24 years later: A survivor’s harrowing account

Serge Rwigamba was 14 years old when the gruesome 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi started. He recalls the events that happened during that period and what led to it.

He says that years before the actual events of April 1994 started, he had personally experienced cases of discrimination.

“Throughout my primary education, there were instances where students were asked to stand up according to their ethnic group and I remember that this created a sense of worthlessness among Tutsi students. It was uncommon for all students to mingle because we were considered ‘foreigners’ and ‘different’ from them. This hurt us,” he says.

This went on throughout his primary level and when the RPA (Rwanda Patriotic Army) liberation struggle started, the persecutions intensified. They were called ‘cockroaches’ and ‘enemies of the country’. Rwigamba’s father was a member of the Liberal Party (PL).

“We weren’t welcome in schools and communities and each time the country passed through a political situation, it would get worse for me given that my father had joined an opposition political party that was considered very close to RPF because the majority of its members were Tutsi.

“My father was harassed in my presence, stopped on the streets, attacked. People would throw stones at our roof and these instances signaled the political tension that the country was experiencing,” he says.

During that time, some members of my father’s political party had joined RPF in the bush, and a few months later, Hutu militia and neighbours began shortlisting all the Tutsi in the neighbourhood.

“We were aware of what was going on and we saw about 600 RPA soldiers training near the parliamentary building. People were jubilating on the streets and this deepened the hatred by our Hutu neighbours.”

In January 1994, Rwigamba’s family went to Southern Province for his grandfather’s funeral who had lived in Butare, in the current Gisagara District. At that time, they had heard of the chaotic situation and killings going on upcountry and how people were being singled out and killed, although this did not prevent them from travelling to pay their respects.

“We heard news of such killings on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines but we had become accustomed to such news since the radio used to incite hatred through songs and slang. We did not realise how heavy the content was until it actually started happening,” he says.

His family returned to Kigali two days before the Genocide. Rwigamba considers the time he spent at his grandfather’s house a ‘goodbye’ for them because of the 60 relatives that lived in Southern Province, only seven survived.

“The Genocide began with mass shootings around Kigali. We were used to the shootings but on that day, they were very intense.  We came together as a family, and tried to gather information on what exactly was going on.

“We learned that Habyarimana’s plane had crashed and the radio was compelling everyone to stay in their house. I remember my parents crying and saying that we were all going to be wiped out but we didn’t quite understand what they were saying, until the next day when we were attacked by members of the parliamentary section.

“They forced their way into our house and ordered my parents to get on their knees and be ready for death. They stayed at our house negotiating who would kill them first but ended up agreeing to spare our lives in exchange for some tools to kill other Tutsi. They left the house promising to come back and kill us,” he recalls.

The next day, Rwigamba’s family left for their neighbour’s house who was a Tutsi. They stayed there for a few days, until they were surrounded by other neighbours who kept mentioning that Tutsi were hiding there and prepared an attack on them. They left after dark and hid in bushes till they got to St Paul training Centre where they stayed for a month.

“As time went by, many Tutsi came to the area and we stayed there for a while. We later learned that those who had stayed in their houses had been murdered.

“Fear took over us but we tried to stay brave, figuring out how we would fight back if the militia men attacked us.”

On April 27, they were attacked by the then Prefecture de la Ville de Kigali (PVK), prefet Tharcisse Renzaho, with Interahamwe who surrounded the camp and they had to surrender.

They picked out the people that they wanted to kill immediately and formed queues of women and children and forced them to move to St Famille Church which was close by. His father, elder brother and some elderly Tutsi men were left behind.

“We heard shooting; they were killed a few minutes after we left.

“The priest at St Famille was openly partnering with the killers and we feared for our lives. When we got there, the church was mixed with Hutu and Tutsi. The Hutu in that place, especially those who took part in the Genocide, feared war since RPF had captured Gisozi and other Kigali suburbs.

“Some of their relatives would visit them in the church with machetes dripping with blood. We were attacked several times in the church, and the killers would come with a list, take people out of the church and kill them. I heard my name, but they confused me with my elder brother and left me,” he recalls.

At the church, they were fed on porridge from stale flour. The Hutu were allowed to search for food and water while the Tutsi lived in unimaginable conditions without water or medication.

On June 18, the church attracted more killers because RPF had led an attack at St Paul and militia men were upset by their defeat, and so they resolved that they would come early in the morning and kill more than 200 Tutsi.

“They used young boys, less than 10 years old, to initiate the killings. They asked them to identify the Tutsi. The little boy had a knife and slipper. He only slapped me but stabbed a former schoolmate who was behind me. We were living in constant fear because we never knew if we would see the next day.”

On July 4, they woke up to the news that RPF had captured all areas of the city. The RPF soldiers were marching on the streets to mark the end of Genocide.

STARTING ANEW

Rwigamba survived, together with his mother, sister and some relatives. Their house had been burned down and they had to start from scratch. Rwigamba was able to go back to school and complete his degree in International Relations and has been working as head guide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre since 2008.

“Healing is a continuous process and that comes with time, and working here has given me hope for our country and that our lives and this country’s history will only get better with time,” he says.

Though his mother is still facing post traumatic disorder, the 38-year-old and his sister are both happily married.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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