Who is a Survivor?

A number of years ago, I met a Rwandan with the kindest heart. He welcomed me into his house for a meal, and ever since then I have kept this man close to my own heart. Not too long ago, my Mother was able to get him to talk about his troubled past, which he usually keeps to himself. Most visitors to Rwanda do not realize that the warm and friendly faces they see cover some horror, whether it be committing, surviving or defeating genocide. The bright smile and warm heart of this man was covering immense horror too.

The man was born into a nuclear family in the east of Kigali. Like most of his neighbors, he lived on a large farm with a handful of cows. Unlike his neighbors, he and his siblings grew up with the wise instruction of his father to see everybody as Rwandan, rather than the Belgian-imposed ethnic labels and divisions of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. As a child, everything outside of his village was considered to be strange, fascinating, alien-like. The same was true of the Belgian colonial officials, the very few that were stationed near his home village, who he saw talking to community elders. The Europeans were at this time switching their allegiance from the minority Tutsis to the majority Hutus, just as the United Nations began demanding that Rwanda hold democratic elections.

As a preteen, he witnessed the Hutu Revolution of Rwandan independence in 1959-61, which resulted in country-wide pogroms as well as forcing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis to flee the country. Such events confused the boy, because he grew up in a world anchored to the words of his father to see just the one Rwandan identity. And as he grew into an adult, this was the basis on which he interacted with his fellow countrymen. When asked about his ethnic identity, for example, he claimed to be a Rwandan. Refusing to speak with pride about his ethnic identity he lost the opportunity to work in government, which was no small thing since government roles were traditionally the most sought-after and secure. With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, he was able to work for an insurance company in the small capital city of Kigali. His Rwandan coworkers and European boss knew him as a man of integrity and great warmth. He quickly rose to a position of comfort and success. He married and had three children.

From early October 1990, this man’s world changed forever. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), comprising the children of those who fled during the Hutu Revolution when the man was just a small child, attacked the country in an attempt to return to their homeland. Within a few days of the happening the man was arrested by the Rwandan government, accused of being a RPF spy. But he did not even know who they were! For nine months, he was tortured and left to rot in a small jail cell. Following his release, he returned to his house. As he approached, he found bullet holes in the gate. As he walked inside the house, he saw more bullet holes – they were everywhere. He feared for the safety of his family. He discovered his wife and children under the sofa.. Fearing that he was a Presidential Guard soldier trying to loot the house, they had panicked and take refuge. During the man’s nine-month incarceration, his family was in constant hiding from the gun shelling.

Many in Rwanda were told by the government that the RPF had been destroyed and no longer posed a threat. This over-confidence provided crucial time for the RPF to rebuild itself, which it did in the northwest Virunga Volcanoes (known internationally for their wild gorilla population). For the man, life regained some of its normalcy. However, things changed again when the RPF made another attempt, from its northern base, to invade the country in 1992. The man did not know what exactly was happening in northern Rwanda, but he did not want his family to risk danger again. Together they fled south to Burundi and eventually to Kenya.

In 1993, hope arose in the form of the Arusha Accord peace agreement between the RPF and the Rwandan government. Also, the international community arrived in the form of a UN peacekeeping force. They would protect the nation from extremists who wanted to return to the pogroms of earlier decades and this time commit genocide against the Tutsi population. The man and his family decided to return home to Rwanda. They did so with a lot of hope in their hearts, tinged understandably with a bit of fear too.

The Rwanda that they returned to seemed so much different from the one they fled. The country had always been ethnically-based, but now the extremist Hutus had somehow gained both power and space to openly preach their brand of hatred and genocide ideology. However, the family was still glad to have returned, and they retained unwavering hope that the vicious cycle of violence would soon end. The man, never having forgotten the accusation leveled against him in 1990 of being an RPF spy one day decided to walk to the parliamentary headquarters of the recently legalized RPF political party. He invited its members to dinner, the better to learn who they were and what they wanted.

Over the course of a few months, the man became close to some members of the RPF. He, in turn, upset many Hutu extremists who saw any communication with the RPF as treason. About a week before April 6, 1994, men came to his house and painted a large red ‘X’ on his gates. Using loudspeakers, they warned the man that fraternizing with the RPF and not believing in Hutu supremacy would lead to his certain death. Unknown to the man, these men were part of the Interahamwe, the people who would go on to commit the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

While watching a football game with friends and family in his house, the man heard a loud bang in the distance. It was the night of April 6, 1994. The Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana, was dead. He had been killed when his Presidential plane was shot down on its approach to Kigali. The loud bang the man heard might have been the firing shot, or the sound of the plane crashing. From this moment on, Rwanda erupted into genocide. Early the next day, the Interahamwe who had painted the x on his gate, begin to bang on the same gate. Their intention was to enter the compound, and to kill the man and his family. The family panicked, but was able to climb a ladder in to the backyard of a neighbour who promised to protect them for a day or two. The man then carefully made his way to his office, to take $10,000 in cash and the company car. His plan was to try to flee Rwanda as he had done in 1992.

