For many who know the history of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the mention of Rukumberi evokes sad and heart-wrenching memories. It is one of the areas where Genocide was tried before it spread out in April 1994. Tutsi there were persecuted before and during the Genocide. Ex-FAR soldiers would, in broad daylight, take Tutsi to be killed, and many were arrested and jailed for no reason. ALSO READ: ‘Looking at my child, I saw the faces of the men who raped me’ - Genocide survivor Cécile Gahongayire knows this terrible history all too well because not many managed to survive the bloodbath in Rukumberi. Now a resident of Nyamata sector, Bugesera District, Gahongayire’s epic story of survival when the rest of Cyril Kayihura and her mother Antoinette Nyirabagenzi’s family, was almost wiped out, is one that affirms that human resilience has no limits. Born in 1980, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi happened when she was 14, residing in the former commune Sake, present-day Rukumberi sector in the Eastern Province. Before her family moved to Rukumberi, they lived in Bunyambiriri, Gikongoro, while her mother hailed from Bufunzu in the former Gikongoro prefecture. They moved to Rukumberi just like many Tutsi who were forced out of their land and properties in the aftermath of the so-called 1959 revolution. “Our parents told us they were moved there to die. It was a forest infested with tsetse flies. Despite being dumped in these semi-arid areas, Tutsi tried to make the most of life,” she says. By the time Gahongayire was born, everything seemed normal. ALSO READ: “When it rained, we knew we would make it to another day”- Genocide survivor Their parents had turned these areas into habitable places. Young and naïve, they did not know the details until she started school. One time, in class, in 1991, they asked Hutu students to stand up. Seeing that Hutus were many, she also stood up. A teacher known as Ezekiel pulled her by the navel and slammed her on the wall. “You are Tutsi. Never identify yourself as Hutu again!” the teacher yelled at her. For a 10-year-old, she was confused. She knew nothing about ethnicity. She thought she was a human being like anyone else. She went and inquired from her mother who sat her down and her siblings and explained to them what that meant and, also told them how Tutsi had been tormented since the 1950s. “She showed us a scar she sustained in 1963 during the early attacks on Tutsi communities. She was beaten with a club and dumped in River Rukarara with her three-day-old child on her back but luckily, they both survived,” she recalls. ALSO READ: ‘I was a baby gasping for life among corpses’: A chilling tale of a Genocide survivor It is then that her mother told them that the Hutu were going after the Tutsi with the aim of exterminating them. Early killings It didn’t take long. In 1992, she started to notice the developments as Tutsi were increasingly harassed and persecuted. Many in Rukumberi were killed as signs of genocide started to manifest early on. “At the time, RPF Inkotanyi had attacked from the east. Tutsi were persecuted more, on accusations of conspiring with Inkotanyi. I remember many people were killed, including my uncles,” Gahongayire says. With time, the attacks intensified and they fled to a nearby church for safety. Rukumberi is one of the areas where the Genocide was experimented. “These were people we lived with who turned against us. I remember one Mutabaruka, he was the Bourgmestre (mayor), telling us that we should go back to our homes because peace had returned.” However, peace literally never returned. Her family was often harassed and taunted, especially because they lived with their mother—the father was working from Gikongoro (currently Nyamagabe District) at the time. Her father, and elder sister who was studying in Butare, would struggle to travel to and from where they lived—they often checked them at roadblocks and accused them of being saboteurs. ALSO READ: VIDEO: A survivor’s recollection of the Genocide at the age of six They lived that kind of life until April 7, 1994, when the Genocide against the Tutsi broke out. Her father, who was on duty, knew that something very horrible was going to happen after the announcement that the plane carrying former President Juvenal Habyarimana had been shot down. He told them that he was coming home but he never made it. Massacres start At the time, they all retreated back home and went into hiding. That same evening of April 7, news came in that the accountant of the commune, known as Francois Gombaniro, had been killed with his entire family. “Between his home and ours, there was a distance of one kilometre. Fear gripped the area. Remember it was inhabited by Tutsi mostly and the danger was lurking. Men told women and children to seek refuge in a safer place. “We moved to a place called Ntovi and sheltered in a chapel. There were brothers known as Karangwa and Mwambutsa. We stayed there and prayed till late,” she says. ALSO READ: Interahamwe had ‘experts’ in killing babies – Genocide survivor Late in the evening, children were hungry and they decided to go back home. They stopped at her uncle Kanobana’s house but just as they got there, a truck with Interahamwe, guided by local leaders, arrived. “They said they were starting with prominent and rich Tutsi who they suspected of being in touch with Inkotanyi.” Scared, the young ones attempted to run away as the militia and local leaders ransacked the home. Her uncle’s wife was hacked with a machete several times. After the Interahamwe left with what they had looted, Gahongayire returned home and found her uncle’s wife in critical condition. She was moved to a nearby home. The rest of the people convened in a nearby ADEPR Rwintashya church for safety. The next day when the militia returned to the neighbourhood, they found one man who was known as Ntanganda, who refused to flee, along with another woman called Elizabeth. They killed them in the most demeaning manner. Meanwhile, the attacks were intensifying in the surrounding areas of Mabuga and Rubago. On April 8, her uncle’s wife succumbed to her injuries. On April 9, the ADEPR church was now filled up with people seeking refuge. Gahongayire and other people were turned away and they went to hide in bushes. However, six of her family members were in that church including her mother, siblings, and their house help. Later that evening, one of the ministers, identified as Jean-Paul Birindabagabo, and another pastor known as Yolamba, led them in prayer, and later Birindabagabo asked the Hutu to go and leave Tutsi behind. As soon as they left, men with machetes attacked the church and started hacking people and hurling grenades inside, led by a man called Jean-Paul Birindabagabo, who was a member of that church. Nearly all the people in the church were killed. Gahongayire, who was hiding in the nearby bush, ran for her life, with no particular direction. “We would just run in no direction. Sometimes you would find yourself in the same place you were before. I had never seen a person kill another but here I was running over bodies. “These are people we lived with, shared whatever we had, and gave them milk. It was all too confusing how people you know can turn against you,” says an emotional Gahongayire. With her closest family members killed by April 9, she managed to run back home only to find that her aunt, who was their neighbour, had been killed—burnt alive in the house with her new-born baby. She ran to another home she knew, of a Hutu—hoping to find safety but, on the way, she found one of her cousins Uwayezu, lying helplessly on the road, breathing her last. “She was thrown into a pit, with only her torso on the surface, the rest of her body buried under stones. She begged me to pull her out and give her water but I was also running for my life,” she recalls, adding that she was killed in the most sadistic way. It was mayhem. Attacks were everywhere. Her family was gone in the first days and her father who was in Gikongoro never returned home. He was killed there. “There was this bush we used to go to for cassava. It was now a shrub. I went and hid there. It was a jungle, literally, there were wild animals in the area. “It was heavily raining those days. I stayed there until ants covered my body,” she says. Ready to die Desperate, lonely, and empty, 14-year-old Gahongayire decided to go back to her village. When she got there, everything had been ransacked, houses torched, and properties stolen. “I was ready to die. I was determined to meet the killers and also die just like everyone else I knew. I was numb and not scared by death,” she says. However, after seeing all the bodies, she ran back into the bush to hide and while there, she thought of taking herself to the house of one of their Hutu neighbours and begged him to kill her. “I went and found him in a cassava garden. I was carrying my small red New Testament bible. I said to him ‘Mudage, kill me, I want to die. Can you do it real quick, please?!’ He had a machete. “He was shocked. He asked me why I would want to die, having survived all those days. He said he wouldn’t be the one to kill me. He talked about my mother and siblings, that when they came to pick up the bodies from the church, they found some of them breathing under the bodies, including my mother,” she recounts. It is Mudage who told her that her mother and a few others were found breathing and taken to a nearby hospital but a group of Interahamwe went there and forced doctors to hand them over. They were thrown in a pit and buried alive. There was a man who had lived with her mother back in Gikongoro, known as Jean Munyamahame, whose father had thrown Gahongayire’s mother in River Rukarara. He knew Gahongayire’s family and had moved to Rukumberi as a labourer. When the Genocide began, he was among those who attacked Gahongayire’s family first. He was one of the most brutal Interahamwe in the area, nicknamed ‘Sebishangara’ because he was always wearing dry banana leaves. Sebishangara later admitted to the killings during the trials. Mudage told Gahongayire to remain