News of the fall of Kigali to forces of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF Inkotanyi), on July 4, 1994, found John Gapfizi at his rebel base in Byumba.
Gapfizi, who joined the RPF one month after the launch of the struggle on October 1, 1990, worked as a radio communication technician—a position he held until he retired from the military in 2002 at the rank of Captain to pursue a career in business.
Like many exiled Rwandans at that time, Gapfizi joined the liberation movement because of a burning desire to return to his home country—to a country free from all forms of discrimination.
That is why, after playing his role in the liberation war and later serving his country in the military for eight years, he retired at the age 54 to launch another ‘struggle’—economic liberation.
Upon retirement, the father of six joined two colleagues discussed how they could work and earn a living after their military service.
Today, Gapfizi, 64, is the proprietor of Vision Appropriate Technology (VATE), a garage and artisanal company in Kanombe, Kicukiro District.
VATE opened to business in 2007 and the company operates a garage and a metal fabrication section that makes tools and equipment such as wheelbarrows, brick-making machines, playground installations and cooking pots, among others.
Apart from individual buyers, the company also gets various tenders to supply products to public and private institutions.
Using income made from the business, Gapfizi and his colleagues have managed to build their dream homes in Kigali and acquire other properties most people can only dream about.
“We are not investing in many parallel projects since we are still on a learning process. We are now dreaming about making an irrigation machine,” he said. The company, he says, makes about Rwf 5m per month.
When the RPF struggle to liberate the country started, Gapfizi was a technician in a mining company in Uganda where he had worked for 13 years.
“I was not struggling to find food, clothes or school fees for my family. However, whether employed or not, all Rwandans in exile always felt unhappy about not having a right to live in their country.”
As a technician, Gapfizi was entrusted with a task that he knew best during the war. He was part of a team that handled the RPF radio system, an indispensable service that facilitated the fighters to coordinate their movements.
This meant that he often moved with combatants to the war front. As a result, he too experienced the same challenges like all other frontline fighters.
“The cold in the bamboo forest was one of the worst experiences I ever had in life,” he said.
At first, Gapfizi said, theirs was not a conventional fight, but ambushes which he believes were always successful because they were led by very knowledgeable commanders.
Later on, they faced the Force Armés Rwandaises (Ex-FAR), in a several conventional fights. He defined a conventional fight as one in which you confront your enemy, from a well known frontline.
After the fall of the old regime, Gapfizi moved from Byumba, where his family had already joined him, to Kigali in the same radio communication service of the army. He embarked of setting up his family for a new life.
RPF fighters were not earning any salary since 1990 and Gapfizi said, he first earned a salary in August, 1994. What kept all fighters happy was the desire to be home, at the earliest opportunity.
“We were not interested about salaries. We were just happy being home. Even then, no one lacked basic needs because we used to share everything.”
The veteran said that at first repatriation was challenging, because the environment was full of landmines and citizens were advised to desist from walking on unclear roads, and the children not to play with any object they were not familiar with.