A dramatic scene played out over the weekend during a Genocide commemoration event in Kirehe District when a survivor met, for the first time in 24 years, a family that took her and her siblings in for over a month during the Genocide against the Tutsi.
It all started when Florentine Benimana, a Genocide survivor, was giving testimony on how she, her two siblings and a nephew were given refuge by a family they did not previously know and went on to stay with their ‘new family’ for more than a month as the killings raged.
Towards the end of the Genocide, Benimana, then 17, realised that the family that had welcomed and hid them was increasingly getting in trouble with the local and military authorities and the Interahamwe militia randomly attacking homes to search for Tutsis.
“Fortunately, we had learned that RPF-Inkotanyi forces had reached a nearby village,” she recounted to mourners.
“So we agreed with the family that had hosted us that we would quietly step out of the house under the cover of night and head over to the RPF side,” she said, in reference to RPF’s Rwanda Patriotic Army that was at the time fighting the genocidal forces while also rescuing people from the killing spree.
Indeed, when night fell and the killers were not in sight, the youngsters left the home and crossed over to a village that was under the RPF control, effectively surviving the Genocide.
“The family showed us a way to safety; we owe our survival to them, but unfortunately I have never been able to meet them again to show my gratitude,” she said.
The man who hosted these four survivors is Théoneste Rwagihanga.
He met them through his own daughter, Virginie Kamagennye, alias Makwikwi, who initially found Benimana and her brother hiding in a shrub and urged them to come with her to her family.
Later, Makwikwi again urged her father to take in two members of the same family just as the Interahamwe militia were about to kill them.
Her father agreed and the four reunited inside a stranger’s house.
How it started
Benimana told mourners that it all began when the then government soldiers and Interahamwe militia attacked thousands of Tutsi refugees at Nyarubuye Catholic Church, killing almost all them in one of the cruelest horrors of the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Before the Genocide, her family’s home was in the present-day Rukira Sector in Ngoma District when the Genocide started. Her parents were among the first victims of the Genocide as they were attacked on April 7, 1994, she recalled.
“We were two girls at home. When our father sensed danger he took me and my sister to a bush and hid us there. He said he would not want to see his girls being killed by interahamwe before his eyes,” she recalled.
“He left us there and returned home.”
“He told us that if anything happens to him and our mother, we should go to Nyarubuye (Catholic) Church and seek protection from the priests there.
“Shortly after, from where we hid in the bush, we saw our house on fire; our parents had been set ablaze inside,” she narrated.
The two terrified girls headed to the church as their father had instructed them before he was killed.
Along the way, she said, they met their elder brother who had already lost his own family (wife and children) and was with only his young son.
Together, the four trekked to the church, tens of kilometres away.
On the morning of April 9, 1994, they finally arrived at Nyarubuye parish. They introduced themselves to a priest who in turn took them to local authorities but the office was closed so they returned to the church.
“The priest made each one of us sign a document that absolved him of any responsibility in case of anything. I wrote: “I, Florentine Benimana, will take full responsibility for whatever may befall Nyarubuye Catholic Parish because of hosting me”.
Thousands of other Tutsi soon thronged the church. “Many continued arriving in large numbers until there was no room anymore and food became scarce”.
It’s around this time that Interahamwe militia started to launch attacked. The first attackers were repulsed by men in the crowd, she recalled.
But, by evening, government forces had surrounded the parish and the priests started leaving the church premises.
“I pleaded with the clerics to take my nephew with them so he could possibly survive but in vain,” she recalled.
The next morning, militia attacked the church in large numbers, all armed with machetes and grenades.
Slaughter at church
Thousands were killed immediately.
“I don’t know how the four of us escaped but my brother and I found ourselves in a shrub near the church while my sister and nephew also escaped from the killers miraculously,” she said.
It was in that bush that a young woman, a stranger, who was grazing calves found them and graciously invited them over to her home. They hesitated but finally reluctantly agreed to her invitation.
“She was called Makwikwi, she’s the one who took us to her father who promised to do everything possible to protect us from the Interahamwe,” the now 41-year old recalled.
“She shared her bed with us and always told her father that she would be killed with us if ever he reneges on his promise to protect us,” she said.
After about four days, Benimana recalled, one day they overheard an Interahamwe militiaman telling his colleagues that he had established that two Tutsi children were hiding in a certain home.
They hatched a plan to attack the home the next day and kill those children, she said.
“Something told me the children in question could be my sister and nephew,” she said.
I sent Makwikwi to the place described by the Interahamwe and indeed she found it was them, she added.
“Makwikwi came back with them and asked her father to host the four of us and her father accepted despite the fact that feeding was clearly a problem,” Benimana said. The host family had five children of their own, she added.
They also had four other children he was raising.
By May 15, the Interahamwe had found out that the four were being hid by this family.
“We managed to escape after establishing that RPA forces had advanced to a place not far from the village where we were, we later found them in Rwanteru, from where they started treating our wounds.”
“Unfortunately, I have not seen this family since, not a single one of them, I have even gone back to look for them in vain; they have moved,” she said.
Interestingly, Rwagihanga and his daughter, Kamagennye (Makwikwi) were in the audience. As she narrated her ordeal, the two were quietly shedding tears.
But they managed to step forward and introduced themselves as the family that had hosted Benimana, her siblings and nephew.
And then emotional scenes.
Benimana sunk on her knees in show of appreciation to the family that saved her life and her relatives. For 24 years Kamagennye and her father were troubled about the fate of Benimana and her relatives, they said.
“We did not know whether they had made it to the RPF side safely,” Rwagihanga said emotionally.
Speaking to The New Times, Rwagihanga attributed his courage to his daughter.
“I looked in my daughter’s eyes and knew that she was determined to protect these people, it effectively became my obligation too,” he said. “I knew it was my duty to feed and protect them”.
He described Benimana and her siblings as her children.
“Next thing is to visit them, I will mobilise all the children to go and visit them for they are my children as well,” he said.
Benimana currently lives in her ancestral home in Rukira Sector, Ngoma District, her sister is married and lives in Kabarondo, Kayonza District, while her nephew, who has also since married, lives in Rwamagana District.
He said that this family helped some other Tutsi but not for so long as was the case with Benimana and her siblings.
“Several other Tutsi would come to have water or food and proceed to other hiding places. I did everything because I believe all people are equal before God,” Rwagihanga says.
Makwikwi speaks out
Virginie Kamagennye (Makwikwi) was 20 when she met Benimana and her brother hiding among the thickets.
“I had actually seen them before when they arrived at Nyarubuye parish. When I saw them the second time, I felt I had to do something to help them,” said Makwikwi.
Makwikwi did not know much about the genocidal politics that prevailed then but generally knew what it spelled hiding the Tutsi.
“I knew hiding them would bring danger to my family but they looked so innocent. I put myself in their shoes and decided to take them home”.
Today, Makwikwi, 44, is married and lives a few kilometres from her father’s home.
She said she had continued to pray that God protects Benimana and her siblings.
“Since I saw Benimana, I have been so happy that what was considered as treason during the Genocide is now a noble act of patriotism,” she added.
Following the heartwarming testimony, Rwagihanga and his daughter were commended by the Rwanda Defence forces (RDF) for having helped the Tutsi during the Genocide.
The Division Commander for Eastern Region and Kigali, Maj Gen Mubarak Muganga, who attended the event, gave both Rwagihanga and his daughter a cow each.
Prominent businessman Alfred Nkubiri who hails from Kirehe District also gave them cows and also promised to rally the private sector to support them to ensure they get a befitting reward.