Theophile Zigirumugabe, 40, a Genocide survivor who witnessed the killings at GS Marie Merci, Kibeho, in Nyaruguru District, during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, still cannot fathom how he survived the machete of the marauding militiamen.
The son of a pastor from Nkungu Sector in Rusizi Dstrict always expected righteouness would prevail against evil, a belief he draws from his strong Christianity background.
The problems at the school that was operated by the Catholic Church dates back to the early 90s when there were a series of strikes by students who called for the removal of Father Jean Marie Vianney Sebera, the director.
“Hutu students said the director was not doing enough to improve their welfare but, in actual sense, they only wanted him fired because he was Tutsi,” Zigirumugabe told The New Times.
The director decided to address their demands, but the situation only deteriorated; students who had constant communication with people on the outside drew a list of Tutsi classmates and started harassing them.
When they realised that the director was defending the Tutsi, they organised a second all-out strike.
Like his fellow Tutsi students, Zigirumugabe would later realise that the strike had nothing to do with welfare.
In broad day light, the striking students started ransacking shops owned by Tutsi businessmen. The school was briefly closed down.
When it re-opened, the students found a new leadership under Hutu priest, Emmanuel Uwayezu, who clearly had a mission to accomplish.
“Upon his arrival, Uwayezu launched a systematic exercise of dismissing all staff members perceived to be Tutsi,” says Zigirumugabe.
At the same time, a group of students whose first names I can only remember like Damascene, Aaron, Egide, among others, and a female student, Louise, spearheaded the anti-Tutsi campaign.
The Genocide in the area started on April 14 at Kibeho Catholic Parish where thousands of Tutsi from Nyaruguru and the neighbouring Nyakizu commune in Butare had gathered expecting sanctuary because Kibeho was still considered safe.
GS Marie Merci school’s proximity to the church meant the students had to witness Interahamwe slaughtering Tutsi.
“A 3-year-old baby escaped to our school. My Hutu classmates said they could not stay with a ‘snake’. They threw the baby into a pit-latrine,” Zigirumugabe said.
Meanwhile, the militiamen started surrounding the school in preparation of isolating and later killing the Tutsi students and staff.
But the targeted students came up with a tactic to escape in groups. The first group of 10 students escaped to Burundi, but when the school authorities learnt about it, patrols around the school were mounted.
“The director came and lied to us that those who had escaped had all been killed, and cautioned us to stay calm in the school. He was lying; the 10 are even still alive,” he said.
The following day, he brought in a dozen gendermes (equivalent to present day Police) “to protect us.”
Everything was planned. The Hutu students were represented in Interahamwe meetings–also attended by the director–outside the school.
On one morning, toward the end of April, Hutu students suddenly stormed out of school and ran to the nearby Groupe Scolaire Mere du Verbe, another Catholic girls’ school.
“The director followed them there...the students justified leaving us, saying that they did not want to stay with the Tutsi because they had links to the RPF rebels,” he said.
Bishop Augustine Misago of Gikongoro Diocese and Laurent Bukibaruta, then prefect of Gikongoro, concurred with the students, and backed the plan to separate the two groups.
It was then decided that the Hutu students should come back to their school and the nearly 90 Tutsi students were brought to Mere du Verbe, and were confined in the school refectory.
It is in this building that students saw unimaginable horrors.
After being hoarded into the dining hall, the building was surrounded by Interahamwe militia wielding traditional weapons.
Zigirumugabe, who was the head prefect at the school, escaped through the window, but a classmate who slipped through behind him was not that lucky; he was shot dead.
The killers charged after Zigirumugabe, who was caught and thrown into a mass grave and sprayed with bullets.
The narrow escape
Zigirumugabe was saved by a boy who had been part of the mob who knew him as the head boy. The boy returned two days later to save him.
Zigirumugabe stayed in a sorghum plantation around Kibeho for more than a month until he found an abandoned house nearby.
He remained in hiding until one fateful day when he was again caught by the militia who decided to take him back to school, saying his director would have a final say.
The director left him in the hands of the militiamen, who clobbered him to near death, but refused to kill him, saying his fate would be determined by Bucyibaruta, the prefect.
Again, fate had other ideas and Zigirumugabe slipped through the jaws of the killers facilitated by a Tutsi soldier who had been left to guard him.
Zigirumugabe says, today, some of his classmates who participated in the Genocide, including Aaron, Egide and Louise, are serving prison sentences, while the director is in Italy where he is still a practicing priest.