“In time of grave public crisis, one must have the courage...to face a million and one opponents,” Gichin Funakoshi, one of the founders of Karate says.
Seated in his rather congested office at the National University of Rwanda, Tharcisse Sinzi casts a figure of ‘an inwardly humble and outwardly gentle person’, the true description of an accomplished Karate player, but behind that calmness lays a feeling of being totally confident about self defence.
For folks in Butare, Sinzi Tharcisse needs no introduction. For others, you could have met him in Mwichira Mitali’s documentary on Genocide – ‘The short cut.’
“At the outset of the 100 day Genocide the situation was dramatic and horrific,” said Sinzi. “When I reached Butare town I met a -friend of mine – Jonathan Rurangirwa whom I begged to help me flee for safety,” he recalled.
In Rusatira, just at the Butare – Gikongoro border, Sinzi was met by thousands of people fleeing killings in Gikongoro.
“It was difficult to know ‘who was who’ [Tutsi or Hutu] because many people were fleeing. We were united by a common desire to save our lives,’ he added.
‘At Mwogo River, that separates Butare and Gikongoro, we set our resistance point to fend off attacks from the Interahamwe,” recalled Sinzi.
The resistance did not last. Traditional weapons could not match the mighty gun. On April 24, Sinzi and his group were forced to flee to Songa- a nearby village. Gun fire from genocidaires was unbearable.
“We sought sanctuary at a Canadian priest’s home at Ruyenzi but for a short while. The priest’s guards drove us a way,” said Sinzi.
The group relocated to a strategic hill that over looked other two hills so that it would be easy to tell when the enemy attacked.
“From the April 22 -23, we were shot at from morning to evening. Until this time we were a mixed group; Tutsi and Hutu. On April 24 1994 news filtered in from Rusatira by a certain Esdron Nyawenda that only Tutsi’s were being targeted,” said Sinzi.
‘By April 26 only Tutsi’s remained. Many people from Gitarama, Gikongoro and Kigali came to join us. Information was spreading that Songa was a safe place for Tutsi’s to hide,” he said.
This was surely going to attract the attention of the attackers. On April 27 a helicopter flew low over Songa. It was to later land at ‘Arrete’ where munitions were offloaded in preparation for the onslaught on Songa.
Sinzi had assumed a leader’s role now. His Karate training had prepared him never to go down without a fight. On April 28 around 4.00Pm Sinzi and his group were met by a shower of bullets. “Many people died. People were blown to pieces.
Screams of especially women and children filled the place,” he narrated.
“I urged our people to fight with all the strength they could gather using the crudest of weapons. Using stones, we would try to fend off the attackers but it was disastrous on our side. We lost around two thousand people,” he said.
While fleeing they saw piles of dead bodies lying along the way to Mayaga on their way to Burundi. The only problem was that no one seemed to know the escape route well enough.
“We decided not wake the local people because we feared they would raise alarms. We reached a thick farm fence. We could not tear through so we decided to go round it. It is here that we split into two groups,” he continues.
The attackers had however not given up the chase. All the people who took the lower route were killed. Sinzi and his group survived and reached the Akanyaru River.
Crossing the river was not the only challenge as Sinzi was to later find out.
“People in our group started to commit suicide by jumping into the river. Many did so because they had lost their loved ones and so they no reason to live anymore. It took me close to an hour to convince them that suicide was not a wise option. I urged them to stand firm and put up a fight,” he says.
Dead bodies of colleagues who had taken the lower route could be seen floating on the waters. However, one lady called Beatrice was retrieved alive.
The now weary Sinzi had to endure a 20 minutes swim to determine the possibility of crossing. Other six people who knew how to swim also crossed.
“I asked people to surrender their clothes so that we could make a long rope that would be used to enable us crossover. The plan was to take the rope to the other end of the river so that we could pull and help people holding on to it to cross,” said Sinzi.
But people were impatient. Before Sinzi could get to the other side of the river, they started pulling and many drowned with it. Only twelve managed to cross.
Now already on the Burundi side, Sinzi and other twelve men hatched a plan to solicit for help from Burundians.
“We met a group of people whom I deceived that I had many people down the river with lots of money and that they would be paid handsomely if they helped them cross. We were taken to a Police station. My group of escapees were tired so we left them at the station,” he said.
Meanwhile the attacks continued at the Burundian side in schools where they were offered shelter by the UNHCR. Out of the 3480 people who left Songa, 118 people who managed to cross along with Sinzi were saved.
Despite helping over a thousand people flee to safety, Sinzi could not save his family. “My wife and child died during that tragic episode,” said a crestfallen Sinzi.
What was the motivation behind this struggle to lead a dejected group to safety? “The spirit of Karate drove me on. I was taught never to go down without a fight, it helped me develop a strong mind, body and a ‘black’ heart,” said the holder of a fourth level black belt.
On his office wall hangs a dirty Karate green belt he wore during that period – a guardian of memories.
“I still have the clothes I wore on that time. I always wear them during the mourning period, a constant reminder of my past,” said Sinzi, as he admired a photo of his three children dressed in Karate attire.