The Return to my motherland

…Continued from last Sunday Then I started thinking of my mother. Could she…, another thought struck me. Could she and my father, by any but inconceivable chance be somewhere, out there in the field digging like these other people? God forbid bad things!It has always amazed me how fast news travels in rural areas.

…Continued from last Sunday

Then I started thinking of my mother. Could she…, another thought struck me. Could she and my father, by any but inconceivable chance be somewhere, out there in the field digging like these other people? God forbid bad things!
It has always amazed me how fast news travels in rural areas.

There are no telephone lines, a few radios around if any, but any small incident worth knowing, as if by magic, is transmitted all around the community in a relatively short time no matter how distant the location of its occurrence.

That is how it was. As my uncle was busy talking to and embracing some people in a group we had met, a couple of children whom I immediately recognized as my young brother and sister materialized as if from nowhere and jumped on me in silent embrace.

They had already heard of our arrival, and had rushed ahead to welcome us.

Their appearance was a blessing for me because, with the frequent stops my uncle made to greet all the people he knew, our progress was at a snail’s pace and my patience with him was growing thin.

And so my sister took my small suitcase, my brother took my hand and together we left my uncle to his endless talk.
About half a kilometre away, I got a shock of my life.

“That’s Mother”. My young brother said.
“Where”? I was looking at his pointing finger. But the only person I could see was an elderly woman throwing some rubbish on a heap from which rose a thin column of white smoke. No!

That couldn’t be my mother. The picture of my mother I kept in my mind all these years was of a tall, plump but graceful lady with raven hair, always dressed in an immaculate white blouse and multi-coloured kitenges.

The woman I was looking at was visibly emaciated, and was dressed in a not too clean head kerchief and other garments of indistinct colour. My mother suffered from asthma and did not stand dust.

So, as she worked, the poor woman had tied a scarf across his mouth, a poor attempt at warding off particles of dust.

I felt a lump build up in my throat, and, in order to stop myself from crying out loud, I rushed to her and let my emotional outburst flow in her bosom.

Together, we went home where my father was waiting for us. He had not faired any better, but at least he had kept his majestic aura about him and the glint of mischief in his eye.

“There you are my boy! Welcome home”. He said. I went over and hugged him then sat on a flat stone near him.

Soon afterwards, my uncle also arrived and the formal greetings over, he started telling my father news about those we left behind in Bujumbura, and narrating to him all the details of our journey.

It was not until late in the evening when my uncle departed, for his own place of abode was in another camp.

The next day afternoon, seated on his famous traditional low stool at the far end of our compound, my father sent for me to come. Near him was a big log of tree. I sat on it while he talked.

“It all started barely two years after you left us”. He began, apparently intent on telling me the story of their journey into exile.

“As you may remember”, he went on, “or maybe you don’t, by the time you left Kabere there were skirmishes between UNAR and PARMEHUTU parties going on.

Then sometime in 1959, we heard that Umwami (king) Mutara had been assassinated in Usumbura”. (Of course I had heard of that incident, but did not attach any importance to it at the time).

“Many of us believe that it was because Umwami was agitating for independence. Any way, we also later heard that the leaders of PARMEHUTU were inciting the Hutu population all over the country, to kill Tutsis, burn their houses and loot their properties including cows.

The Tutsis of Gitarama, enraged by the brutalities of the attackers who not only looted but also raped their women and killed their children, decided to fight back and beat up one of the leaders, so bad that he was left for dead.

Rumours of his death set off violence against the Tutsis by the Hutu which was engineered by the government and Belgian authorities, killed about 100,000 Tutsis all over the country and many thousands more like me here fled to Uganda, others to Congo and others to Burundi”.

“But how did yo…” I wanted to ask, but he cut me short. He had read my mind.

“How did we escape? I shall tell you. You remember my friend Cyatarugamba cya Rugina? The father of ‘munywanyiwawe’(your sworn brother). Well, we, your mother, your sister, your brother and I owe him our lives.

God bless his soul”.
“Is he d…”
“Yes he is. May God rest his soul! He died just a day after we crossed the border into Uganda. When the killing spree that visited the entire country at last reached our area, Cyatarugamba, his sons and grand-sons did their best to dissuade the killers; however, he was overwhelmed by sheer majority.

He could no save Munyawera and family, he could not save Gasamunyiga and his family, nor could save the families of Gakuba and Ruyenzi.

“When it came to us however, Cyatarugamba and his army of descendants came to my compound and stood their ground in defence.

Cyatarugamba faced the killers and declared, and mark my words: ‘Abarigusenya inzu ya Muzehe amazu gabo baje kugasukaho amazi mbanica Rugina na Bakundinkwano’.

(By the name of Rugina [his father] and Bakundinkwano [his mother] those who dare destroy Muzehe’s [oldman’s] house should go and pour water on their own houses).

“The threat was that he would burn all their houses in retaliation.

“That very evening”, my father continued, “Cyatarugamba commandeered Serugendo and his old Ford Pickup, and with but a few of our absolutely necessary belongings, my family and I were driven to the border of Uganda at Cyanika”.

(20Km away). “The rest of the journey to this place here we made on foot, walking during the day and sleeping at night, save a few kilometres for which we were given a lift by an UNHCR truck”.

At this point, my younger brother came to tell us that mother said we should go in for dinner. Time had passed so fast. My father said to tell mother that we were coming. Then in conclusion, he went on:

“Gakuba and Ruyenzi were the last to arrive in this camp. The grim story they had to tell about the fate of Cyatarugamba chilled us right through to the bones”.

My father went on to tell me that according to Gakuba and Ruyenzi, the first attack which wiped out their families found them out in field looking after their grazing cattle.

They eventually came back after the killers had gone, and that is when they found their homes erased and their families wiped out. In their misery and not knowing what to do, they sought refuge in Cyatarugamba’s compound and remained hidden in one of his son’s houses.

The killers came back the next day, their intention to exterminate our family, only to find an empty house. In their anger and frustration at not finding them, the killers turned their rage on Cyatarugamba and wanted to destroy his compound by setting it on fire.

A battle ensured between Cyatarugamba sons and the killers during which he was slain, struck in the chest with a spear blade by one of them.

“And that is how my poor friend died”. Concluded my father with a long sigh as he stood up and headed towards the house.

Days went by, months followed months. My uncle had long gone back to Burundi, while I had decided not to leave my parents alone, in their then predicament, at least not then. (I was to leave them later on anyway).

I could fetch water for them at the man-made lake, I could go with my brother and sister and other camp children to gather firewood in the snake-infested forest, I could go with my mother to the field.

I was an asset to my parents rather than a liability because; in the few months that I had been in the camp I had truly become an accomplished refugee.

As far as my studies were concerned, my father had correctly said that there also were schools in Uganda. And so, at the beginning of the new academic year, I enrolled in Primary Seven, a drop of one year for I had passed this level in my former school.

But it did not matter because, since I was a Francophone, I had to contend with the language of instruction, English.

At that time, Uganda had perhaps the harshest refugee laws in the region.  Refugees were confined to designated refugee camps and refugee status was transferred between generations: the children born in Uganda to refugee parents were themselves considered refugees.

And so, the one benefit of refugee status was that it gave children access to the United Nations assistance, in particular UNHCR scholarships, which allowed young pupils to find schools in urban areas in Uganda and abroad.

This is how I left my family in Uganda seven years later.
Final episode next Sunday…

To be cont’d