He defied Interahamwe bullets

Isaac Hakizimana was only 11 years old. He was bleeding profusely and appeared dead but not ‘dead enough’. The two bullets that caught him at the right elbow had shattered bones.
Despite the deformity to his right arm, Hakizimana counts himself lucky to survive the Genocide. Jean de la Croix Tabaro.
Despite the deformity to his right arm, Hakizimana counts himself lucky to survive the Genocide. Jean de la Croix Tabaro.

Isaac Hakizimana was only 11 years old. He was bleeding profusely and appeared dead but not ‘dead enough’. The two bullets that caught him at the right elbow had shattered bones.

Hakizimana was not only engulfed in dread but also grief as half of his family had been slaughtered from a hideout in Rugando Cell, Kimihurura Sector, Gasabo District, hours before his ordeal.

But the determination he was putting up to stay alive despite the grim odds must have forced death to rethink snatching him and decided to instead help the boy get to his salvation destination: the Rwanda Patriotic Army camp.

That was in April 1994 and Hakizimana did find a way to escape alive, and, aged 31 today, he recounts his brush with death and the ordeal of losing his family.

The savagery of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi found Hakizimana in his birthplace in Rugando. The Tutsi in Rugando, he says, started receiving threats long before the full-scale ethnic cleansing “because the area was opposed to the presidential guard’s camp there used to target the Tutsi.”

He recalls that once, he was flogged by a Hutu extremist and no neighbour condemned the assault by an adult on a child.

He also has a bad memory of an incident where two boys were seized by Interahamwe militiamen who poured fuel in their ears and left them writhing in pain on the road.

Desperate hiding

These events prompted his father Laurent Kamirindi to spend his nights in the bush, because Interahamwe had plotted to have him killed.

But Hakizimana’s own fate started after the crash of presidential jet, killing President Juvenal Habyarimana, when the Interahamwe said the Tutsi should pay the price.

Their father divided the family in two groups to ease hiding. One group was in Hakizimana’s elder brother’s house, and another stayed at the main family home.

“I was in my elder brother’s house when I learnt that six family members at my father’s home had been murdered,” he says.

“Shortly after the incident, the killers tracked us down but I was not able to escape. They shot me in the elbows and bones were fractured. I could see the bones... they left me bleeding thinking I was dead.”

At this time, he was not aware how many of his 10 siblings were still alive. But one somehow turned up in the compound that had become a scene of blood.

Amid fright, they tried to make a bandage using a piece of bedcover but failed. They agreed that one of them must survive so they parted ways.

Camile Mugwaneza, now 26 and serving the country as a soldier with the Air Force, sneaked out of the compound. The two siblings survived the massacres along with four other family members.

Hakizimana says he got thirsty and tried to open a water filter with his teeth, only to fail and see his effort mix with blood on the ground. It was all muddy.

“I had no choice but to drink the mixture,” Hakizimana says, his eyes teary.

On the fourth day of his loneliness surrounded with only images of death, he heard people digging caves, and later established that they were RPA liberators.

Before this new development, Hakizimana had thought he had just a few hours to live. He had lost all energy, was dehydrated and had lost a lot of blood.

Yet, with the last ounce of energy he had, he managed to push a door to let the liberators know that a survivor was in the abandoned scene of savagery.

Challenging healing

The RPA liberators rushed Hakizimana to their camp at Parliament for treatment.

“I awoke on the third day after a surgery done by a doctor who is now a minister in government. I was happy that my arm survived amputation,” Hakizimana says.

But the surgery had only reduced pain. It did not heal the radial nerve palsy that he had acquired.

Also known as wrist drop, radial nerve palsy is a condition where a person cannot extend their wrist and it hangs flaccidly.

Hakizimana was later transferred to Byumba in Northern Province for further treatment. He spent a year in the hospital and in 1995, he started thinking about school.

“I remembered that some disabled persons resort to begging, but for me, I had said it will never work like that,” he says.

This was crucial determination for someone who had to learn to write with the least affected left hand. But he managed to find a solution to this, by finding a way he would handle a pen with some piece of hard papers.

He enrolled in Primary Six in 1995 as he continued to search for support for his medication.

He could only find a tool to help him carry on from Handicap International, a non governmental organisation.

Many times, he applied for government transfer (through survivors’ fund) in foreign countries to get treatment.

Hakizimana even suffered a failed surgery, which left the joint between the hand and the arm blocked, in an operation called arthrodesis (the surgical fixation of a joint which is intended to result in bone fusion).

Still, he continued financing his studies at secondary level through a forex exchange business that he has been running 1996.

He later joined the National University of Rwanda (now University of Rwanda) on government sponsorship where he pursued a degree in political science–he graduated in 2007. 

Habimana got a chance to be treated last year, when GARG, an association of university survivors alumni, collected Rwf6 million to have him treated from Nairobi, Kenya.

“I was advised that my right arm will never heal because I delayed to see a specialist,” he says.

However, doctors at Kenyatta Hospital managed to shift his tendons and provided him with a splint–a tool that helps him exercise his hands in a movement of flexors, and extensors (opening and closing the hand) which is now helping him to try and write with his right hand again.

Habimana, who is working at National Commission for the fight against the Genocide, as an advocate of genocide survivors, last year enrolled for masters in Genocide studies and prevention.

“I realised that people had little knowledge on the Genocide issues. After graduation, I wish I could have an opportunity to teach genocide-related courses,” Hakizimana says.

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