JOSEPH NTAKIYIMANA has never returned to Kamembe in Rusizi District, his birth place which he fled as a child 20 years ago.
The 26-year-old has bad memories of the place he once called home, all emanating from the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. The student at Kicukiro College of Technology tells of a story how he survived being murdered by drowning in the hands of classmates with whom he attended kindergarten Gihundwe Catholic pre-primary school.
That fateful day, Ntakiyimana, then only five, sneaked out of his hiding place to drink water in the nearby Cyunyu stream where he found his classmates fetching water.
Little did he know that his fellow children had had their innocent minds “poisoned” with ethnic hatred.
“When I reached the well, I found a group of about ten neighbours with whom we used to go to school together. Instead of greeting me, they made an alarm. ‘You are Tutsi, we know you. Your father was killed… Tutsi, Tutsi…’ they kept shouting,” Ntakiyimana said.
Apparently, the children had been told that all their Tutsi neighbours, including Ntakiyimana’s father had been rounded up and murdered. However, the family was in hiding but had lost two sons.
“As I was still perplexed by the reaction of my friends, I was manhandled and thrown into the stream in an attempt to drown me.”
Ntakiyimana says that he survived being drowned when some older boys arrived amid the commotion and ordered his tormentors to set him free.
The family managed to reach Nyarushishi camp, where a UN contingent protected them until the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) Inkotanyi reached Rusizi and stopped the Genocide.
“My family asked to be relocated to Kigali because we had no hope of life amidst neighbours who killed my two brothers, uncles and cousins and also wanted my head,” he said. Ntakiyimana’s family has lived in Kigali since August 1994.
The family had property in Kigali but kept hope alive — all hope for survival pegged on the government that had rescued them from killers.
The first years were very hard. “We lived in a very small house that was abandoned by some fleeing people in Kimicanga, Gasabo district,” he recalls.
One year later, the owners returned, and Ntakiyimana’s family was forced to start paying rent from the little money his father was earned.
Ntakiyimana then joined primary school and in 2005, was admitted to senior secondary at Ecole Secondaire de Mukingi (ESEM) in Kamonyi, Southern Province.
It was while in ESEM that his classmates accompanied him to the Nkanka Genocide Memorial to pay his last respects to family members, relatives and neighbours who did not survive the Genocide. “They are resting in Nkanka parish in Rusizi district.”
Ntakiyimana’s story reveals the other ugly face of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi where the otherwise innocent minds of children were defiled as they were drawn into the evil they knew absolutely nothing about. It is akin to using child soldiers to fight battles whose cause and effect they are not aware off.
Ntakiyimana himself agrees that his classmates did not know what they were doing.
“The little ones most of the time chanted interahamwe songs and slogans against the Tutsi. Others made an alarm whenever they saw a Tutsi. I never witnessed children kill a person or carry arms, but I saw in my case that they had evil intentions.”
Ntakiyimana testified that children often notified their older brothers and parents whenever they saw a Tutsi hiding — making them accomplices in the Genocide.
Jean de Dieu Mucyo, the executive secretary of the National Commission Against the Genocide, said: “Children participated in Genocide. Their parents would kill the adults, and tell their children: ‘You deal with these little children of your age.’”
Mucyo, one of the officials who dealt with the aftermath of the Genocide in the government of unity and reconciliation in his capacity as justice minister, said that children aged below 14 could not be held liable for whatever actions in the Genocide. Older ones (14-18) were handed half the punishment whenever they were found guilty.
Different mechanisms were also put in place to rehabilitate children. For example, a rehabilitation centre was set up in Ntsinda, in Rwamagana district.
“Those children are now adults in their late 20s, and even early 30s,” said Mucyo.
Johnston Busingye, the Minister of Justice, said the participation of children in the Genocide, should not surprise anyone “because they were learning from their fathers.”
“Some of these kids would take seriously the instructions of their heinous advices of their fathers,” he said.
Busingye said the government is dealing with the Genocide ideology so as to detoxicate the minds of those people who were indoctrinated while still children.
“The policy paid off, and we can see that the youth are coming up with good initiatives of reconciliation which indicate that we have a future Rwanda that is free of Genocide ideology,” the minister said.
One such programmes is Youth Connekt, a platform to connect innovative young Rwandans to participate in the country’s economic transformation.