Positive contradictions born of 1st October 1990

As has happened for some time now, this year 1st October came and went practically unnoticed. That it was not marked with pomp and pageantry represents one of the contradictions that have gone – and continue to go – into shaping today’s Rwandan society.
Pan Butamire
Pan Butamire

As has happened for some time now, this year 1st October came and went practically unnoticed. That it was not marked with pomp and pageantry represents one of the contradictions that have gone – and continue to go – into shaping today’s Rwandan society.

1st October marks the day a then little-known ragtag band of fighters, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), fighting wing of a political movement based in exile, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), let off the first shot that signalled the launch of a protracted struggle that would turn this country on its axis and point it in an altogether different direction. It’s this path in the direction of a reunited Rwandan society that’s replete with contradictions.

In a small measure, one family symbolises this “bundle of contradictions” that’s Rwanda: the Mutumwinka family.

Mama Mutumwinka today is an old widow of over 60 years of age. She is a resident of Cyugaro, Ntarama Sector, Bugesera District, Eastern Province, where she lives with her daughter, Forutunata, and the daughter’s husband, Petero. Other family members have gone fortune hunting in different areas of Rwanda but visit regularly.

Ntarama has not always been home to the Mutumwinka family. Before 1994, Mama, her husband of 26 years and their six children lived in then Butare prefecture, south near Akanyaru River that acts as the border between Rwanda and Burundi.

One evening in mid-May 1994, the family was huddled in a corner of their dark, tiny sitting room when their squeaky door burst into splinters around them. Torchlight danced on the cowed group and then settled on the father, whereupon the gang leader yanked him up and threw him to his gang members outside, who set upon him with machetes and clubs and turned him into pulp.

Meanwhile, the leader was having his time with the mother, next to the trembling kids who desperately tried to shut out of their ears what was happening. Gory details aside, once done, the leader called to the gang to continue the business with haste. There was celebration to do and more “work” awaited them the following day. The last man torched the house and quickly followed the others.

Fortunately, the boy managed to quickly marshal his siblings and they carried their semi-conscious mother to a swamp where they hid until she regained some strength. After a few days, they crossed the river into Burundi, where a Good Samaritan gave them a lift to Bujumbura.

How the children managed to keep their mother from committing suicide and finally to convince her to return to Rwanda, without daring to mention Butare, would take pages to recount. Suffice it to say that be it day or night, they bore the pain of hearing her agonised cries. Hers was a life of nightmares and prayers that she’d never see “those demons” again.

The story of old Petero, part of this family today, took an altogether different direction.

His parents, both having participated in the Genocide, in June 1994 followed the convoy of refugees through western Rwanda from where French troops spirited them into the jungles of DR Congo, as their defeat loomed. In 2001, at 15, Petero had imbibed enough hate to beseech his uncle to draft him into the insurgency by génocidaires and the pre-1994 Rwanda army. By 2007, he was an FDLR rebel determined to slaughter all these “foreign invaders” of his country.

His ambition was cut short, however, when a fight between his group and a Congolese rebel group left him wounded. His uncle, knowing he could get medical care only in Rwanda, tricked him into following him and they surrendered. Again, to spare you details: treatment, re-education, reintegration into the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF), et al.

Meanwhile, when Petero searched for his ancestral land, he traced it to the same land occupied by the Mutumwinka family. On seeing the old lady, he immediately saw a chance to atone for his ill feelings. He told the family to keep the land but when they insisted, they shared it and lived as neighbours.  The family was on the RDF programme that assists vulnerable groups and Petero has been granted his request of personally being in charge of this old lady.

Mama is on cloud nine and her nightmares have vanished. Her house can rival any respectable residential house in Kigali and her Girinka cow, also from the RDF, could as well be a cash cow. One thing has led to another and today Petero is married to Fortunata, her last daughter, and Mama couldn’t be happier. This family that now includes Petero thinks the RPA, RDF today, and its parent, the RPF, are the best things that have happened to them.

If only they knew how many Rwandans are enjoying such and many other contradictions.

And if they knew the near-miracles that that RPA has had to pull off, in and outside Rwanda, to be here as formidable RDF: almost wiped out at the beginning; from there almost overrunning Kigali in 1993 only to be beseeched into retreat; 600 of them besieged in CND yet rescuing victims before coming out triumphantly; beating off a superpower in the name of Turquoise; stopping a Genocide none wanted to hear of; Kisangani; Kitona,...

One day, my insomnia permitting, I’ll narrate the sketchy, yet riveting, details of those RDF cliff-hanger escapades I’ve heard about that have confounded military strategists and scholars.

No, pomp and pageantry would contradict this far-sighted, transformative, disciplined and frugal efficiency that’s building a united, dignified Rwanda which that shot set off that Monday evening, 1st October 1990.