Survivor recounts five days under a pile of bodies

In the early days of the Genocide, people who lived around ETO-Kicukiro remained hopeful that they would survive if they sought refuge at a heavily armed United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) base.
Kicukiro residents in a walk to remember. (John Mbanda)
Kicukiro residents in a walk to remember. (John Mbanda)

In the early days of the Genocide, people who lived around ETO-Kicukiro remained hopeful that they would survive if they sought refuge at a heavily armed United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) base.

However, their expectations melted in thin air when the UN troops, mainly made up the Belgians, left them to face machete-wielding Interahamwe militias.

As thousands gathered at Nyanza Memorial to commemorate the victims of ETO-Kicukiro massacre, Agnes Umwali, a survivor, gave a testimony of her life as a Tutsi and how she lived five days under a pile of decomposing bodies.

“I was born a refugee in my own country; my parents were among the Tutsi who were dumped in Bugesera to be killed by tsetse flies, and people who lived nearby discriminated against us. That’s when I moved to Ruhengeri to pursue my studies,” Umwali told a sombre audience.

In 1990 most of Umwali’s relatives were thrown in jail on allegations of being RPF spies (‘Ibyitso’). Among them was her pregnant sister. Umwali’s husband, who was then working with Electrogaz, was also fired from his job and imprisoned on similar accusations.

Come 1994, Umwali’s family was evicted from a government-owned house on the grounds that such privileges were not meant for the Tutsi.  She moved with her family to Kicukiro.

At the UN compound

As the killings escalated, Umwali found her way to the UN base together with 2,000 others seeking protection.

Col. Leonidas Rusatira, who was then the commander of the Military Training School, assured them of security only to transport more killers to carry out the killings.

“One morning, Col. Rusatira came in a pick-up truck, talked to the UNAMIR peacekeepers who told him that the displaced people needed food. He indeed brought food. But as soon as food was ready, the UN troops gathered everyone to eat. They then suddenly opened the gates and let in the militias as they jumped on their jeeps to leave. Some youthful Tutsi pleaded with the UN not to abandon us but instead, they shot in the air to scare them off as they left as militias took control.”

The Tutsi in ETO tried to fight off the aggressors but they were overpowered by the genocidaires and taken to Sonatube. However, Interahamwe could not kill them there because it was on the road to the airport. They feared that foreign media could capture the killings on camera.

The killers decided to assemble their victims with a plan to lead them to Nyabarongo River where they would be killed and dumped in the water. During the genocide, the killers often dumped bodies of victims in the river claiming the Tutsi are aliens from Ethiopia who should flow back to wherever they came from via the Nile.

“As we walked to Nyanza, there was a corridor-like formation by the killers to ensure nobody escaped. Those who couldn’t walk for a long distance would be killed. On reaching Nyanza, the soldiers realised that we were not going to make it to Nyabarongo since it was almost nightfall, they began to separate the Tutsi and Hutu and then started killing,” Umwali recalled.

In the process of killing, Umwali was shot on the ribs and fell down helpless. She watched as militias switch from using guns to machetes to finish off the injured.

Saved by her brother’s blood

As the killing went on, everyone in the group knew that there was no chance of surviving.

“My brother came toward where I was lying to bid farewell to me since I was almost half dead. As he stood before me, a bullet went through his head. Blood spilled all over as he fell on top of me,” said the tearful Umwali.

With several bodies piled over Umwali; and her brother’s blood all over her body, the militia assumed that she was dead. The next day the killers returned to check the pockets of the dead in search of money. It was then that she was cut as the militia man attempted to slice off her clothes.

Umwali stayed under the bodies that day and on the third day, a truck carrying militias from Nyamata heading to Kigali attempted to drive over the bodies.

Umwali realised that one of the truck tyres aimed at her and she decided to raise her voice. The track stopped.

“I lied to them that I belonged to some Hutu family they were familiar with, they doubted but pulled me aside saying that there was no reason to kill me; since wouldn’t live for an hour anyway.

“It was raining and sometimes sunny, bodies were rotting and bursting. The wounded groaned in pain seeking for water and a certain woman called Venancia brought us water which she had poisoned with insecticide called DDT.”

That day, Umwali survived again when a soldier showed up and warned the wounded that the water Venancia had served them was poisoned.

On her fifth day sleeping in between rotting bodies, RPA fighters came in full force and removed the injured from decomposing bodies.

“I was then carried on a metallic door since I couldn’t move my body. Even under the protection of RPA soldiers, we had to brave heavy gunfire as we moved from one place to another”.

As RPF fought Habyarimana’s soldiers, they also struggled to save Umwali’s life. Her wounds were however getting more septic due to inadequate treatment. She had to be flown to Nairobi for treatment.

“Today I am thankful for the RPF; it’s to them that I owe my life. I would be dead by now. I thank my friend in Belgium who stood by me and encourage survivor not to be swallowed by agony but rather strive to live a better life” said Umwali.

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