Life can be full of hair-raising mysteries! Seventeen years after the Genocide against the Tutsi, one would be forgiven to think that the most outrageous of stories about the horrifying killings that gripped the nation at the time, were already told.
Yet, it appears that the victims of some of the most unimaginable crimes are just starting to narrate their ordeal, perhaps as a way of trying to come to terms with their tragic past, and as a result of an increasing realisation that confession is the starting point for genuine healing.
The genocide that took place in Rwanda was a first in many ways, not only because of the ruthlessness with which it was executed, but also the fact that parents turned against their own children, whom they begot with Tutsi partners.
“For many years I couldn’t believe my own mother (Virginia Nyiramanenge) was actively involved in the killing of my father and brothers. It was as if I was in a dream,” says Albert Nsengimana, who lost all his eight siblings and father at the hands of his own militia mother.
“I also survived her by the skin of the teeth because I escaped from the killers she had consciously led me to,” recalls Nsengimana, who was only seven at the time.
In 1994, Nsengimana knew nothing about ethnicity. The seventh child in the family of nine boys, he was born to a Tutsi father and a Hutu mother.
During the Genocide, Nsengimana’s mother abandoned her children and family to join hands with Interahamwe, a Hutu paramilitary group, to execute the killings in Urundu in the former Kabarondo Commune, now Kayonza District, Eastern Province, where they lived.
When the Interahamwe raided Nsengimana’s home village, his brothers fled and sought refuge at their maternal grandmother’s home.
“I was with two of our youngest brothers looking after our cattle and we didn’t know what was going on. But when we returned in the evening we did not find anyone at home. We were scared. I didn’t know what to do or where to find my parents and brothers. We locked ourselves in the house,” he recalls.
The following morning, after waiting for any family member to turn up in vain, Nsengimana says, they went to their paternal grandfather’s house taking with them their cattle.
Rejected and led to killers by mother
“This was the first sad moment I witnessed, seeing my grandfather seated outside shedding tears. His house had been demolished and was all alone at home. On seeing us, he only told us that we should look for a place to hide because we are children of a Tutsi father and they were hunting for us to kill us,” he explains. He says their only option was to hide at their maternal grandmother’s house.
“I was filled with joy when I saw my other brothers from a distance seated outside my grandmother’s house. Little did I know that they had been chased away and were crying without anywhere to go. They told me that we had been labelled Tutsis by our own mother and her family and that they all wanted us killed too,” he narrates.
The brothers remained seated outside since they had no other place to go to, he said.
Later that day, Nsengimana and some of his brothers were taken by their mother and other maternal relatives to the murder scene to be killed, leaving only the two youngest brothers who were three and five years old, respectively.
His brothers were killed in the presence of their mother, he said. Nsengimana was hit on the head but, luckily, ran away unconsciously. “But when I regained my senses, I went back to my grandmother’s house because I had no other place to go to.”
It was not too long before Nsengimana’s mother turned up and took his other two young brothers to the same scene where their elder brothers had been killed. The two little kids were also killed there under the watch of their own mother, said their elder brother.
‘Death is what you deserve’
“When I came back I asked her (mother) where my young brothers were. She told me that she took them to ‘where they belong, to their destiny.’ I didn’t understand what she was telling me. She later told me that my maternal cousin (Mukuralinda) had killed them.’
“I could not believe what she was telling me…it was a shock; how our own mother had decided to kill her own children, her flesh and blood,” Nsengimana narrated as he struggled to contain himself as tears profusely rolled down his cheeks in the course our interview at The New Times offices.
“I thought being the only one of her children still alive she would forgive me, but she later took me to Mukuralinda to be killed too. I begged her to forgive me since I had committed no offence, but she told me that I was wasting my breath. She told me Tutsis are snakes, enemies who deserve nothing but death. She told me I was a Tutsi and deserved to follow my brothers,’” Nsengimana narrated.
However, Mukuralinda, who was also the head of the Interahamwe militia in their village, was killed by his fellow colleagues after a heated argument over the loot.
In the process, Nsengimana escaped again, and went back to his grandmother’s place. Later, his mother located him there again. “She was surprised to see me because she knew I had already been killed. She asked me how I managed to flee and I gave her the sad news of my cousin’s (Mukuralinda) death. She thought I was lying to her and that it was my plan to get away. To make her believe me, I took her where his copse was dumped.”
“It hurt me most when I saw my mother weeping for the death of her nephew (Mukuralinda) but could not even have sympathy for her own children. This world has so many heartless people, but when it comes to your own parents baying for your blood! That’s the most despicable thing I have ever seen in my life…killing your own innocent children!”
Mother led killers to father’s hiding place
Nsengimana’s savior (from his heartless mother) was his maternal cousin-sister who advised the then seven-year old to escape from that village, after his mother had instructed her (cousin) to take him to a different Interahamwe death squad to be executed.
Nsengimana went to a nearby Catholic church where many Tutsis, including his own father, Andre Mutabaruka, had sought refuge. His father was one of the most wanted people in the area and had escaped when they raided Mutabaruka’s father’s (Nsengimana’s paternal grandfather) home.
Many had been killed at the church but Nsengimana’s father had managed to escape. Later, Nsengimana’s father dispatched a message to his wife requesting her to bring him water in his hideout after going for days on an empty stomach. Instead, his wife tipped a group of Interahamwe about his hiding place and led them there. The attackers cut him into pieces, with machetes, and threw his body into a pit latrine.
How he survived and his hope for the future
The helpless young Nsengimana would later be saved by the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) forces, as they traversed the country, saving those being hunted down.
After the Genocide, his mother was arrested for Genocide crimes and jailed for eight years. She was later released and died of natural causes in 2006. Incredibly, Nsengimana had forgiven her mother by time she passed away.
“I had forgiven her as my mother. I have also forgiven all the relatives who killed my people,” said a courageous Nsengimana, who completed his Senior Six last year.
He says he has learnt to come to terms with his tragic past and refused to remain its hostage. He offers advice to other survivors. “Survivors should now look forward and work hard for a brighter future. We cannot undo the past. We cannot forget what happened but we should have the courage to move on.”
Nsengimana, who is now a member of REFTA, an association of survivors who came together to support each other with skills, is now in the process of shooting a movie based on his testimony.
However, he has no financial means to complete his film. “I and the REFTA crew are now working on a script. I would appreciate any assistance in this regard.”