Kabageni: Freedom fighter killed in quest for justice

Not all political leaders who were murdered during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi posed a political threat to the killer regime of president Juvénal Habyarimana.
Interahamwe shot Kabageni twice, killing her on the spot. (Courtesy)
Interahamwe shot Kabageni twice, killing her on the spot. (Courtesy)

Not all political leaders who were murdered during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi posed a political threat to the killer regime of president Juvénal Habyarimana.

Some of them, such as the late Venantie Kabageni who was killed on April 11, 1994 at the age of 50, initially belonged to the ruling party that later turned its killer machinery against members.

Kabageni’s biography is best captured by her younger sister, Odette Nyiramirimo, currently a member of East African Legislative Assembly, who witnessed one of Rwanda’s political luminaries rise from a school teacher to Parliament during the country’s most challenging times.

Kabageni was born in 1944 in present day Boneza sector, where she also attended her primary school. She later attended Muramba Teacher Training (Ecole Normale Primaire), a girls’ school until 1961.

She was one of the 18 children born to her parents. Only two — Nyiramirimo and a sister — survived the Genocide.

At Muramba, Kabageni met classmates who later on became spouses of some senior members of the ruling party, the MRND. This gave her connections in the party. She continued to grow her political contacts, after getting married in 1963 to a medical assistant who was posted at Kabaya Hospital, Habyarimana’s birth place.

While in Kabaya, Kabageni continued teaching, until her family of six relocated to Kigali upon the transfer of her husband and settled at Giticyinyoni in 1978.

That same year, she became the director of the Butamwa Primary School. It was in this area that she later started a journey to a successful political career that propelled her to become a Member of Parliament in 1988.

In Kigali, Kabageni’s family lived near the then executive secretary of MRND, Bonaventure Habimana, whom she had known before.

“He encouraged her to campaign for a parliamentary seat in the 1988 election, and promised support. She campaigned in Kigali Ngali prefecture, Butamwa commune and won,” said Nyiramirimo.

According to Nyiramirimo, her late sister used to move with a primary school girl dressed in uniform on her campaign trail. This meant that her focus was on promoting education for girls, a campaign tool that handed her victory.

Even before she was elected to Parliament, the hardworking Kabageni had started many businesses, including a bar and was involved in farming at Nyabarongo valley.

Annonciata Uzanyinema, a mother of two and Kabageni’s daughter in-law, says: “She was a real mother who used to come and help me raise my children after work.”

Divorcing MRND

Kabageni followed the violations of her party with disgust. The MRND had made her a pawn to show the world that the regime was inclusive. “Habyarimana used to present her all the time to foreigners who criticised his regime for oppressing the Tutsi. He used her to show the world that there were Tutsi in the system,” said Nyiramirimo.

In 1991, Kabageni could no longer tolerate the abuse of the MRND and called for a press conference to announce her resignation from the ruling party.

She made it clear that she was ready to face the consequences, declaring that she would not be the first victim of the regime.

Since then, Kabageni embraced the PL’s principles of justice and liberty and was even elected party president for the Kigali Ngali prefecture. Her zeal inspired Nyiramirimo to join the party.

Indeed as predicted, the decision to quit MRND brought Kabageni trouble. At first, the powers that be sent her a hostile neighbour, known as Setiba, who used to threaten her.

She even ended up abandoning her own house and relocated to a rented house in Nyamirambo. She, however, continued to publically denounce MRND abuse.

One day, in 1992, Interahamwe carried out killings of the Tutsi in Muhororo, now Ngororero District, and Kabageni was among the PL members who staged a peaceful protest to denounce the killings in a march from Nyabugogo to Nyamirambo stadium.

Nyiramirimo, who also participated, recalls that Justin Mugenzi who was still in the PL as a leader, had a change of mind later and joined the ruling party and started persecuting Kabageni. This persecution worsened when she was elected national vice president of the party in 1993.

The Genocide

The Genocide against the Tutsi happened after the Interahamwe had finalised a plan to kill politicians in opposition parties. Tension continued to build up after the militia came to know opposition politicians nominated to the interim parliament following the Arusha negotiations between the RPF and the government.

Kabageni was on the list of members of parliament which, according to sources, Habyarimana declined to swear in on January 5, 1994.

On April 6, 1994, when the plane that was carrying Habyarimana went down, Nyiramirimo’s family decided to flee Kigali as they feared the killing of the Tutsi would start immediately.

They went to Kabageni’s Nyamirambo home to pick her so they can go together to Nyiramirimo’s home, but she refused to leave. “She said, ‘I cannot go with you, I started the struggle with my colleagues; I cannot deceive them. I will stay here you will find my body when you happen to come back.’” Nyiramirimo quoted the words of her sister.

That night, they did not leave the city until the following morning when the killings worsened and Kabageni had lost contact with her children.

Together with Nyiramirimo, they hid at nearby convent in Nyamirambo for three days until they got wind of a plot by the nuns to hand them over to the Interahamwe. Kabageni, the most wanted, hid in a chicken house.

One day, two government soldiers promised to protect them in exchange for Rwf 50,000 per day — a deal that gave them some hope and returned home.

On April 10, the situation worsened, and the family decided they had to find a way out of the city.

The two soldiers went with Nyiramirimo’s husband to check whether the road to Butamwa was safe. The following morning, the soldiers who had promised to escort them to safety in return for the family vehicle, a Land Cruiser, among other things, did not show up. The family of three children, Nyiramirimo and husband together with Kabageni decided to drive to Butamwa before 7.00 am, the time when Interahamwe used to start staging their check points.  

At Butamwa, Kabageni who was known in the area, tried to have a conversation with policemen at communal office, but realized they were hostile.  

She decided to bribe them so they can accompany the family to the nearby Nyabarongo River, where they expected to cross to Gitarama.

They left the car at the Butamwa commune and walked to the river, accompanied by two policemen. As they tried to figure out how to cross the river (because boatmen had declined money to transport them across), the interahamwe pounced.

The family that had been joined by other Tutsi from their hideouts, struggled the entire day to escape the killers. At around dawn, they tried to run back to Butamwa Commune but that was when Interahamwe shot Kabageni twice, killing her on the spot.  

Her killers were about to massacre the rest of the family using machetes when the commune leader intervened and lied to the killers that he would deal with the rest himself. He helped them escape using their car back to Kigali.

Kabageni’s body was retrieved in 1995, when one of the Interahamwe revealed where they had buried her. She was accorded a decent burial at Rebero cemetery.