Rwanda’s heroes: Why we fete them

‘The Government is keen to encourage Rwandans to draw inspiration from their heroes so they can together build their nation’
The family of the late Félicité Niyitegeka lays a wreath on her grave last year.  The New Times/  File.
The family of the late Félicité Niyitegeka lays a wreath on her grave last year. The New Times/ File.

Félicité Niyitegeka (‘Imena’)

Born in 1934, Félicité Niyitegeka was the daughter of Simon Sekabwa and Angelina Nyirampabuka. She was killed on April 21, 1994 during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Niyitegeka is remembered for refusing to abandon the Tutsi who found refuge at Centre Saint Pierre in Gisenyi (currently Rubavu District). She was just a casual worker when her brother asked her to separate from the Tutsis since the military was aware of her activities, but she declined.

When the Interahamwe militia stormed her house, she already had over 30 Tutsi refugees in her house. The Interahamwe told her that she would be spared but her charges would have to be killed, but she opted to die alongside them.

Maj Gen. Fred Gisa Rwigema (‘Imanzi’)

Born on April 10, 1957 in Mukiranze village, Kamonyi District (former Gitarama) in the Southern Province, Maj Gen. Fred Gisa Rwigema died on October 2, 1990, on the second day of the Rwanda Patriotic Army liberation war. 
He was born to Anastasie Kimonyo and Gatarina Mukandilima. The young Rwigema and his family fled to Uganda and settled in Nshungerezi Refugee Camp in the 1960’s following the 1959 pogroms.
 On June 20, 1987, he married Janet Urujeni and they were blessed with two children: Junior Gisa and Teta Gisa. In 1974, he went to Tanzania and joined the Front for National Salvation (Fronasa), a rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni.
 Later in 1976, he travelled to Mozambique and joined the Frelimo rebels who were fighting for the Mozambican liberation against the Portuguese colonial power. 
In 1981, 27 soldiers including Rwigema and his childhood friend and current President Paul Kagame, and Museveni, started a liberation struggle against the then regime of Uganda president Milton Obote. 
Rwigema helped the National Resistance Army (NRA) capture state power in 1986 and was appointed the Ugandan Deputy Minister of Defence.  He was regularly at the front line in northern Uganda during the government’s offensive against remnants of the ousted regime. 
He attained several positions in the Ugandan army, including Deputy Army Commander and Overall Operations Commander. But despite holding all the above posts, he always held Rwanda at heart. Rwigema is remembered for being among those who greatly inspired the Rwandan refugees to liberate their country, and on October 1, 1990, he spearheaded Rwanda’s liberation struggle. He was shot at the frontline on the second day of the attack. Later, Kagame took over as the new commander of the RPA liberators until the fall of the genocidal government on July 4, 1994.

The Unknown Soldier (‘Imanzi’)

The Unknown Soldier represents all the fallen soldiers of the liberation struggle. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at the National Heroes’ Mausoleum in Remera, next to Amahoro National Stadium.

Umwami Mutara III Rudahigwa Charles Léon Pierre (‘Imena’)

He was the son of King Yuhi IV Musinga and Nyiramavugo Kankazi Redegonde. He became King on November 16, 1931 after the abdication of his father on November 13, 1931. During his rule, King Rudahigwa advocated for the welfare of Rwandans, independence, democracy and fought against injustice through the King’s Court. He married Nyiramakomali on October 15, 1933 but the two separated in 1940. He then married Rosalie Gicanda on January 18, 1942. He worked hard to educate Rwandans through the establishment of the Mutara Fund and requested Jesuits to establish a college in Gitarama but, instead, the college was built in Bujumbura, Burundi. Rudahigwa later set up the Islamic College in Nyamirambo, a Kigali suburb, and another school in Kanyanza and offered scholarships to many Rwandans to study in Europe. Under his reign, he eliminated all forms of social exploitation and advocated for unity among Rwandans. He died under mysterious circumstances on July 25, 1959 in what many consider to have been an assassination He was at the time pressing for Rwanda’s Independence from Belgian colonialists.

Nyange school students (‘Imena’)

The Senior Five and Senior Six students of Nyange Secondary School were on the night of March 18, 1997 attacked by remnants of the genocidal machinery (during the insurgency days) who demanded that they separate themselves along ethnic lines. The youngsters defied the orders, insisting that they were all Rwandans. The attackers then indiscriminately fired live bullets, killing six of them, including four girls. The dead include Sylvestre Bizimana, Chantal Mujawamahoro, Beatrice Mukambaraga, Seraphine Mukarutwaza, Helene Benimana, and Valens Ndemeye.
Both the departed students and their classmates who survived the infamous attack on the Ngororero District-based school were later honoured as heroes and heroines in the Imena category.

Agathe Uwilingiyimana (‘Imena’)

Agatha Uwilingiyimana was born on June 23, 1953, in Gitore, Gisagara District of the Southern Province. She was the daughter of Yuvenali Ntibashirakandi and Saverina Nyirantibangwa. She got married to Ignace Barahira in 1976 and was blessed with five children. Uwilingiyimana became the first woman to hold the position of Prime Minister in Rwanda’s history, from July 17, 1993 to April 1994. Prior to that, she served as the Minister of Education where she advocated for equal rights among students. During her time in office, she advocated for the rights of women and spearheaded the fight against divisionism. She was assassinated on April 7, 1994 by government soldiers because she was viewed as a stumbling block to the genocide agenda. Following her death, the architects of the Genocide against the Tutsi immediately ordered the beginning of the killings, which would claim the lives of more than a million people. The Genocide was brought to a halt by the triumphant RPA rebels in July, 1994.  
Michel Rwagasana (‘Imena’)

Michel Rwagasana was born in 1927 in Gitisi, Nyamagana in Ruhango District in the Southern Province. He attended Groupe Scolaire Astrida (in Butare), attaining a Diploma in Administration. He married Suzana Nzayire in 1957 and the two were blessed with four children, but he never got a chance to see his last born because he died when his wife was three months pregnant. Rwagasana attained several distinctive positions due to his integrity; he later became the Personal Secretary of King Mutara III Rudahigwa from 1954. His unvarying advocacy for unity, independence and denouncing ethnic differences was the reason why he was killed by the regime of Gregory Kayibanda.

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