Bralirwa bus ambush: When ‘Rwandanness’ won over ethnicity

ON THE MORNING of January 19, 1998, residents in the north-western district of Rubavu awoke to the chilling news that a bus with more than 70 passengers had been torched with the persons inside. In the following hours, the news spread throughout the country and beyond and clues to perpetrators of the heinous act started to emerge.
Nyirabaganzu stands near the grave of her former husband. Inset is a monument for victims. Jean Pierre Bucyensenge.
Nyirabaganzu stands near the grave of her former husband. Inset is a monument for victims. Jean Pierre Bucyensenge.

ON THE MORNING of January 19, 1998, residents in the north-western district of Rubavu awoke to the chilling news that a bus with more than 70 passengers had been torched with the persons inside.

In the following hours, the news spread throughout the country and beyond and clues to perpetrators of the heinous act started to emerge.

As minutes tickled on, it became clear that the atrocity had been committed by remnants of Interahamwe militia, largely blamed for the wanton massacre of more than a million people during the Genocide against the Tutsi four years earlier.

This time, they had returned, infiltrating through porous borders, on what would later be seen as a mission to continue the execution of their extermination plan.

The January 1998 Rubavu  bus massacre is one of the deadly attacks that gripped parts of Rwanda, especially those in close proximity with the neighbouring Congo, which claimed the lives of hundreds of people, leaving many others maimed.

The attacks were carried out by remnants of Genocide perpetrators who were keen on retaking power and continue with the Genocide agenda.

However, the atrocities committed during the insurgency attacks (mainly between 1997 and 1999) have barely received media attention. 

The attack

When the armed rebels stopped the Bralirwa bus that morning, they ordered its passengers to separate on ethnic lines. However, they were stunned by the unexpected response.

“Everyone spoke in unison: ‘we are all Rwandans. There is no Hutu or Tutsi amongst us. We are one people,’” recalls Alphonse Bahati, a survivor.

The response enraged the attackers, who started shooting indiscriminately before setting the bus on fire.

The vehicle, which survivors describe as a big DAF bus, was carrying workers of the Rwanda Breweries Company (Bralirwa) from Gisenyi town to their workplace when it was ambushed.

At the time, Rwanda was yet to emerge from years of hatred and divisionist ideology. So the passengers knew they had taken a difficult choice while at the hands of those who had nourished the hatred ideology. 

The passengers knew their choice might mean death but decided to face it together.

Refusal to separate

About 74 peope were on board when the bus came under attack, survivors say.

The bus had reached a place called ‘Buruseli’, about three kilometres outside Gisenyi town when the gunmen stopped it.

“The assailants then ordered Hutus out of the bus,” Bahati recalls. “They made it clear that Tutsis should remain onboard, insisting that they [the Tutsis] deserved death. But we all refused and stayed defiantly together onboard.”

When the militiamen realised that their orders had been defied, they started shooting at the bus at random.

They later repeated their orders twice more but met the same defiance, Bahati says.

The militiamen were clad in military attires and carried guns, according to survivors.  

Others who stood nearby were armed with traditional weapons and followed the situation with keen interest, waiting to finish off anyone who might attempt to flee, witness accounts say.

Realising that the passengers would not relent, the militiamen then poured gasoline on the bus and set it on fire.  

Those who had not been killed by bullets were then burnt to death, while others were killed as they jumped out to escape the flames.

In total, 39 people died in the attack. Today, a monument stands outside Gisenyi town in honour of the victims of the ambush.

Bahati jumped through the bus’ window and miraculously slipped through the militiamen.

“They shot at me. Bullets scraped past me thrice in the leg and I fell. Perhaps they thought I had died,” he says.

Around the time of the attack, remnants of Interahamwe and former government soldiers (FAR) had intensified attacks, particularly in the north and north-western parts of the country near the border with DR Congo, where they had taken refuge.

In some of their worst attacks, they targeted buses and schools unsuccessfully ordering people to separate along ethnic groups.

The attacks ended always in bloodshed. The Bralirwa bus ambush in 1998 was one of the attacks.

Earlier in 1997, the rebels had stormed the Ngororero-based Nyange Secondary School, ordering students to separate. 

After the orders were defied, the attackers shot randomly at students, killing six of them. Today, the students are among the heroes the country honours every year.

 Forgiveness

In the years that followed, the insurgents were defeated and driven out of the country, thus full peace was ushered in for citizens. 

The government then intensified efforts to have refugees return to their country. Among the refugees happened to be some of the individuals who took part in the Bralirwa bus massacre.

Bahati still recognises some of the attackers and says he has severally met them in Gisenyi although he does not wish to delve into their personalities.

“We have forgiven them,” he says.

In 2004, survivors of the ambush organised a public Christian crusade at Rubavu Stadium at which they openly voiced their forgiveness to the attackers.

“Although they didn’t come to us to seek forgiveness, we wanted to show that it [forgiveness] is the best way we can build a better country,” Bahati says. “Forgiving them was the only way we could move on and work together to make our country a better place.”

‘Heroes’

In the years that followed, an association bringing together widows of those who perished in the bus attack was born with the aim of consoling themselves and work ingfor improved livelihoods.

The association, named ‘Girimpuhwe’, currently brings together 24 members.

“The attack left us wondering what our future would be,” says Euphrasie Nyirabaganzu, whose husband was killed in the bus attack. “So we came together to help each other.”

Today, the association runs a hardware shop in Rubavu.

“By remaining united till death, they showed that Rwanda will not be torn apart again,” Nyirabaganzu says of the choice of the former Bralirwa employees. “And for that, they accepted to lose their lives. They are real heroes.”

Had Rwandans stood altogether against massive killings in April 1994 like did the Bralirwa employees four year later, the Genocide would have never happened, the Minister of Sports and Culture Protais Mitali told Rubavu residents at a Kwibuka Flame stop in the district last month.

For survivor Bahati, their act is a testimony that no one will allow divisionism to take root within the Rwandan community anymore.

“Rwandanness is what bonds us together and nothing will separate us anymore,” he says.

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