A survivor’s tale of 15 days in a cypress tree

He was 16 and lived in what is today Mukarange Sector, Kayonza District when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi happened.
Author Eric Irivuzumugabe. (Courtesy)
Author Eric Irivuzumugabe. (Courtesy)

He was 16 and lived in what is today Mukarange Sector, Kayonza District when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi happened.

As his family fled in disarray in an attempt to evade the killers who combed villagers for their victims, Eric Irivuzumugabe lost contact with his parents and three sisters.

As the killings went on, Irivuzumugabe and two brothers traversed bushes, hills and valleys in search of safety until they came across a leafy cypress tree that become their home for 15 days and nights.

“You had to brave nightly mosquito bites and risk falling off because maintaining balance on a tree for many days was extremely exhausting,” he says. 

Occasionally, they climbed down late in the night to catch comfortable few hours of sleep, before climbing back; and fed mainly on rain water trapped in leaves. More than once, they sneaked into a nearby garden to eat some raw cassava but this caused them terribe nausea and they gave it up. 

“Several times the search by our assailants would extend even under this tree, but thanks to the tree’s huge foliage, they were not able to detect our presence.” 

The three brothers held on until the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) liberated the area. This time they were physically weak and heavily emaciated. They never heard from their parents and sisters again.

Amidst the desperation, trauma, poverty and poor health Irivuzumugabe, now 36, still managed to find his way to Kigali, leaving his two young brothers with a surviving uncle. He settled in Nyamirambo where he worked as a casual labourer. His siblings were later to join him.

With the meager earnings from the employment, he managed to get his siblings back to school. He also enrolled for a three-year engineering course at a now defunct vocational institute in Gikondo, a Kigali city outskirt.

He failed to get a job in line with his field after graduation, and worked as a chauffeur for the next 10 years, since he had acquired a driver’s license.

In 2005 he started small initiative called Humura Ministries, aiming to reach out to genocide orphans. “My aim was to offer some solace to these orphans — having grown up as one myself. I shared the little food and money I had with them, till more donors came on board and the initiative grew bigger.”

Memoir on Genocide Irivuzumugabe, now a married man with two children, had his real turning point come in the same year when he met one Joie Pirkey, the founder of Shouts of Joy Ministries, a Christian charity, based in Wisconsin, USA. Pirkey was on her first visit to Kigali in 2005. 

He shared with her his intentions to write a book and Pirkey linked him with American publishing company, Baker Publishers who gave him a go- ahead to write the book. With their guidance, the book was written and published.

The publishers met the $70,000 cost of publishing.

The memoir, My Father, Maker of the Trees, is a 215-page book that chronicles how Irivuzumugabe survived the Genocide.

It took him about two years to write the book that was published in 2009 and first launched in 2010 in Michigan, U.S.A.  My Father, Maker of the Trees, was launched in Rwanda last Sunday, May 18.

Inspiration     

According to the author, not only did he want to preserve his account of the Genocide, but also make a global impact.

“Writing did not only give me an opportunity to tell my account, but also helped with mental release — an important step in the healing process,” he noted.

Also, having lost over 70 relatives from the maternal and paternal side to the Genocide, he felt writing about it was the only way to pay tribute to the departed.

Irivuzumugabe notes that writing the proposal for the book was expensive, as it cost over $4,000 — which was a lot of money for him then.

Then the process of writing the book also brought back ugly memories of the Genocide that traumatized him many times.

He says readership of his book is currently small because the reading culture is still generally low countrywide, but says they are hoping to start a literacy consultancy , which among other things will help promote reading and authorship.  Plans are also underway to translate the book into Kinyarwanda, to cater for local masses too. 

Irivuzumugabe remarks that he is planning to start work on the second episode of this book, which will look at the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the hope and transformation that followed. This will be written in Kinyarwanda.

He reveals that he likes reading, especially Christian motivation books.

His books can be found at Ikirezi Bookshop Kacyiru, and his office, located near St. Famille Church Kigali, at Rwf 15,000.

His brothers are all educated, one with a certificate and another with a university degree.

 

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