While traveling back to the neighbour’s house, he tried to avoid the roadblocks. He thankfully was able to. His wife and three daughters hid in the trunk of the man’s company car as he drove them all to Burundi. In his mind, if the Interahamwe could see only him in the car, they might let it pass; if they did not, he could always bribe the guards at the with the $10,000. He got through. After driving for a few days, the man brought his family to safety in Burundi. At some future time, they were able to return to their Kenyan house, where they had sought refuge some years previously. The horror was over for now.

On July 4, 1994, Kigali was fully taken over by the RPF, as the genocide government and its forces were forced to flee. The man decided that he must know what fate had befallen his friends and family, and so he made his way back to Kigali the next day. Upon his return, he walked the streets of his old city – it was saturated in the stench of death. It was also eerily quiet, empty save for the dead bodies strewn across the roads. The man finally arrived at his house. He stared at the burned rubble before him. The house had not only been bulldozed, but also razed to the ground with petrol. Everything he owned had either been looted or destroyed.

Walking over to the adjacent house, which he rented out, He saw that that building had also been leveled, but interestingtly it had not been burned to the ground.. While contemplating whether his neighbours had survived or not, the man discovered, under a section of concrete, the bones, still wearing clothes, of his old neighbours. He retreated back in horror and cried. Later, he called his family and told them not to return to Kigali. It was not safe.

Over the next few weeks, months and years, the man began rebuilding his house. The company he once proudly worked for was bankrupt and closing shop. As he helped package up the office supplies and documents that were not looted during the genocide, his European boss informed him that he was one of the only survivors. The other workers had either been killed or had fled to Zaire, their whereabouts unknown. He was given a large cash settlement in order to be able to rebuild his life. He tried in his heart to do so, but the genocide had taken away any chance of a tomorrow.

After a few years, the man told his family to return to Rwanda. The house continued to be rebuilt until 2013. Surviving the genocide has been a curse to him, because all of his friends and many of his family members are dead. The community he lived in is gone with only a few houses being occupied. Worst of all, he has a phobia of leaving the house. When he tries, he walks to the gate, and finds it incredibly difficult to take the next step that will take him outside. Memories of the times he was dragged or forced out of his house because he claimed to see neither Hutu nor Tutsi, only Rwandans, are like physical scars. He is fearful of what will happen if he steps outside his compound: What will happen to the house? Will it still be standing when he returns, or razed to the ground again? Will his family be truly safe?

Two and a half years ago, my Mother and I offered to pay for the man to take a trip to the United States. We wanted to bring him to New York City, Washington DC, and our house in New Jersey. He grinned and thanked us, but said that he could not leave for fear that something might happen to his family and house. During the second half of 2014, I spent a lot of time with the man in Rwanda; sometimes, just sometimes, he would allow me to take him a few meters away from his house to a local restaurant. Those times were tense. He smiled and laughed, but his anxiety showed. Anything beyond that restaurant and a spot of lunch was too much for him to take. The only time he truly leaves his house is to go to the Eastern Province, to visit his Mother who (along with his sister) was one of few family members who survived the genocide.

Whenever I go to his house, he opens the gate with a smile and a warm hug. We laugh and drink together for hours and when I leave, he tells me that he cannot wait for my return. Many people who know me, know about this man. His kind heart and desire to see a Rwanda free of ethnicity or hatred comes from a soul that has experienced such incredible pain and sadness. He survived decades of the ethnic hatred that violated his and his Father’s belief in a non-ethnic Rwanda. He even survived the genocide. I once told this man’s story to someone who researches and commemorates the genocide in Rwanda. He looked at me with unsympathetic eyes and said, “This man is not a genocide survivor, because… he is a Hutu”.

About the Author
Jonathan Beloff is a current PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies and is performing his research on Rwandan foreign policy titled, "The Evolution of Rwandan Foreign Policy from Genocide to Globalisation”. His academic focus is on economic development and international relations in the African Great Lakes Region. He previously worked for the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (Kigali, Rwanda), the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Vad Vashem.
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