“If it’s not the old fogy himself!” yelled Sylvetre Semajeri, on seeing me on one of Kigali’s sidewalks. “Come,” said he as he yanked at my sleeve and led me to a corner in a nearby joint.
By now you know my homeboy of the slopes of Mt Muhabura, I’m sure. So, as is his wont, hardly had we settled down than he started rattling off his ‘lecture’: “And I thought I knew him!” said he unceremoniously.
Knowing him, I knew better than to interrupt. Rather, I settled down to obligingly surrender my ears to him!
You see, resumed he after seeing he’d ‘subdued’ me, I got the story from a source that’d picked it straight out of the man’s mouth, at his birthday anniversary. We have heroes. And then we have a hero.
Tell me, can it begin to penetrate your dim mind how somebody, in a split second, can decide to ‘drill’ an opening through the thicket of unknown hazards and eventually come out scathed, all right, but still in one piece?
He was ready for anything because the time had come. The time to end the illusion of a cosy life in a top-rank military academy and homely flat for him and his newlywed. And, to the hilt, she took it in her stride equally easily and selflessly: the couple were as similar as two peas in a pod......
Yes, son of my soil, I can see your foggy face clearing; you now understand. Indeed, who’d have thought those two would be President and First Lady of this land today? But we are getting ahead of ourselves.......
First, there were many inconceivable traps to escape on the way from USA before joining the rebel group of comrades whose story had become a black hole. For all he knew, they could’ve been wiped out. Dead or alive, though, he was part of them.
And so the man went to the elite military academy officials and said no, please excuse me but I have to quit. In truth, I’m not he of the passport I hold!
While they were chewing on that incredulity, he explained how he was in Uganda as a refugee and how now home was calling; many Rwandans faced danger from the existing regime.
Seeing how adamant he was, yet worryingly wondering what one man could do in the face of such odds, the officials reluctantly cleared him and wished the couple well, sending them off with gifts of books on war strategies for him.
And so began a journey of cliff-hanger perils straight out of the pages of James Hadley Chase novels, those thrilling adventures you so-called intellectuals read strictly as fiction. Unlike you, one true one was seeing reality in the fiction and taking notes.
Anyway, to cut a very long story short, as the couple waited for a connecting flight from London to Brussels, a sixth sense sounded a siren. Belgium, bedfellow to Habyarimana’s Rwanda as its former colony, was no place to pass. Officials there must be on the alert. And they were, actually.
The excruciating experience of tearing himself away from a beloved pregnant newlywed, abandoned in the departure lounge of an airport in London to proceed to Brussels on her fragile own, few, if any, couples would be willing to imagine, leave alone undergo.
That the two agreed on the spur of the moment and did it for Rwanda is beyond imagination for many.
So, discarding the ticket for Brussels, he somehow secured one for Addis Ababa, only to land in a city on red alert about a dangerous element with intention to transit through.
Still, when time came, he unobtrusively slipped around the detector machine and at the airport tarmac snitched his war-books-incriminating suitcase from between the legs of a security officer to place it on the conveyor belt, always unnoticed by the walkie-talkie chattering security lot.
That and how he smuggled himself onboard that heavily-guarded Ethiopian Airways flight bound for Kampala would have left James Bond green with envy!
Once in Uganda, he was on familiar terrain and so our protagonist easily manoeuvred his way through immigration and over the highway to the border only, on crossing, to be greeted by a shambles of death and despair.
That from there this desperate ragtag band of bleeding fighters grew to run rings around the superpower-led multitude of armies remains a phenomenal exploit that has befuddled all war experts.
Even as the small band of fighters grew in strength and size, was it his heightened intuition that was responsible for their success and his umpteen hair-thin escapes?
The creeping feeling on his back that made the high command vacate a tent in the nick of time before it was bombed to shreds. The huge rogue rock that he repeatedly barely escaped as it coasted down dangerously every time a fighter behind accidentally stepped on it, on a treacherous descent in the dark.
Much before that, as an exiled toddler, the narrow escape as the would-be commander mistakenly uprooted a local’s groundnuts in the name of working for food for family!
From a military strategist to a statesman unafraid to try anything in pursuit of the dignity for the down-trodden, President Paul Kagame remains a humble human whose power of action is only now beginning to be fully appreciated outside Rwanda.
Are AU member countries ready to embody their Chairman’s mission-impelled service?
As today, February 1 is Rwanda’s Heroes’ Day, so can this be a Heroes’ Year for Africans if we can together resolve our conflicts and outgrow the begging bowl.
All his life, that’s been one of Kagame’s principal ideals.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.