Cometh the hour, cometh the individual, to slightly misquote a common saying. It is a saying that automatically comes to mind as we consider the lives of Zura Karuhimbi and George Loinger, two people from two different worlds, who at first glance couldn’t seem more different, but, on closer inspection, have more in common with one another, than they each have with those closer to home, in their own respective world. What better time to bring to mind two extraordinary individuals than Rwanda has just celebrated National Heroes Day.
Zura Karuhimbi and George Loinger breathed their last within a few weeks of each other, aged 93 and 108 respectively. Neither one knew of the other, but, the world honours their memory for very similar reasons, under similar circumstances.
As their worlds descended into unfathomable depravity of man’s inhumanity to man, they found the heart and courage to rise to the highest, most noble expression of humanity.
Karuhimbi’s finest hour would come in the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. In a deadly version of colonial divide and rule, the Belgian colonial powers had separated Rwandans along crude lines of Hutu, Twa and Tutsi.
Their Rwandan protégés, the Movement for the Emancipation of Hutu known as PARMEHUTU enthusiastically enforced these superficial divisions with identity cards. Karuhimbi’s card read Muhutu.
The identity card was pregnant with malign intent. At the start, it would determine who would get access to education, employment and to live without discrimination. Discrimination so all encompassing, it would spare no one, not even little children.
The unremitting abuse of Tutsi school children by their teachers, for instance, would drive some in their innocence, to plead with their tormentors, “I am sorry, I will never be Tutsi again”. Heart breaking as this was, the worst was of course to come.
The card would soon determine who lived and who died. For those whose identity cards read Tutsi, it would no longer be just intense, harrying discrimination.
They now carried their death warrant in their wallets. And death when it came, would be torturous and degrading as the murderers’ depraved imagination could conceive.
The inexplicable visceral hatred for their victims that the killers summoned from deep within the depths of their being, the gratuitous cruelty, would occupy any number of psychologists for an eternity, and still defy understanding.
In 1994, Karuhimbi was already one year shy of her seventieth birthday, set in her ways, in her own mind, already living a Rwanda that would once again be, post 1994, when all identity cards would read Rwandan, and their intent would be to bring services like healthcare and education to the people.
What set Karuhimbi apart from others who shrunk away from the horror of genocide in which they were urged to participate, was the extraordinary bravery not only to reject the evil she was asked to support, but, to stand against it, armed with nothing more than her petit frame, and giant moral courage.
A world away, five decades earlier, George Loinger’s bravery and humanity had also shone through, in his own stand against the Nazis’ plan to murder every last living Jewish man, woman and child.
It is extraordinary how both Loinger and Karuhimbi followed a similar pattern. Both of them would bring their life’s experiences to bear upon what was surely one of the greatest tests, if not the greatest any human being could have faced, the Holocaust against the Jews, and the genocide against Batutsi.
Loinger, who was born Jewish in Strasbourg had planned a career in engineering. All that would however be changed by a radio broadcast.
“I will exterminate the Jews” Adolf Hitler had shrieked. Loinger took him at his word. From henceforth, he determined to do all he could “to prepare Jewish youth” for what was to come. Like most people, he imagined that what was to come would be intensification of the terrifying, often violent discrimination to which Jewish people were being subjected. Already a decent athlete, he now dropped his engineering studies, to study physical education.
An echo of Hitler’s hate infused shriek travelled through time, and space, to the Tanzanian city of Arusha, where Colonel Theoneste Bagosora would declare that he was going to “unleash the apocalypse” against Batutsi. Fatefully, no one could have imagined that the utterance would be more than impotent rantings of a bitter, depraved mind. In her village of Musamo South Western Rwanda, Karuhimbi knew nothing of any of this. She was of course aware of the discrimination against Batutsi. She was old enough to have witnessed her country turn from a unified monarchy, to a place sealed in the hate ideology of PARMEHUTU.
Rwanda before 1994 was a desperately poor country, its inhabitants among the ordinary people, even the Bahutu in whose name crimes of genocide would be perpetrated, little more than captives to the PARMEHUTU ideology, either as victims, or as pawns complicit in mass murder. Healthcare was an unknown concept. In their desperation, the poor who could not afford private medicine put their faith in traditional healers. Karuhimbi who had inherited skills as a healer from her parents, was therefore well known in her village. She stood out for other reasons too. In a conservative, communal society where women were second class citizens, she stood by her individuality and independence of mind.
The Catholic Church in Rwanda was the real power in the land, with more than 80% of a largely illiterate population under their complete control. It was a society in which a woman’s place was in the home, and she obeyed her Church, the state, and her husband, in more or less that order. It tells us much about Karuhimbi’s makeup that in such a society, she would divorce her husband, and, convert from Catholicism to Islam, from Dorothy Karuhimbi to Zula Karahimbi.
