Eighteen years ago, on the evening of March 18, Jean Baptiste Mvukiyehe, walked to his classroom for his routine revision at Nyange Secondary School, Ngororero District.
It was a cold-rainy Tuesday but seemingly started as normal day at a small boarding school that is on top of a hill with amazing views of surrounding valleys and mountains.
Mvukiyehe, who was in Senior Five then, didn’t imagine it was the day that would change his life.
He saw death and lives with memories of the horrifying mayhem that befell his friends and schoolmates.
“I had just spent 20 minutes doing my revision sitting on the front desk next to Seraphine Mukarutwaza when I heard gunshots from Senior Six classroom, we were all in panic. Suddenly, two men entered our classroom, one was armed with a gun while the other had traditional weapons,” recalled Mvukiyehe.
Mvukiyehe was testifying during the commemoration of Nyange School massacres on Thursday.
Mvukiyehe, who is now a priest, said the assailants who belonged to Interahamwe militia group and had infiltrated the community from the neighboring DR Congo asked him and his classmates to separate themselves along ethnic lines with Hutu on one side and Tutsi on the other but they refused.
Mukarutwaza was shot dead during sporadic shooting moments later.
Separation along perceived ethnic identities would have seen the attackers slaughter Tutsi students only.
Young, vulnerable, unable to physically protect themselves and with no weapons to use for self-defence, the schoolboys and girls immediately understood what that meant.
But as a symbol of their unity, oneness, solidarity, love, moral righteousness, and patriotism, the students defied the orders to separate.
Between unity and disunity or division, they opted for the former: stick together and perish together with their dignity.
Death and bitter memories
The infiltrators then shot indiscriminately at the students. Six of them – Mukarutwaza, Sylvestre Bizimana, Chantal Mujawamahoro, Beatrice Mukambaraga, Helene Benimana, and Valens Ndemeye – were killed on the spot.
Around 20 others were left in critical condition after being wounded in the shooting spree.
Eighteen years after the fateful night, bitter memories still linger, most of those who died that day were either buried at the Heroes Mausoleum or in their homes apart from Mujawamahoro whose grave is in the backyard of the school.
Her experience equally carries a strong story as the survivors on the dark night of March 18 say.
After the attackers had strangled the school guard, on entering the Senior Six classroom; Mujawamahoro, stood up and declared, “We are neither Hutu nor Tutsi; we are Rwandans.”
The unarmed young woman, whose name means “Maiden of Peace,” was shot in the head instantly.
The stories of those brave students, repeatedly told in schools across the nation, have inspired many youth to initiate peace clubs.
The accounts of the students at Nyange are immensely powerful, especially for the youth in this country. Their story of heroism goes beyond just ‘We are all Rwandan’.
“If there is anyone out there that took part in the killings at this school, they should come out and we reconcile, we want to meet these people, look them in the face and tell them that ‘you are forgiven,’” Phanuel Sindayiheba, who heads Gir’ubutwari association of Nyange survivors, said at the commemoration event.
Sindayiheba appealed to the government to facilitate survivors who dropped out of school acquire education.
“Ignorance is the worst thing that can ever happen to a community. If people had not sheltered the infiltrators, they would not have succeeded in their evil plans, this is why we need to invest in educating the people. We are requesting the government to ensure all survivors study,” he said.
In his address to the congregation at the school, one of the Commissioners of Chancellery for Heroes, National Orders and Decorations of Honours (Cheno), Dr Raphael Nkaka, called for continued support to the survivors of Nyange massacre.
He said the country will soon decorate people who have exhibited exceptional heroism acts.
In 2010, Rwanda awarded top national medals to foreigners who contributed toward the liberation of the country and the campaign against Genocide.
Those awarded included long-serving international diplomats, politicians, authors, campaigners and soldiers. They were separately awarded with the Uruti and Umurinzi medals. Uruti is Rwanda’s Liberation Medal and Umurinzi is Rwanda’s Campaign against Genocide Medal.
According to Nkaka, plans are underway to award more people with several new national medals.
The medals include ‘Gihanga’ – a medal that will be awarded to individuals who exhibited exceptional acts in contributing to the unity of Rwanda; ‘Igihango’ medal for people who exhibited exceptional acts in contributing to Rwanda’s friendship with foreign nations, and ‘Indashyikirwa’ medal for the most hardworking individuals.
Other medals include ‘Gakondo’ for individuals who highly contributed to promoting the Rwandan culture and ‘Ubwitange’ medal that will be awarded to individuals who sacrificed themselves in saving other people’s lives.
Thursday’s commemoration event was graced by the governor of Western Province Caritas Mukandasira, who told attendants that the Nyange heroes are a living proof that heroism is not about age or location.
“This place is commonly known as the birthplace of the Genocide against the Tutsi but still we have people who did not subscribe to evil spirit and sacrificed their lives for a greater cause,” Mukandasira said.
Currently, there are about 40 survivors of the Nyange massacre who are honoured annually alongside those that were killed on the night of March 18.