From despair to hope: Grandmother’s joy after family is evacuated from‘death trap’

Euphrasie Mukankuranga speaks to The New Times from her abandoned home in Karama Village in Kimisagara Sector, Nyarugenge District earlier this week. She now lives in a rental in Kabusunzu Village not far from her wobbly house in Karama. Craish Bahizi

It is 11a.m. A grandmother is standing in the doorway wearing a broad smile. Euphrasie Mukankuranga is aged 60. She tells us she is a mother of four and has two grandchildren – both with her when we visited on Wednesday, January 8. She lives in Kabusunzu Village, Kimisagara Sector in Nyarugenge District.

“You are welcome,” she beams, ushering us into a two-bedroom house. “This is my new home.”

Mukankuranga’s is one of the 6,000 households evacuated from high-risk zones in Kigali, including protected wetlands and bare steep hills in December last year after warnings of heavy rains.

The meteorology agency had warned the public of heavy downpours and associated disasters such as floods and landslides, urging greater caution.

The Rwanda Meteorology Agency has always issued weather warnings but this time round authorities took severe forecasts more seriously.

Figures from the Ministry of Emergency Management indicated that rain-induced disasters had killed at least 70 people across the country between January and October 2019. Up to 177 others sustained injuries while 267 domestic animals perished.

Residents in high-risk zones had long been identified and wobbly houses marked.

“We all met at the district office in July 2018 and were asked to evacuate because of imminent heavy rains,” Mukankuranga tells us. Some, especially those with means, obliged and moved out of harm’s way. Others stayed put. Most of them because they were poor and unable to find new homes.

“I had no choice and resorted to prayer,” she says. “We were worried but what could we have done? I had no capacity to move to a safer place.”

Mukankuranga was a resident of Karama Village in Kimisagara Sector, not far from her current abode.

In the months that followed, grassroots officials kept visiting and urging them to relocate, later informing those who remained that if they were unable to shift the Government will temporarily relocate them to schools for their safety.

During one of those visits in December they told us that our family will be moved to Ecole Primaire Kamuhoza in that same week, Mukankuranga tells us.

On the eve of their evacuation, she recalls, “We met at the office of our village and were informed that we’d be moving to Kamuhoza (school) the next morning”.

Together, they were 15 households.

“Some didn’t like the idea but I personally felt relieved,” she says.

She had reason to be worried. Her house had been damaged when a wall of another house collapsed during rain in 2018.

“The back wall of my house had collapsed when a wall of the house above us came crashing down,” she recalls. The house remained unfixed.

The next day, she recalls, “We woke up early and started packing up and, by midday, we had already settled in one of the classrooms.”

Their house was seated on a hilltop just below the forest section of Mount Kigali, while the school is roughly one and a half kilometres down the hill.

Each of the 15 household moved into a classroom. Their abandoned homes were not razed down when The New Times visited the area it found several of them in sorry state and uninhabitable.

At the school, authorities gave them traditional mats, soap, lotion, and other small household necessities, she said.

They stayed at the school for about two weeks, she said.

One Christmas Day, Kigali experienced one of the heaviest rains in recorded history. At least four people died in the capital alone, while a dozen lost their lives across the country.

Living in a death trap’

“After the Christmas rain we went to check on our house and found it submerged,” she says. “We looked at each in shock and wondered what could have happened to us had the Government not come to our rescue.”

“We were living in a death trap,” she says.

This was the first time they were seeing this. “We always knew that we were in trouble especially after our house was damaged in 2018 but never before had we seen the kind of wrecks we saw after the Christmas rain.”

In the days that followed Christmas Day, officials assessed the 14 homes and decided which ones were still fit for residence and which ones were not.

“They came and told us that some of us were not going to be allowed to return to our homes and would instead be facilitated to find temporary shelter elsewhere,” says the grandmother.

By New Year’s Day, she says, “we had all left the school, some back to their homes, and others, like us, to rentals.”

“We were asked to go out and look for a place for rent and government would pay for us for three months,” she says, adding that it took them three days to find the two-bedroom house, not far from her own, abandoned home.

Asked about the future since she will be required to raise her own rent effective April, she says, “My dream is that I get a new house at Karama (where her ruined house stands) because that’s the place I have called home since 1997. In the meantime, my son (a driver) will pick up from where the Government has left off with rent.”

New year, new hope

“We are so grateful and hopeful for the future, a far cry from the situation we were in two months ago.”

“They have carried out their duties and God shall bless them for that,” she said in reference to the Government.

An official at the City of Kigali told this newspaper yesterday that discussions were underway to determine what form of extended support can be provided to such families.

“There is a proposal to add them rent for another three months and possibly consider them for new houses under the Integrated Model Village scheme,” an official at City Hall said on condition of anonymity because nothing conclusive has been decided yet.

Critics have slammed the government for relocating people from their dwellings to nowhere in particular, in the form of alternative decent housing of their own. But the government has dismissed this argument saying it has the responsibility to move people out of harm’s way and were facilitating those affected in their transition back to leading normal lives, including helping them with rent.

Mukankuranga shrugged when asked about the criticism government has received in the process.

“Safety is what matters first, you can live anywhere, peacefully, as long as you feel safe, but you can’t live peacefully if you are not safe,” said the 60-year-old, in an apparent reference to the fear that always gripped her family back in Karama whenever it rained.

Government says it will continue to construct houses for citizens in or relocated from high-risk zones, with Augustin Kampayana, Director General of Rwanda Housing Authority (RHA) telling this newspaper on Thursday that more than 980 households in that category received new housing units last year alone. 

Relocating needy citizens from high-risk zones to safer places is part of a broader government housing effort that also includes building homes for homeless citizens and resettling vulnerable households that live in remote places closer to basic infrastructure.

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