As the plan for extermination of Batutsi begun, their intended victims desperately cast about for safe places to hide from the murderers. Some sought refuge from individuals they trusted. Soon, Karuhimbi’s little house was home to over a hundred terrified people. For days, she sheltered them, and when her food supplies ran out, she went asking her neighbours for more. But, keeping over a hundred people in a modest dwelling that was barely enough for one elderly woman, would soon seem like the easy party of her challenge.
Before long, the Interahamwe militias came calling, demanding that she hand over her charges. It is then that Karuhimbi came upon the decision that she and those she was protecting would be better served by her transformation from Karuhimbi the healer, to Karuhimbi the witch. With a conviction that would have pleased the most exacting theatre director, she played her part well. She routinely wore umpteen bangles and bracelets on her wrists. Now she would stand in front of the Machete wielding Interahmwe, wildly shaking her wrists, threatening to curse them to damnation if they crossed her threshold. “Entering my house will be digging your own graves” she menacingly warned.
It is difficulty to overstate the courage needed to stage such a performance. The Interahamwe militias had thrown off all vestiges of humanity. They were the genocidal establishment’s most trusted weapon, merciless torturing, killing machines. They had become the very embodiment of the evil they visited upon their victims. How Ironic then, that Karuhimbi would threaten to unleash demons from hell upon them. Perhaps it was the blessings they received from the Catholic Church, that they didn’t realise that hell’s demons would have recoiled from them. “There are no more devils in hell, they are all in Rwanda”, it would later be claimed. Many of these devils were at Zura Karuhimbi’s door step. Day, after day, they came, and day after day she confronted them. A diminutive seventy-year-old woman, between blood thirsty machete wielding interahamwe and their intended victims.
At times she came close to overplaying her hand: to one young man hiding in her house, she gave an axe, and instructed him to act like a demon if the Interahamwe managed to get past her, and into the house. And just in case her bluff as a newly minted necromancer was called, she waived a petrol can at them, swearing to torch her house, and everyone within, if they entered. We’ll never know if she was serious about this more prosaic threat. She would later say about those who had taken refuge with her, “I knew if they died, I would die”. She never explained why this should be so, it seemed perfectly natural to her.
As it did to Loinger. Enrolled in the French army, he was captured by the Germans, but, escaped, encouraged in part by a letter from his wife. She had taken in twenty-seven Jewish children, who had been bought from the Germans, and was at a loss how to look after them on her own. Back in France, he went to work for Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (OSE), a Jewish organisation which hid Jewish children from the Nazis, and inevitably joined the French resistance. By the time of his escape, almost all of France was either directly under Nazi control, or their French collaborators of the Vichy government.
A fluent German speaker, he was able to crisscross the country, passing himself off as a physical instructor in the service of the Vichy government. He begun the exfiltration of all the children who had been hidden by the OSE, closer to France’s border with neutral Switzerland. He used paid smugglers or carried the children on his back. Those still in hiding, he entertained Calisthenics, partly to distract them from fear and anxiety. But, the physical training was also in earnest. He wanted to prepare them for the harsh journeys they would have to travel to escape, and, grimly, if they were unfortunate enough to be caught by the Nazis, he intended them to be strong enough to survive the hardships of the concentration camps.
Like Karuhimbi, he would resort to ingenious ruses to save those under his protection. He moved many of the children to Annemasse, contiguous with the Swiss border. There, he would organise what he later called “a terrific game of soccer”. In an exercise he had taught the children, he would throw the ball hundreds of metres, over the Swiss border for them to retrieve. This time however, they would not return. Both they and the ball would be picked up by OSE members in Switzerland.
“We always returned with fewer children than we had taken to our soccer games, and no one noticed”, he would later reminisce, with a chuckle. His most daring trick was to dress the children as mourners, take them to a cemetery whose wall abutted the Swiss border, and once there, use the grave digger’s ladder for the children to climb over into Switzerland. Both Loinger and Karuhimbi would later be bemused at how they ever managed to get away with such tricks. Karuhimbi would thereafter fail to convince someone people that she wasn’t really a witch, with powers to command demons.
Loinger was once found by a troop of German soldiers as he moved some children. Sticking to his ruse, he explained that he was taking them for physical instruction. The soldiers insisted on giving him an escort. He later described this extraordinary scene, he and the children, marching along with the very army from whom they were fleeing. Arriving at what would have been their hiding place, they waved their military escort good bye.
Karuhimbi managed to keep safe all a hundred and…of people who had gone to her for protection, until the RPF forces defeated the genocidal forces and liberated the country. The OSE saved 2,000 Jewish children, half of them by Loinger personally.
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear” remarked Mark Twain. Zura Karuhimbi, George Loinger, fearfully courageous and a lasting example to us all