MURAMBI. This is the name that still evokes memories of the merciless and cruel massacre of dozens of thousands of Tutsis who had sought refuge at what was meant to be a technical school in the then Gikongoro prefecture, now Nyamagabe District.
More than 50,000 Tutsis are said to have perished at Murambi in just days at one of the scenes of major and elaborate killings of Tutsis during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Witness accounts indicate that the former Gikongoro prefecture, now part of the Southern Province, was one of the ‘experiment fields’ where ‘trials’ on the killings of Tutsis were conducted well before 1994.
Mass killings in the Gikongoro area took place in 1959, 1961 and 1963, according to several accounts. In 1963 alone, it is alleged that 14,000 Tutsi were massacred in four days.
When killings erupted throughout the country in April 1994, thousands of Tutsis fled their villages with hope of finding safe havens.
Some gathered in churches believing that the sanctity of God would be a no-go area for the blood-thirsty killers. Wrong.
“That’s where leaders found us and told us that we should go to Murambi,” recalls Juliette Mukakabanda, 50, who had sought refuge at a Pentecostal church just outside Nyamagabe town.
“They told us that they couldn’t get enough soldiers to protect us if we remained in several areas. They promised security in Murambi and we believed them. But it turned out that it was a trap as they wanted us to gather in one place so it would be easier for them to massacre all of us,” Mukakabanda, whose husband and two children were killed during the Genocide, adds.
Survivors mention several local leaders whom they accuse of luring Tutsis to gather at Murambi as a strategy to murder them in one place.
They include former Gikongoro prefet Laurent Bucyibaruta, Bourgoumestre Felicien Semakwavu and Captain Faustin Sebuhura, among others.
As the killings intensified, thousands of fleeing Tutsis arrived in Murambi from as far as Mushubi, Muko, Gasarenda, Tare and other remote areas.
“A few days after we had arrived, water pipes were cut off and whenever someone attempted to go down the valley to fetch water, they were killed,” recalls Simon Mutangana, one of the few survivors of the Murambi massacre.
“People died of thirst and hunger.”
The would-be Murambi Technical School sits atop a hill in a lush-green countryside, between residential houses just a few kilometres from Nyamagabe town. It is located between surrounding elevated hills, making it easy for anyone at one of the hills to monitor any activity at the site.
“The killers camped on the surrounding hills to ensure no one escapes from here,” Mutangana says. “Luring us to gather here was a strategy to exterminate us and make sure we were all wiped out.”
Eventually, almost all individuals who sought refuge at the Murambi School were killed. Of the more than 50,000 Tutsis who sought sanctuary in the area, only 13 are known to have survived the purge.
After days of preparations, a major attack was launched on the school at 3am on April 21, 1994, to exterminate all who had taken refuge there. Weak from fatigue, hunger and thirst, the victims mounted feeble resistance to the attacks using stones and bricks, according to testimonies from both survivors and Genocide convicts.
“The killers were in large numbers. Interahamwe militia were supported by armed gendarmes who started by firing bullets and throwing grenades into us,” Mutangana recalls.
After the shootings, militiamen followed in with machetes, clubs and spears, finishing off those who were left wounded or had survived the bullets and grenades.
“We were armed with machetes, clubs, arrows, axes and swords,” recalls Emmanuel Nyirimbuga, 53, who has since served out his conviction for his role in the Murambi massacre. “We moved through the crowd finishing off those who were wounded or were still alive.”
The majority of those who managed to escape from the school were killed the next day when they tried to hide in a nearby church or in bushes, witnesses say.
Today, a Memorial Centre stands within the technical school as a reminder of the horrendous massacre in Murambi.
In his own words: Emmanuel Nyirimbuga, a Genocide perpetrator
During the Genocide, I was aged 33; I was young and energetic. I was among people who manned a roadblock that was just metres from this school [Murambi Technical School] and there we selected Tutsis to be killed based on their identity cards. Later, we attacked the school itself.
The then leaders used to tell us that Tutsis were our enemies and that if we don’t kill them, they will be the ones to kill us. In addition, they also told us that killing them would allow us to take over their property. That was one of their arguments to mobilise and convince us to take part in the killings.
On April 18, we tried to launch an attack on people who were gathered at Murambi but they repulsed us because the soldiers who were to support us had not yet arrived. Later, on April 21, in the wee hours, we surrounded the school. Gendarmes started firing and throwing grenades into the crowd. We later followed with machetes, clubs, arrows, axes and swords finishing off those who were still alive. I carried a club which was planted with nails. We called it Nta mpongano y’Umwanzi (‘No atonement for the enemy’).
In 1998, I was arrested for my role in the killings. I confessed and sought forgiveness, and, in 2005, I was released on presidential parole. In 2007, a Gacaca court sentenced me to seven years in jail, but as I had already served a sentence, I was spared another jail life.
I feel ashamed for my role in the Genocide. For my inhumane acts, I once again seek forgiveness from the Rwandan people, the government and, particularly, survivors.
As a young man, I was lured into committing atrocities instead of using my energy to build the country. 20 years down the road, young individuals should learn from our history and never act as we did. They should rather use their strengths and skills to build, not to destroy and never accept to be lured into killings or destroying our country.