Rukumbeli survivors bristle with hope as they look to the future

ATHANASE MAZIMPAKA, 55, still has fresh memories of how he lost more than 80 ‘close relatives’ during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. 
Samson Gihana (top), Athanase Mazimpaka (R) and Jean Baragata. (Courtesy)
Samson Gihana (top), Athanase Mazimpaka (R) and Jean Baragata. (Courtesy)

ATHANASE MAZIMPAKA, 55, still has fresh memories of how he lost more than 80 ‘close relatives’ during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. 

The resident of Rukumbeli Sector in the eastern district of Ngoma says he can name every one of his murdered relatives except that he won’t find the courage to get to the end of the list.

“Naming them might arouse bitter memories,” he says. 

“I know the moment I might reach the tenth or so of them, I would break down with emotions. I would see their images moving in my mind; the images of their bodies lying in a pool of blood. That would be difficult to bear.”

So he prefers not to go into who they are and how they were killed, but rather to give details of how Tutsis were generally massacred en masse in his home sector.

Official figures indicate that of the more than 35,000 Tutsis who lived in Rukumbeli at the time of the Genocide, only less than 750 survived. 

The killers were nearly wiping out Tutsis when the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) took control of the area around May 5, 1994, putting an end to the bloodshed.

Mazimpaka was among the few lucky individuals who were still alive when the RPA captured the area, defeating the Forces Armees Rwandaises (FAR) and Interahamwe militia.

“It was terribly unbelievable. We couldn’t figure out anyone who could drive out the militiamen,” Mazimpaka recalls. “We were totally desperate.”

No escape route

Rukumbeli for long had been inhabited by Tutsis and when widespread killings erupted in April 1994, militiamen were mobilised from neighbouring communes and joined hands with the genocidal government soldiers to kill the Tutsi.

Testimonies indicate that the attacks on the fleeing Tutsi were well-coordinated and organised.  At first, the killers rounded up every place where Tutsi had taken refuge before launching mega attacks on them, murdering almost all of them between April and May 1994.

The Tutsi were also deterred in their efforts to escape and resist the attacks by the sector’s unfriendly geography–an area of low lands, hills of low slopes and several lakes and rivers.

“We had no escape path. Attacks were launched from all directions. We tried to defend ourselves for about five days but in vain,” Mazimpaka says. 

“Whenever they tried to flee through the lakes or into the swamps we would follow and kill them from there,” says Jean Baragata, a 47-year-old who was convicted for his role in the Rukumbeli massacres.

Baragata, who confessed and sought forgiveness for his evil acts, says it was extremely difficult for the Tutsi to escape as almost all the escape roads had been occupied by killers.

“I am ashamed and still regret what I did,” he says. “I have now repented and I am working with others to restore what I helped destroy.”

By the time the Genocide was stopped, the survivors had nothing to start from to rebuild their lives: houses had been demolished, animals had been eaten, crops and other property looted.

“The start was seriously challenging,” Mazimpaka says. “There was nothing to start from. We were yet to overcome the trauma that came with the Genocide. We were not really sure if the bad times had totally come to an end. We had no hope.”

Changing fortunes

However, thanks to support from the Government of National Unity that came in after the Genocide was stopped in July 1994, and other actors, survivors regained the courage to work to improve their livelihood.

“No one was sure that it was possible to overcome the many challenging consequences of Genocide,” Mazimpaka says. “But it has been possible and we are now better off. Our lives have significantly improved.”

Mazimpaka says the most significant achievement he is proud of is the prevailing climate of peace in the country.

“It is only when a country is peaceful that people gain assurances that they will enjoy the fruits of their efforts,” he says. “That is an invaluable gift we have been given over the past 20 years.”

Currently, Mazimpaka is a farmer, growing a variety of crops in his plot of land. 

The farmer has no figures on how much he harvests, but says the fact that he produces enough to feed his family and cater for their other basic needs, including education, clothing and subscription to health insurance scheme (better known as Mutuelle de Sante), among others, is proof that he is doing well.

“I do not have any doubt on my future; I have reasons to believe that my life will continue to improve,” Mazimpaka says.

“A few decades ago, no one knew there will be a day when harassment will cease and killings stop; a day when people will be allowed to move, study and work freely without any discrimination. That day finally came.”

Better livelihoods

Samson Gihana, a representative of Ibuka–the umbrella organisation of Genocide survivors associations–in Ngoma District, says survivors have been courageous and resilient enough to work for better livelihoods.

“The majority of them have made many strides on the journey to prosperity and continue to progress with confidence. Many of them got the chance to study and have nice jobs while others are in business,” Gihana says. 

“The most important thing is that survivors are not living in desperate conditions.”

However, Gihana says widows and elder survivors are still struggling to emerge from the tough consequences of the Genocide.

“These are the individuals who still need our support to improve their lives,” he says, noting, however, that they as well are busy working hard.

“We hope the future years will see more growth for everyone.”