|A boy stands in a graveyard of genocide victims in Rwanda.|
Rwandan genocide 25 years on
Restless spirits unwilling to return home
ON THE day when the killings started – April 7, 1994 – Jeane (real name withheld) and her family members were rounded up by armed men and lined up, their faces against a wall.The men then stepped backwards, their guns drawn.
Jeane waited for the gunmen to pull the triggers.
“I stood there and said to myself, I won’t struggle or let anyone beat me. I told God if you have decided that I die today, let my body be covered. I don’t want my body to be naked and to be eaten by dogs,” she recalls.
But in that moment, she heard a man shouting “No, no, no, not there!”
The house belonged to Jeane’s uncle, who was in the military.
Jeane and her family, including a four-day-old baby, were saved, but her neighbours were not so fortunate.
“I was still standing there, frozen. I saw these people go to the neighbour’s place. Then I heard gunshots and people screaming inside the house,” Jeane remembers.
Her care-giver instinct kicked in.
When the men left the scene, she rushed into the house and found a man lying dead on the floor. A bullet had ripped through his neck.
When Jeane stepped out of the yard, she saw another group of armed men heading towards the house. She hid behind a tree.
From there, she would witness the most horrific event of her life.
Jeane remembers a small boy, about five years old, who was playing in the yard, oblivious of the pending horror.
“The small boy was trying to play with one of the armed men,” she recalls.
Jeane watched as the men rounded up everyone in the house, and made them stand against the wall, including the five-year-old boy.
“And then the horror started, right before my eyes. I had diarrhoea and I vomited a lot,” she says.
“Everyone was shot dead, including the small boy,” says Jeane, her voice trembling.
With the help of her cousin, who was in the army, Jeane escaped to a safe zone.
But she would not live there for long as the bloodbath escalated. She had to run.
Jeane was 37 when the killings started, and had just returned home from medical studies in Europe.
Born of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, she was torn in-between ethnically.
Her father protected her mother during the 100-day bloodbath, but he was killed in the events following the genocide.
“People are always talking about this ethnic group or that ethnic group, but they always forget the people who are in-between and we don’t know where we belong,” she says.
Jeane and her husband, and their 12-year-old daughter, fled Rwanda, heading southwards and ended up in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).
Asked how many corpses she saw during her flight, Jeane responds:
“I saw so many.”
In fact, she says many times she had to seek refuge among the dead bodies.
“Do you know what it is like to live with dead bodies?” she asks, and waits for an answer. “Do you know how a decomposing body smells?” she insists.
“The only safe place we could find was among the dead bodies.”
At one point, Jeane and her daughter were separated, but they were reunited nine years later.
She got pregnant along the way, and delivered twins in the jungle, somewhere in the Congo in 1995.
“Delivery is always a miracle,” she says, when asked how she managed to deliver twins in the jungle.
When the war broke out in the former Zaire in 1996, Jeane headed east to Tanzania, and eventually entered Zambia.
Jeane now lives in rural Zambia, working as a caregiver in a Government hospital.
Jeane considers herself both as a victim and a survivor of the genocide.
“I do not understand how I survived,” she says. “It was just God, because everyone who was around me didn’t survive.”
Over 4,000 Rwandans, mostly Hutus, are currently living in Zambia, unwilling to go back home despite the country’s now widely acclaimed advancement.
For the past 15 years, Rwanda’s economic growth has averaged between 7.0 percent and 8.0 percent. And this year, the economy is slated to grow by 7.8 percent.
Do you ever dream about going back home? I ask Jeane.
“No, no,” she responds without even giving much thought to it.
“I can’t erase that country from my mind, it is still my country, but I can’t go there,” she says.
“I have been here in Zambia for more than 20 years, working as a caregiver, so why can’t I just stay here forever?”
But even after so many years living and working in Zambia, Jeane cannot be granted citizenship.
“I can’t go back, but here also I can’t settle. That feeling of not belonging anywhere is so painful,” she says.
Jeane says her husband could not cope with the situation, and he became depressed and alcoholic.
He now roams like a mad man, she says.
She has had to raise her family alone.
Jeane regrets the fact that her children cannot speak her native language, Kinyarwanda.
Jeane still mourns about how the international community let them down.
She insists on understanding the context of the genocide. By that she means looking at when it started and why.
Jeane does not talk of one genocide, but genocides.
“I don’t understand why people just look at the 100 days and not what happened beyond that, or what happened before ’94,” she says.
Early ethnic-based killings led to the first mass movement of Tutsi as refugees into the immediate neighbouring countries in 1959. Other subsequent killings by the post-independence republics continued through the 1960s, 1970s 1980s, and the 1994 genocide against Tutsi was only a climax.
This view is held by many Rwandans living in Zambia.
Charles Munyeshyaka was 28 when the killings started.
He was a government worker operating on the border with the DRC.
When the fighting intensified, with the Rwandan Patriotic Front soldiers advancing, Charles slipped into Zaire, where he lived as a refugee.
He later escaped to Tanzania.
“Life was hard. We were confined like prisoners, sleeping in the open in a football ground. We usually suffered from diarrhoea because we were given food that we were not used to,” he says.
But when the government of Tanzania tried to forcibly repatriate him back to Rwanda, he escaped to Zambia.
Charles denies what happened was a genocide.
“It was a massacre, not genocide,” he says, and labours to distinguish between the two.
He too, like Jeane, has given up any hopes of ever returning to his country again.
“I consider Zambia to be my home country, and Rwanda as my second home,” he says.
But even in the place he now calls home, he lives in fear, restless as a leaf in the wind.
“My family is here now,” he says, indicating to the mobile phone in his hands.
He swipes the screen and taps it to show me the picture of his older brother.
“He was imprisoned for seven years and tortured. His health has not been okay since he came out,” he says.
At a sombre event to commemorate the genocide last week at Mulungushi International Conference Centre in Lusaka, Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Zambia Monique Mukaruliza said:
“We must continue standing side by side with the genocide survivors most of whom are still struggling to come to terms with the painful consequences of this dreadful past.”
But she also spoke strongly about what she called “revisionism and denialist propaganda” trying to rewrite the genocide history.
“Genocide perpetrators and their accomplices continue to carry out activities related to genocide, denial and revisionism. This is a strategy meant to distort facts of the 1994 genocide against Tutsi,” she said.
“This attempt to rewrite the history of the genocide not only haunts the survivors and their families, but also has a very negative effect on the healing process. There is need to deny these culprits the platform for executing this last phase of the genocide,” she said.
In 2017, Zambia and Rwanda signed an Extradition Treaty that commits the latter to bring to book any perpetrators of the genocide.
In January, Malawi extradited genocide convict Vincent Murekezi to Rwanda.
They say time is the best healer, they just didn’t say how long.
For many Rwandans like Jeane and Charles, 25 years is not long enough to heal what happened in 100 days.
And as the country marked 25 years since the horrific events, it only opened the wounds afresh.
“It is like someone scratching your scar and causing it to bleed again,” says Jeane.
“The memories are even more painful than the actual pain that you had,” she says.