Karongi — It’s more than a decade since the Genocide happened in Rwanda, but the memories of the massacres are still fresh in the minds of residents.
"Similar accounts, all Rwandans country-wide experienced the 1994 Genocide," you hear people saying. Certainly to most people, survivors’ tales seem repetitive but every time sadness resurfaces like one had never heard any.
Though departed, the victims are believed to have died heroes, according to those who escaped the blood thirsty Interahamwe.
Bissesero; once a land of milk and honey, was reduced to ruins with scattered houses with very few, tortured if not traumatized survivors. The fresh air from the hills and the valleys that form the ‘former paradise’ will make your heart shrink and envy the people who perpetuated the killing and destruction.
"Apart from having cattle, and good climate, Bissesero had the most gorgeous people," recalled Kayumba Javier, a survivor. "Men could come from across Africa to get a bride from Bissesero," he added. "Not only physical beauty, but Bissesero girls were very hard working and dependable."
Bissesero memorial site has nine houses that symbolize the former nine provinces that composed Kibuye. A remarkable difference from other areas of Rwanda, 90% of the residents in these provinces were said to be Tutsis.
"Kumubuga, Mugonero, Gishyita hose hahoze impfura mbere y’intambara," Kayumba said sorrowfully, meaning "This place had very beautiful people before the war.
"I can’t forget the day when Habyarimana’s plane fell, that’s when hell broke loose," said Kabanda Narisis a survivor. Within a blink of an eye, the Hutus held merchetes, and clubs mocking their rivals with sharp sarcastic words.
To residents ‘nyenzi’ meaning cockroach, is a very bad word. "You would rather beat me than call me that," said Mucheshyimana Olive a survivor.
By the second day of the Genocide in Bissesero, Tutsis with the help of an aged warrior named Birara unsuccessfully tried to defend themselves. "When we heard that the Hutus had started killing right from Gishyita, though we were very scared we refused to die as cowards," explains Kabanda.
All but women, tried to defend but in vain. A Hutu executive secretary from Gisovu only identified as Ndibambi, who has since fled the country, convinced people to give in. "It was just a group of criminals disorganizing you; it’s all sorted out so keep calm," the person allegedly reassured them.
After reassurance, Ndimbati reportedly went to Mubuga from where he unleashed a stronger Interahamwe group that included police cops from all the provinces including Kigali.
"All we had to do was to go to Muyira, so that we could throw stones at the Interahamwe as they were approaching, little did we know about the gun because we had never had any person from Bisesero in the army and any other position of leadership, by virtue of our ethnic group," Kabanda said.
Muyira being at a raised ground in Bissesero, the stone throwing was of help a bit but for how long could it work any way! Birara having fought in the 1959 Genocide, he was very sharp and always looking for a way his colleagues would survive. "Crying is of no help if your relative is killed because you just know you are next, instead lets look for how to defend our people" Birara reportedly urged.
Now 46- year old Kabanda clearly recalls the day when the government sent trucks carrying armed soldiers to Bissesero, "It had been the talk over the radio that residents of Bissesero had defeated the Interahamwe, so the government had to send in reinforcement," he said.
When the killing intensified, residents adopted new survival strategies; Birara reportedly advised them to take cover as the Interahamwe were shooting, then run and mix with them as they approached. "We could mingle into their troops," said Kabanda.
Wailing filled the place during the last days after Birara and his warrior son Nzijira had been massacred. "Though by then my wife and kids had died already, I felt more grief to lose Birara for I automatically knew that we were all destined to die," said Kabanda.
With much rainfall and starvation, the few remaining people gave up resistance, "We started moving in the line of shooting because we felt that someone who had died of a gun shot had died a peaceful death," Said Kabanda. If it wasn’t for the ‘Inkotanyi’-the liberators- no single survivor would be in Bissesero, he says.
Despite the turbulent history, some survivors have transcended; people like the Karongi district mayor, various administrators as well as business men.
"The journey from these nine houses to the mass graves shows the distance the survivors traveled to save their lives though it was impossible," said Kabanda.
"This first grave is for Birara and his son Nzijira, warriors we shall live to remember and adore in Bissesero," says Kabanda, pointing to the grave. Meanwhile the number of people buried in other mass graves is yet to be established.