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I’M NOT a storyteller. In Rwanda, it’s too dangerous to tell stories. There are thousands of stories to tell—about birth and life, and far too many stories about death. Stories that wrap around the hills and skip like stones across the abundant lakes and rivers. Stories that whisper through the banana and coffee plantations and eucalyptus groves. Stories that are carried on the heads of women walking barefoot to market, or swaddled on their backs with their children. Stories that run through the sweat of men as they cultivate the land, rhythmically turning the rich soil with their hoes. Stories that sing with voices raised at church.
But you don’t tell stories. You listen. You listen to your parents. You listen to your teachers. You listen to the drumbeat that echoes from hilltop to hilltop before an official announcement is made. But above all else, you listen to your leaders. In the United States, a presidential address gets less attention than a football game. Unless there is a crisis, most people don’t really care what the president has to say. In Rwanda, when the president speaks, everyone listens. In rural areas where radios are scarce, people gather at neighbors’ houses to hear what he says. And you listen closely, for what he says could mean the difference between life and death. When you hear him, you don’t form opinions. You nod your head in agreement.
So you listen. You don’t tell stories. You don’t need to. Everyone knows you. Everyone knows your family. Everyone knows if you are sick. Everyone knows if you need help. And they will help. They will take turns carrying you on a stretcher for the two-hour walk to the hospital. They will give you milk from their cow if yours is dry. They will share their cassava if you are hungry. They will share their beer, brewed from bananas, to celebrate a wedding. They will work side by side with you in your fields. They will give you shelter. But the very thread that knits Rwandans so closely together is the same one that can so quickly unravel the country.
I first learned what Hutu and Tutsi meant when I was not yet a teenager, sitting on the floor of our cooking house with six of my brothers and sisters while my mother prepared our evening meal of beans and cassava. The glow of the fire and the oil lamp cast long shadows on the walls. My father sang his evening hymns next door at the main house, his voice traveling the short distance between the two mud-and-brick buildings. We could hear our cows breathing quietly in the paddock in front of our house, where they were enclosed for the night. Outside, a blanket of stars spread from horizon to horizon.
It was March 1973 and this night was like any other, except it wasn’t. Something was wrong. My mother and older siblings were unusually quiet. As my mother worked, she focused entirely on her chores, rarely looking up. The light in the cooking house was dim, so I couldn’t see her face very well, but I could tell she was worried.
As my sister Beatrice and I joked with each other, my mother pointed a stern finger at us. “Keep quiet!” she snapped.
We stopped talking and looked at one another, wondering what we had done wrong. My mother was rarely strict with us. It was my father who was the disciplinarian of the family. For her to snap at us when we had done nothing wrong was unlike her. Our older brother and sisters kept their eyes down.
Then my mother looked at me, her eyes wide with warning. “Did you know that I spent nights hiding in the bush with you when you were a baby?”
This seemed ridiculous to me. We had a nice home—I couldn’t imagine why we would sleep in the bush, where poisonous snakes hid in the tall grasses. “In the bush?” I asked. “Why?”
My mother looked down at her cooking and said simply, “Because if we stayed at home, we would have been killed.”
I had never heard anything like this before. I was shocked. “Killed?” I asked. “Why would we be killed, Mama?”
My mother’s voice became small. Her eyes did not meet mine. “Because we are Tutsi,” she almost whispered, as if she wanted no one around to hear, not even herself.
“Because we are Tutsi?” I had heard the word before but didn’t know what it meant, and could see no reason someone would want to kill us because of it. “Why?”
My mother said nothing.
“Who?” I asked. “Who would kill us?”
Again, my mother’s voice was low. “Hutu.”
“Who are Hutu?” This was another word I had heard, but I had no idea of its meaning.
My mother paused. “Abraham and his family are Hutu,” she said.
This did nothing to clear my confusion. The Abrahams were close family friends. Before I was born, my father gave Abraham a cow—a strong symbol of friendship in Rwanda. Cows in Rwanda were not used to work the land. They were not bred for meat or even milk (although we do drink it), but for beauty. And giving someone a cow as a gift was cause for great celebration. Abraham called my father Rutabeshya, meaning “truthful,” in admiration of their friendship. My younger brother played with Abraham’s grandchildren. I couldn’t begin to understand why they would want to kill us.
