The New Times reporter’s eye witness account of the Genocide as a child

The Genocide against the Tutsi did not spare children—who found themselves either as victims or perpetrators. Our reporter Jean de la Croix Tabaro, who was a teenager, writes about the traumatic scenes he witnessed during some of the massacres that claimed a million lives.
Mourners gather at Murambi Genocide Memorial. (File)
Mourners gather at Murambi Genocide Memorial. (File)

The Genocide against the Tutsi did not spare children—who found themselves either as victims or perpetrators. Our reporter Jean de la Croix Tabaro, who was a teenager, writes about the traumatic scenes he witnessed during some of the massacres that claimed a million lives.

At 14 years old, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi found me in Musange Commune, currently Musange Sector, Nyamagabe District.

Our home is on a hill and so I could see our Tutsi neighbours gather at the commune office in a desperate search for safety. In the past, such public places, including churches and mosques were deemed safe to hide in. This time it was not.

On April 21, killings started in Kaduha parish, 5 kms from our commune. When some victims attempted to flee towards our home, they were intercepted and killed along the road and the bodies dumped in Muhura River.

Those who made it to Musange were killed in the Bunyambiriri massacre at the commune ground the following day.

As children, we witnessed traumatic episodes as a truck ferried tonnes of soil to bury victims at the spot. We also watched as people tried out all possible means to evade the killers in vain.

That was when I lost contact with my age mates, Daikola, Nyaninja and Ndoyi who suddenly found themselves caught up in a mess whose genesis they knew nothing about.

As the hunt for the Tutsi went on in our village, a playmate called Yasoni the son of our Sebuturo, hid on top of an avocado tree that was about a hundred meters from home.

For 10 days, Yosani lived on the tree perhaps hoping that a friendly person would pass around and assist him find something to eat.

My late older sister, Mujawiyera, was the first to see Yasoni. She gave him some banana juice but unfortunately, Mpakaniye, a neighbour who had earlier threatened the Sebuturos ran into them.

“How dare you help snakes such as this one?  You will lose your life if you do it again,” he fumed as he swung his machete over the head of my frightened sister, who ran back home crying.

That day, Mpakaniye and his gang searched our home for any Tutsi. Fortunately, they did not find Ruferedi who was hiding in the ceiling. As the search went on, Mpakaniye did not realise that someone had whisked away Yasoni. But the following morning, Yosani was found dead. To date I do not know who killed Yasoni, but Mpakaniye was found guilty of similar crimes by Gacaca in Jenda cell.

One day towards the end of April, my father, Faustin Ndindabahizi, strolled to a local cabaret, at about 4pm to enjoy his favourite drink urwagwa, a local banana beer. The killing of the Tutsi had reached its peak. I imagine that he may have thought that as a Hutu and a teacher, there was no threat to his safety.

But an hour later, we were informed that he had been killed. When I went at the scene with my mother, his body was in a pool of blood amidst several other bodies. He had been stubbed below the chin close to the throat.

At least we had a privilege to accord him a decent burial. I was, however, surprised to see some people carrying machetes at his funeral—perhaps ready to kill any Tutsi who would dare come for burial. I could not help, but imagine that one of the very weapons may have been used to kill my father.

Indeed, these machetes were not being carried for nothing. It turned out that had my father not died, perhaps Valeriya, an expectant mother could have survived the Genocide. Valeriya had been hiding in the bush along the road for several days when Jean d’Amour, who was coming to bury my father, spotted her and killed her. Jean d’Amour had been nicknamed Pilato because of the ruthlessness with which he persecuted the Tutsi.

Would I proudly say that I was too young to participate in the Genocide? The answer is no! I saw classmates, and children younger than me killing their victims in broad day light. That I didn’t is only because God protected me. 

In Zaire

My family decided to flee the country as the liberation war raged on. I learnt that thousands of people were displaced as it became hard for civilians to stay in a war zone. Some, however, fled because they supported the Interahamwe who massacred the Tutsi and feared to face justice as it became clear that the RPF would take over power.

For us in the south, when we saw people from the north on their way to DR Congo, we quickly sold our belongings and followed.

The journey to Congo cost me my education and my citizenship for a while. I lost four family members during the dangerous journey, lost the whereabouts of some of my childhood friends who had survived the Genocide.

At first, fleeing was not so painful, because we still had some money, and from our home, we hired a taxi up to Bukavu—travelling like tourists. That was in August.

While my thinking was that life in another country would be exiting, I later learnt that as refugee, you lose almost all your dignity.

After two weeks in Congo’s Bagira, we entered a refugee camp to start a new life as beggars. Carlos, the white man who managed Inera refugee camp, was the sole source of livelihood. Some months later, the former prime minister, Jean Kambanda, set up his tent in the camp. He was my neighbour in Inera, zone 1, 17.

His boss, Theodore Sindikubwabo followed and established his office nearby and gave a false impression that it was just a matter of time and we would be back home by force.

“The children’s song puts it very well; at an opportune time, we shall return home (Tuzataha(X2) Igihe nikigera tuzataha)”, said Sindikubwabo quoting the song, in a speech that was applauded by the refugees.

“You should not even grow tomatoes, because you may repatriate before harvesting them,” Kambanda said one day before he vanished.

In 1995, food became scarce. We missed our expired maize mill. The flour was often bitter, but it kept us alive as we barely could afford a single meal a day.

Meanwhile, the Congolese were fed up of seeing us in their farms where we used to get some food.

They even composed a song about us in Swahili with the message: “wanyarwanda wote warudiye kwao, hatuwatake tena mu Zaïre.” (All the Rwandese should return home, we no longer want them in Zaïre). They were right because we had started to steal their food.

My journey back home started when the new government of Rwanda decided to separate civilians from the militia and have them return home in 1996.

For three months, I meandered in the jungles of Kahuzi natural forest in DR Congo trying to find my way back. The hardships we faced in the forest call for a separate story.  

However, the Christmas of 1996 found me at the Rwandan border with Congo at Rusizi II. I was with my three sisters, but without my mother and five other brothers whom I had lost contact with. To date, I have no knowledge of their whereabouts, but fear that some of them may have died in the forest.