespread killings started in April 1994, thousands of Tutsi fleeing violence in their neighbourhoods and hoping to get a safe haven fled to Mibilizi Catholic Church.
In the following days, the place was home to thousands of Tutsi who camped outside the church, spending their time praying and imploring God for protection.
But just days after their arrival, they started facing attacks from local militia who had vowed to exterminate them.
“For the many of us who had fled to the church with hopes that we would be safe, it had become clear that no place was safe,” says Jean Karuga, a Genocide survivor then aged 24.
“People then started looking into ways of mounting resistance against the killers, with hope that the massacres wouldn’t take long before ending. We started mounting night guards and whenever the militia would attempt to attack us we would repel them using stones,” Karuga recounts.
To be able to repel the Interahamwe attacks, the displaced people occupied strategic positions around the church and constantly kept a watch on any movement around.
Stronger individuals took turns to keep sentry at night, while women and children collected stones that were used to fight back the attackers.
The ‘resistance movement’ managed to drive back several attacks until militiamen adopted new strategies, according to survivors’ testimonies.
Calls were made to militia groups from other neighbouring areas, particularly those from Bugarama, Mururu and Kamembe, who arrived massively in the days that followed.
On April 18, 1994, a major attack was launched in which thousands of people perished.
The attack is said to have been coordinated by several local leaders working in close collaboration with gendarmes (equivalent to Police) and militia leaders.
Notorious among them was the then sous-prefet (deputy governor) Theodore Munyangabe, who survivors in the area accuse of having betrayed them.
Testimonies indicate that when Munyagabe arrived at the Mibilizi church, on the morning of the fateful day he was in company of dozens of militiamen.
“Upon their arrival, Munyangabe instructed us to move to the church’s backyard, promising that he would instruct the militiamen to spare us,” recalls survivor Jean Pierre Bizimana, 47, who was then a secondary school teacher at Groupe Scolaire Inganzo/Apemi Mibilizi.
“Some of us obliged, but others were cautious and started looking for possibilities to flee because they suspected that he [Munyangabe] would not keep his word.”
“At about the same time, militiamen and gendarmes took up positions on top of trees and around the backyard. They then started hurling grenades and spraying bullets into the crowd. Those who attempted to flee were picked by killers and then butchered in the church’s compound.”
Munyangabe is said to have been convicted for his role in the Genocide and is serving his sentence at Rusizi prison.
“The killings went on for the whole day and thousands were killed. Those who were lucky survived with deep wounds. Only a handful escaped unharmed,” Bizimana says.
After that attack, some of the survivors managed to flee the area and took refuge in other places. Some of them survived while others were met by killers who put an end to their lives.
However, a handful of others remained at the church. A few more, desperate and overwhelmed by scale of the violence, decided to stay or return at Mibilizi because they found that there was no escape route.
And as days went by, news that the surviving Tutsi were still living at the church caught the attention of militia groups, who organised another major attack against them.
To make sure that this time round the ‘mission’ was well accomplished, local militiamen called for reinforcement from the neighbouring Bugarama commune where the militia were then led by Yussuf Munyakazi, a fierce rich farmer and militia leader.
At the time of Genocide, Munyakazi was a wealthy rice farmer and landlord in Rusizi’s Bugarama area and a commander of the Interahamwe militia there.
His bunch of killers is particularly known to have been called for ‘help’ and to have intervened in areas where there seemed to be resistance against the killings or where Tutsi had managed to successfully stage resistance against local killers.
His group participated in the killings in Bugarama, Mibilizi, Shangi and the ‘far-west’ in Bisesero area, testimonies say.
Munyakazi was later convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his role in the Genocide, including for the Mibilizi massacres.
“It is as if God had abandoned us. We were in darkness and we always wondered where God was,” survivor Karuga says.
Today’s estimates indicate that those who perished at Mibilizi might be more than 10,000. More than 8,000 victims are buried in a memorial site that was constructed outside the church.
A statue of a militiaman holding a club ready to strike a hapless woman and her baby is erected at the entrace of the memorial centre, an everlasting reminder of the atrocities committed there.