Keeping the memory alive: Meet the Ugandan committed to preserving Genocide memorials

Only a life lived in the service of others is worth living, German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, once said. This saying augurs well with the story of Mahmood Thobani, a Ugandan of Asian origin.
Thobani lays a wreath on one of the mass graves at Ggolo, Mpigi last year. (File)
Thobani lays a wreath on one of the mass graves at Ggolo, Mpigi last year. (File)

Only a life lived in the service of others is worth living, German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, once said. This saying augurs well with the story of Mahmood Thobani, a Ugandan of Asian origin. Thobani’s life journey is an amazing story of love, and a ray of hope that stretches across races and boundaries of humanity.

Those that know him describe him as a father, brother and a guardian to not only the living but to also thousands of Genocide victims who are buried at different memorial sites in Uganda.

 

Thobani has over the years dedicated his time, strength and resources to preserving the memorial sites in Kasensero in Rakai District, Lambu in Masaka and Ggolo in Mpigi District. The sites are maintained by the Government of Rwanda with support from well-wishers, notable among them being Thobani.

 

A cool breeze and serene environment welcomes you to each of the memorial sites that have well branded sign posts indicating the name of the memorial site and number of Genocide victims buried there. Every year, during the month of April people, both Genocide survivors who travel from Rwanda, and the Rwandan community living in Uganda, converge at one of the memorial sites to commemorate the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

 

During such events, listening to Genocide survivors narrating how they survived sends chilling waves down ones spine. Some of these survivors have visible scars on their bodies. Many of them are unable to talk or hear, but their eyes glow with a show of appreciation, hope and love to the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPA) that put an end to the Genocide, and to people like Thobani.

School children from neighbouring schools and beyond are usually invited to participate in the commemoration events, with the intention of passing a message of what caused the Genocide and how it should be prevented across the world. It is for such causes that Thobani announced at last year’s commemoration event the donation of 50 bicycles to Genocide survivors in Rwanda.

“All the facts are there to see. How does anybody stand firm and deny that the Genocide in Rwanda didn’t happen? ” Thobani once lashed out at Genocide revisionists who keep roaming in many parts of western countries in an effort to re-write Rwanda’s history.

Floating bodies

During 100 days of blood-letting in Rwanda, thousands of dead bodies of Genocide victims were thrown into Akagera and Nyabarongo rivers, both tributaries of Lake Victoria, and ended up in Uganda and beyond.

The dead bodies were washed down and landed at different shores of East Africa’s biggest lake. It is here that kind hearted people like Thobani made every effort to retrieve the bodies and accord them a descent burial.

The Government of Rwanda engaged their Ugandan counterparts, which responded positively to allocate space, where the bodies could be buried in a descent manner.

Other notable people that played a key role in this were the late Emmanuel Pinto, a Ugandan Member of Parliament who was representing the people of Rakai in 1994, and former Mpigi Resident District Commissioner, Nalongo Namusisi.

Thobani is the owner of FourWays Company, a business conglomerate whose staff volunteers in the maintenance of all the three memorial sites.

John Leonard Gasuza, the General Manager of FourWays Company, remembers vividly bodies of many victims floating in the River Kagera, and how they finally reached their current resting places.

“The fishermen played a big role in retrieving the bodies. As days went by, the numbers became overwhelming and this brought in the direct intervention of the Ugandan government and Non-Government Organisations, like World Vision,” recalls Gasuza.

Geoffrey Kasumba, one of the fishermen who helped retrieve some of the dead bodies from the shores of the Lake Victoria, as well as in their burial, says the commemoration events always bring back terrible memories of what he witnessed at the landing site.

“Most of the bodies were tied in bundles. They came in large numbers for about three months that we were forced to suspend fishing activities in the lake. It took us a while to resume our fishing businesses,” says Kasumba.

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Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Uganda, Frank Mugambage and his wife honor Genocide victims whose remains were buried in Uganda. (File)

At first, the bodies were buried at six different mass graves in places like Namirembe and Dimo before the Government of Rwanda constructed the three main sites and reburied the over 10,000 Genocide victims. “As a community, we had to help… as a human being one cannot see a body floating on water and just walk away,” says John Mukasa, a resident of Kasensero in Rakai District.

Rwanda government’s role

In 2010, the Government of Rwanda through its High Commission in Kampala implemented the policy of according a decent burial to the victims of the Genocide by exhuming the bodies from shallow and scattered graves, thereby establishing the current three main memorial sites. The Government of Rwanda has over the years awarded certificates of appreciation to the local people who participated in retrieving the bodies, some posthumously.

“These Genocide sites are permanent reminders to the present and future generations that Genocide is bad, and we should all make sure that it never happens again,” says Frank Mugambage, Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Uganda. The land on which memorial sites were built is owned by the Government of Rwanda and they are maintained in collaboration with the country’s High Commission in Uganda, in partnership with Thobani.

“The land was offered by Thoban Muhamood and his Fourways Company. He owned the land at Lambu and Ggolo and he bought the one at Kasensero. The process of transferring the titles to the Government of Rwanda is ongoing,” explains Mugambage.

He adds that the cost of exhumation, reburial, fencing with permanent perimeter walls, as well as building guard houses, creating gardens and planting trees, among others, cost the Government about Ugsh284 million (about Rwf62.5 million). With the three sites containing remains of about 10,935 victims, the challenges include lack of a budget to maintain the sites, and employing permanent caretakers. The Rwandan community living in Uganda has already started making efforts to construct a foundation on which a modern Genocide museum will be constructed. The museum will be constructed in Ggolo memorial site in Mpigi District, which is not only home to the largest number victims, but is also more accessible compared to the other memorial sites.

“As the Rwandan community in Uganda, we have taken it upon ourselves to conduct a fundraising drive to raise money to construct a foundation on which a museum will be built.

That will be our main commemoration activity this month,” said Faith Nyiraneza, one of the organisers of the fund raising. The museum is envisaged to serve as an education centre that will promote messages against Genocide ideology, negating and revisionism, and a general sensitisation campaign against Genocide propaganda, including why global citizens must work to prevent Genocide anywhere in the world. The centre will also host a library on literature about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, as well as materials like clothes left behind by the victims.

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