At the height of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, one of the most deadly acts one would do was hiding or abetting in helping a Tutsi to escape death.
Although Assiel Ndibabaje Katarya, a former cell leader as well as a master of worshipers at Mugari Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the former Mukingo Commune (Musanze District now) could have looked the other way as the Tutsi were being killed. After all, many clerics did just that. He did not. He said he felt his life was insignificant without saving a single soul.
He knew very well that his decision could cost him his own life, but it was a risk he was willing to take. He believed that if he was able to save a single life, it was his duty to do so.
Ndibabaje, 66, now resides in Mpanga Cell, Kinigi Sector, Musanze District in the outskirts of Volcanoes National Park.
In an interview with The New Times, Ndibabaje narrates his life’s journey from 1991 to 1994 when he was a public servant at Cell level.
The Genocide was particularly experimented and implemented in Kinigi area between 1991 and early 1994.
Ndibabaje testifies that within his ‘little power’ he managed to protect the Tutsi who were being hunted as opposed to incessant orders from his superiors who were calling upon everyone to exterminate the Tutsi.
However, protecting Tutsi was not an easy task.
“It was then the most difficult situation I had ever been in, but as someone not on the hit-list, my life would be insignificant without saving at least a single Tutsi soul,” he said.
“Both the Bourgmestre (Mayor) and my relatives had conspired to exterminate Tutsi in our Commune and elsewhere. They were all committed and used all their means to reach their goal. They had no fear to even kill toddlers and their mothers,” said Ndibabaje.
Ndibabaje cited Juvenal Kajerijeri and Thaddée Gasana, Mayors of the former Mukingo and Kinigi Communes respectively, among the main brains behind the Genocide in the outskirts of Volcanoes National Park.
The situation worsened in Mukingo Commune in mid-December 1992 when Interahamwe militia started launching raids on Tutsi homes, looting their property including cattle.
“I told my Tutsi neighbours to join me at the church so as to prevent them from being killed by Interahamwe. At the beginning, I saw around 50 Tutsi families who immediately came but gradually the number increased to more than 300 persons. We stayed together in the church for three months praying,” said Ndibabaje.
He added that within the three months in church, life was tough as everyone among the asylum seekers looked to him for what to feed on.
“Those people were living by God’s grace as we prayed together in the morning, at the midday and at the evening,” he recalled.
“My responsibility was to assure them that no one would come to kill them; a message which seemingly pleased them as they knew that all my brothers were participating in the killings”.
Over 300 Tutsi rescued
In February 1993 Interahamwe launched an attack on the church in which more than 300 Tutsi together with other worshipers were praying and Interahamwe ordered Tutsi to go to one side in a bid to kill them effortlessly.
All the worshipers refused to separate and Interahamwe gave them 24 hours. However, Ndibabaje says he advised the Tutsi to look for ways to seek asylum at the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) base which at the time was installed in Bisate Suburb, around Sabyinyo Volcano from Musanze District.
“The Tutsi, fortunately, needed my advice. Two among them decided to go and bring Inkotanyi, I remember they came back at around 01:00 a.m with ten soldiers who successfully escorted all the Tutsi to the RPA base in Bisate, which is how they were all rescued.”
Ndibabaje says that Interahamwe killed his two own sons as a sign of revenge after the successful operation that RPA launched to rescue the Tutsi who were hiding in the church, he also cites that he was jailed several times with charges of collaborating with Inkotanyi.
Survivors speak out
Genocide survivors who were under Ndibabaje’s protection emphasise that if there were other people like him, the Genocide would not have taken so many lives.
“As Genocide survivors, we always fall short of words to thank Ndibabaje. He became our guardian when we ran to him,” said Enias Kanzinya, 72, one of the survivors from Kinigi Sector.
The umbrella body of Genocide survivors’ organizations, Ibuka, in Musanze District commends the way Ndibabaje protected the Tutsi within his little means and power, the work done by Ndibabaje is therefore considered as “a heroic act” as stated by Pierre Rwasibo, the Musanze District head for Ibuka.
Ndibabaje is now counted among “Abarinzi b’Igihango” (Protectors of the Pact) representing Kinigi Sector.