in his house, which he had abandoned due to the stench of decomposing bodies. However, one evening, an attack targeted the house. A member of Interahamwe called Mudage and asked him to open as they suspected he was hiding ‘Inyenzi’. They forced him to tell whoever was hiding in a locked room to open it. Gahongayire opened. They started beating her immediately. A scuffle ensued but Mudage stood firm and said that though she was Tutsi, they shouldn’t kill her, instead they should keep her tell the story of how her family of ‘traitors’ was killed. It was at this point that they agreed to wait for one Andre Bizimana, a top Interahamwe in the area, to come and decide her fate. When Bizimana did not show up, they agreed to leave some men on guard and Mudage offered them money to buy alcohol. Then after, they decided to take her with them as they attacked communities. The days that followed were more painful as Gahongayire was marched from one place to another, in the company of Interahamwe, who tossed her around. Every now and then, one of the militia would suggest that they kill her but Mudage and surprisingly Bizimana, kept postponing her death, one of them even suggested that since her entire family was killed, she could be used as a domestic servant. Around May 1, news started circulating that the Inkotanyi were approaching and they were capturing parts of the country, and rescuing people. Interahamwe got angry and panicked. They intensified the attacks. “They rounded us up and told us that your ‘brothers’ are coming, you traitors! They took us to River Akagera, our arms bound together. “Mudage tried to appeal on my behalf but other Interahamwe were not having any of it. They said I had to die. He even asked the wife to say that I am her young sister but his wife was more brutal. “She shouted at the top of her voice that ‘I don’t have a Tutsi sister’. When we got to the river, they started throwing in people. I was waiting for my turn when a soldier showed up,” Gahongayire says. The soldier told the militia that instead of wasting time killing women and girls, they should be on the frontline fighting the enemy who was approaching. That is how she survived. In the meantime, the killers were talking amongst themselves about how they would escape to Zaïre (Democratic Republic of Congo today) as Inkotanyi got closer. At this point, they were moving towards the southern part of Rwanda, via Gashora, Bugesera, towards Tabarari. All this time she was being used to carry heavy luggage on top of a baby on her back. They camped at Tabarari in a swamp for a while, where she continued to labour. While there, they heard that peace had returned in Rukumberi—Inkotanyi had liberated the area. She started strategising how to escape the huge group of Interahamwe and their families. Gahongayire plotted with one Hutu woman to head back to Rukumberi. She offered to carry her child. As they tried to escape, the met Mudage’s wife, who accused Gahongayire of trying to put them in trouble by revealing their whereabouts to Inkotanyi who were fast approaching. “I was immediately struck with a machete on the shoulder. I was bleeding when they forced us back. When we got to the swamp, others who now knew me asked why they had hacked me. “Mudage’s wife explained that I wanted to escape. They said I shouldn’t be killed, after all, I lost everyone and soon, they can turn me into their wife.” Gahongayire stayed in the swamp, but luckily, the other woman she wanted to escape with made it to Rukumberi. She met RPF Inkotanyi fighters and told them that as they advance, they should try to rescue Kayihura’s daughter who was being held captive by Interahamwe. As the RPF Inkotanyi pushed ahead, the Interahamwe started fleeing and they left behind Gahongayire and others, but even after the country was liberated, she stayed in the swamp till late August when she was rescued by RPF fighters. She was taken back to Rukumberi to find few of her relatives that survived and she started getting treatment for the wounds and trauma. “I am thankful to Mudage. I later met him and thanked him. He was not jailed or accused of any killings,” she says. Life after the Genocide “It took me a while to recover. As I said, I stayed in the swamp for so long and my body was really damaged. All this affected me. I was always sick, I still live with the injuries and scars today,” Gahongayire says. In 1995, she re-joined primary school and in 2001 she completed her secondary education. “With all that, I excelled in school. I realised that previously we had been denied the right to education,” she recalls. After high school, she got a job right away, as the coordinator of the Genocide Survivors Welfare Fund (FARG) in Kanombe, Kicukiro District, where she helped to identify survivors and later joined the local government. Later, she joined the university to pursue a degree in Sociology, and in 2012 she got her Masters in Development Studies. Having served in local government for a while, she decided to go private. Today, Gahongayire is a successful businesswoman in Bugesera District.