A survivor’s tale offers the reason ethnic attacks, regionalism and nepotism should not be the currency of politics on the African soil, our Staff Writer CHRISTOPHER NHLANE writes from Beijing, China.
April 7, the world remembers victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide which killed over one million people within 100 days.
This year marks 25 years since the massacre erupted barely hours after rebels shot down a plane carrying ex-Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, ex-Burundian leader Cyprian Ntaryamira, seven Cabinet ministers and three crew members in Kigali on their return from a peace summit in Tanzania. All the 12 passengers aboard the Dassault Falcon 50 jet perished.
However, the Hutu-led regime quickly blamed the assassination on Tutsi rebels and moderate Hutus, sparking ethnic attacks by armed forces, neighbours and ruling party militias, the Interahamwe.
The killings continued until July 1994 when current President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) toppled the regime.
In May 1994, when Malawians were casting the ballot to elect the first democratic president after 31 years of one-party tyranny, Rwandans were counting the cost caused by bullets, machetes and spears.
This year, Kagame and United Nations (UN) chief Antonio Guterres led the main Kwibuka (remembrance) at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre held under the theme Remember, Unite, Renew.
At Rwanda’s Embassy in China, youthful survivor Gilbert Kabanda was sharing horrifying flashbacks with heads of foreign missions and international agencies at a ceremony convened by the east African country’s envoy, Lieutenant General Charles Kayunga.
Gilbert was six when his mother, a sibling and a few relatives were killed in the ethnic attacks. Now 31, the second-born in a family of three is studying environmental engineering at the Central South University in Changsha, the capital of central China’s Hunan Province.
He narrates: “Ahead of the massacre, my parents planned to visit our village in Rusizi District, western Rwanda to present a newborn baby girl to my grandparents as tradition demands. Little did we know that this day would be an ugly turning point.
“On April 6, the eve of the trip, we heard gunshots and people running and screaming. We all rushed to a nearby Roman Catholic Church to seek refuge because interahamwe militias were ransacking homes, slaughtering Tutsis. There were lots of bodies on the road too.
“Even when we hid in the church, the militias, who were armed with spears, hammers, machetes and other weapons, came to kill at night. My father and other older people protected us, young children and women,” he added.
Gilbert’s mother, Beatrice, was a primary school teacher. His father, Gaetan, was a farmer-cum-businessperson.
Around 3am on the genocide D-day, Gilbert’s father asked his moderate Hutu cousin to escort the child to Rusizi for safety as the rest of the family was planning to escape to Bukavu Refugee Camp in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Gaetan believed Tutsi militias would not recognise Gilbert under the cover of his half-caste uncle.
“My father said if we do not see each other again, then we would meet in heaven. My uncle and I walked for two days, surviving on food we were given. During the night, we slept in the grass like game,” he recollects.
On the road to Rusizi, the two had to negotiate their way past a discriminatory roadblock manned by irate Interahamwe.
“I saw with my naked eyes how they killed my aunt and her family. I thank God we passed that roadblock safely,” he sighs.
Upon reaching Rusizi, they found nobody in his frail grandfather’s compound. They all proceeded to Bukavu where they expected to reunite with other family members.
But a certain RPF General Kazungu told Gilbert the Interahamwe killed his mother and baby Ange at the church. After witnessing more than 100 murders before crossing into DRC, the boy returned to Rwanda with Kazungu’s assistance.
He reunited with his father after Kagame and his victorious fighters declared a ceasefire.
“In July 1994, after we were liberated by RPF, I saw my father and my elder brother who also survived the 100 days of ceaseless killings. The bodies of my mother, sister and other family members were dumped in that church,” he stated.
Following the restoration of peace and security, Gilbert and his family went to live in Kigali with nothing to fall back on.
“It was only after my father had secured a job with Doctors without Borders that we started to live a new life from the scratch. I got new clothes and went back to school. I was later selected to the University of Rwanda,” he recalled.
The soft-spoken young man commends the government of Rwanda for setting up a good model for post-genocide reconciliation which has “significantly helped the scars inflicted by the ethnic conflict to heal quickly.”
The Rwandan Genocide occurred in 1994, but records suggest that systematic executions in the country started as far back as in 1955.
“Experience is the greatest teacher,” says Gilbert. “All countries must, therefore, learn from Rwanda’s past mistakes to avoid falling into the same traps.”