ZULA KARUHIMBI still lives in the same old mud and wattle house she used to stay in years ago. It is a small house with two rooms. The wooden door is rickety and its smaller windows, about the size of an iPad, testify of the house’s age.
It is hard to believe that more than 100 people escaped death by hiding in this tiny house during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. But that is what happened when Karuhimbi decided to challenge Interahamwe militia who were murdering Tutsi.
Karuhimbi’s identity card indicates she was born in 1925. But despite her age, she still has vivid memory of the events that unfolded 20 years ago when Interahamwe went on a killing spree.
She exudes fresh memory about a simple event that occurred when she was still a girl–she narrates calmly with a sense of humour.
Fictitious magical power
When the country descended into hell in 1994, Karuhimbi responded in her own manner.
Inspired by the deeds of her mother, who she says was a generous woman who loved to help those in need, Karuhimbi decided to fight back against the killers not with machetes, clubs, arrows or guns, but with humanity, bravery–what she describes as “extremely simple tricks done with determination.”
Having grown up in a family of traditional healers, Karuhimbi had inherited the practice and was as respected in her neighbourhood for her services as much as she was feared.
Many suspected she possessed supernatural powers.
With blood splattering allover the country, Karuhimbi, then 69, decided to hide behind the suspected magical power to save the Tutsi. She took in an estimated 100 individuals who had fled to her place.
Some of the individuals were literary piled up in her small house, while others hid in a deep hole she dug outside her house and covered it with woods. Others, she says, used to lay down outside and covered them with beanstalks.
A handful of others hid in a huge Euphorbia umbellate tree (known locally as Umukoni) plumes. Umukoni is a highly flowering plant.
Twenty years down the road, the ageing woman still remembers the names of some of the individuals who took refuge at her home.
She says some were acquaintances while others were people she had just met. Today, she says she knows the whereabouts of some of the people she sheltered.
“No one was killed among those I took in,” she says proudly. “I fearlessly confronted Interahamwe whenever they would want to enter my enclosure to kill. I warned them that if they entered they would face the anger and incur the wrath of Nyabingi (a supposed powerful spirit in folklore).”
Feigned magical powers
“To instil fear among the attackers, I would anoint my hands with herbs that cause body irritation and touch them. Because they didn’t know the existence of such herbs, whenever I touched them, they got upset and I used to tell them that it was Nyabingi doing it,” she narrates.
“And to supplement it, I would go back in the house, shake whatever I could find, including metals and bags and tell the people I was hiding to scream. Then I told the killers that the voices were of my spirits and that they were angrier against them. The killers would flee in fright.”
On several occasions, Interahamwe killers attempted to snatch the Tutsi from the hands of Karuhimbi but she remained defiant. At one occasion they also attempted to torch the house and at another they attempted to spray bullets at her house.
Hiding behind her reputation as a sorcerer, she threatened the militiamen that if they dared attack her house, they would be swallowed by spirits and that their families will face tremendous curses.
Frightened, the attackers abandoned their plans, she says.
Karuhimbi, a practicing Muslim, insists she never possessed nor did she believe in magic.
“I only believed in one God and the thing of magical power was just an invention and cover I was using to save lives. I am not a witch doctor.”
By the time the Genocide was stopped, Karuhimbi had saved the lives of more than 100 Tutsi, three European nationals and about a dozen Burundians.
For her valour, Karuhimbi paid with the lives of her two children who were killed by Interahamwe.
“Of course, the loss of my children caused unbearable pain, but it didn’t deter my determination,” she says. “I am happy and proud of having been able to save lives.”
Karuhimbi is revered as a heroine in Musamo Village, Ruhango District, where she lives. If there is anyone who does not know her or her home, it is those yet to be born.
Her bravery has also been recognised by government and, in 2006, President Paul Kagame honoured Karuhimbi with Umurinzi, Rwanda’s Campaign against Genocide Medal (CGM) for her courage and determination to stand against the Genocide.
The medal is her pride, a token she goes to bed with every night.
In 2009, a tree was planted in her honour in the Garden of the Righteous in Milan, Italy. Karuhimbi was flown to Milan for the occasion.
Attempts were also unsuccessfully made to have her nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Wallowing in poverty
Karuhimbi never had a chance to attend formal education and her life has entirely relied on small-scale agriculture. In her active years, she says, she used to sell vegetables in Ruhango for sustenance.
But with age, she has grown frail and can no longer farm, so she depends on well-wishers, neighbours and relatives for survival.
Karuhimbi spends most of her time indoor but fears the house she lives in might one day collapse. When it rains heavily, the house leaks.