When Rusiga church was turned into a bloodbath

PIERRE CELESTIN KAMANAYO has good memories of how, as a teenager, he used to sing in his church’s junior choir, sometimes taking the front stage to ‘praise God’ through dances.
Kamanayo narrates the ordeal at the place where the church stood 20 years ago. JP Bucyensenge.
Kamanayo narrates the ordeal at the place where the church stood 20 years ago. JP Bucyensenge.

PIERRE CELESTIN KAMANAYO has good memories of how, as a teenager, he used to sing in his church’s junior choir, sometimes taking the front stage to ‘praise God’ through dances.

“I loved singing and dancing. It was the thing I enjoyed so much. I enjoyed coming to church,” he says.

That was in the early 1990s, a few years before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that claimed the lives of more than a million people.

When the killings broke out, Kamanayo, then aged 15, thought the church was the safest of all places. The Pentecostal church where he used to go for worship became for some days a sanctuary for many Tutsis.

“The hills around were populated mainly by Tutsis,” he says, standing on the moderately elevated hill where his church stood two decades ago. “Almost everyone fled here,” he says, pointing to the exact place where the church was.

The church is no more, today, and has been replaced by a memorial site in honour of those killed in the area during the Genocide.

Testimonies indicate that thousands of Tutsis fleeing from killings in Shyorongi, Rusiga, Bushoki, Kanyinya, and Mbogo sectors gathered at Rusiga Pentecostal Church where they were rounded up by militiamen and killed.

Although the exact number of the victims are not known, Rusiga memorial site is home to remains of about 6,700 Genocide victims. Only 146 of the asylum seekers to the church are known to have survived the killings there.

‘Heaven falling’

Kamanayo remembers with sorrow mixed with nostalgia the time before the Genocide when he used to visit his Hutu neighbours, play with their kids and share meal together.

“It was good and wonderful moments,” he says.

He also has fond memories of “joyful times” at church with his age-mates as they sang, danced and praised their Lord.

However, that ‘pleasure’ has gone with times and, today, whenever Kamanayo returns to the place in Gako Cell of Rusiga Sector, it is for him to pay respect to his killed relatives, friends and neighbours.

“At first, I couldn’t find the courage to step here. Whenever I thought about it, I felt tormented and lacked the courage to come,” he says. “But with time, I learnt to accept what had happened and took the courage to move on with life.”

Kamanayo was the third born in a family of seven. His parents and five siblings were killed at the Rusiga Pentecostal Church.

“It was crazy how things changed within just days,” he says with sadness. “The real people we used to live together, those same people we shared everything and we used to come together at church were the real ones who were hunting and killing us. It was weird.”

For a young boy of his age, Kamanayo says he struggled to understand what was going on.

“It was as if the heavens were falling up on us. I was stupefied. It’s like lightening had just struck and made me lose my mind. I couldn’t figure out what was going out,” he says.

“I saw people I knew with machetes, clubs or arrows killing their friends. It was weird and unbelievable for me. I couldn’t imagine that,” he adds.

Rivers of blood at Church

In mid-April a major attack was launched on Tutsis who had hidden at Rusiga church, killing the majority of them.

Kamanayo says he still remembers his younger brother calling him for help as Interahamwe militiamen hacked him and his mother to death.

However, with a small group of Tutsis, Kamanayo managed to flee the area, finally heading to Jali hill in the following week where they were offered protection by the Rwanda Patriotic Army.

Pastor Celestin Nsengiyumva, who led the congregation at Rusiga church, still remembers the dark days at his church. While he was himself being hunted down, he says it was hard to understand how the same people who used to come for his sermons had turned against him and other people and wanted them dead.

“We tried to organise a resistance, but we were overpowered,” Pastor Nsengiyumva says.

When the attackers started hurling grenades into the crowd, the Tutsis run for safety thus weakening them, the man of God says.

“They killed parents, children, mothers and fathers, young and the elderly. There was no exception,” he says. “It was sad to see everyone being hacked to death. The place was filled with blood. People were killed inside and outside the church.”

New chapter

Rusiga Pentecostal Church is just one of the many places of worship which were regarded as ‘sacred’ and which Tutsis believed were safe. 

When they took refuge there, they thought the militiamen would not dare attack them in the sancticty of God’s place of worship, but they were killed in the most despicable of ways, with some cases where even the churches were brought down or torched with the Tutsis inside.

Survivors of Rusiga massacres say it was hard to forgive their offenders and it was not easy to pick up with life after the Genocide.

But they say 20 years down the road the journey to reconciliation, unity and improved living conditions has proved to be positive.

Kamanayo says they have been able to reconcile with their offenders mainly thanks to efforts put in encouraging them to own up and seek forgiveness.

“A new chapter has opened in Rwanda’s history,” he says. “I believe there will no more be hatred, discrimination or killings of innocent souls.”

“Time has come for everyone to understand that we are living a new life which focuses mainly on self-development and quest for better life,” he says.

“It is thus imperative that we no longer waste our time destroying our nation but rather remain focused on what will develop us.”