“The Eliackims, the Nyakanas, and the Ngarambes are also Hutu,” she said.
These were also good family friends. It didn’t make any sense. “So the Abrahams and the Ngarambes want to kill us?” I asked.
Beatrice jumped in, “Oh, Mama, the Abrahams are very good, I don’t think they would kill us.”
“No, I don’t mean that they will kill you,” my mother said. “Not all Hutu are bad. When I hid with you in the bush, the Abrahams hid our things for us so they wouldn’t be stolen. They’re good people. But some Hutu may try to kill us because we are Tutsi.”
I couldn’t understand what she was saying. We had always lived peacefully with our Hutu neighbors. We shared drinks with them. We worked our fields together. We celebrated weddings and births together. Hutu would come to our aid and we would come to theirs. We felt welcome in each other’s homes. What she was saying didn’t make any sense. Again I asked, “Mama, why? Why would they want to kill us? Because we are Tutsi? What did we do?”
My mother took a slow, deep breath and waved her hand as if she was shooing a fly. “Oh, this child, asking so many questions. Eat your dinner and then go to bed.”
With that, my mother stopped talking. She didn’t tell me more about how she hid in the bush with me as a baby in the early 1960s, while tens of thousands of Tutsi were killed and hundreds of thousands were driven into exile. She didn’t tell me how she watched as homes were burned and Tutsi neighbors were beaten. She didn’t tell me how loved ones—including my father’s brother—fled with their families to neighboring Congo. She didn’t tell me about Tutsi men, women, and children being killed with machetes. She didn’t tell me that it was about to happen again; that word of violence was spreading through the country; that it was only a matter of time. She didn’t tell me how afraid she was there in the cooking house, preparing the evening meal with her small children around her. She told me none of this. Perhaps she didn’t need to. I would soon learn it all myself.
One of my fondest memories of my childhood in Rwanda is of swimming in Lake Kivu as a boy. It’s the largest of Rwanda’s twenty-one lakes and serves as the boundary between Rwanda and Congo. My family’s land bordered the lake and on weekends, I would bring our cows there to graze on its banks and drink from its waters. While the cows rested, I would dive into the lake and feel its cool wash over me. I would turn over and float on my back, stare up at the vast expanse of blue sky spread above me and listen to the waves lap against the shore.
From the lake I could climb a steep hill to our house, which was surrounded by avocado trees. Eucalyptus trees dotted the farm, their sweet scent carried on the breeze that slipped between its branches and blew across our banana and coffee plantations. We were considered a wealthy family in our village of Butimbo in the Kibuye province. We had no electricity or running water. Every day we would descend the steep incline to the lake, fill our jars with water, and carry them on our heads back up the hillside to the house. We had no cars, no tractors, no bicycles. In fact, my first car ride would not be until I was sixteen years old. We traveled everywhere on foot, padding along the narrow paths that linked homes and villages. A walk to the market took two hours, so we went no more than twice a month to buy small things like sugar and sell our crops. All other food we grew ourselves on our land. But we were rich in ways most Westerners don’t understand. My father owned what was considered a large amount of land in a country where land was scarce. Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in Africa—roughly the size of Maryland or Belgium, its former colonizer—but the most densely populated on the continent, with 9 million residents, or 547 people per square mile. Land was like gold. And just as blood has been spilled all over the world to acquire that precious commodity, so has it been spilled in Rwanda for land. My father also owned about thirty cows, another symbol of wealth and status in Rwanda. Our roof was corrugated metal—a luxury in a village where most homes were covered in grass or wide, sturdy banana leaves.
My father was a self-made man. He had inherited a small piece of land from his father, but through hard work he was able to purchase more. He was a respected man in the community, someone other villagers would turn to for advice and help. Like other wealthy men in Rwanda, he had three wives, who had given him a total of sixteen children. Although polygamy had been frowned upon since Christian missionaries first began arriving in 1910, it was still practiced. But few men could afford it. In Rwandan culture, no more than one wife could live in a house, so for a man to have more than one wife, he had to have enough land and money to build homes for each one. An additional tax on multiple wives was further disincentive, ensuring that only wealthy men could afford it. My father, who was a devout Christian, did not intend to have three wives. But when his first wife was unable to bear children—suffering repeated miscarriages—he felt that he had no other choice. So he met and married my mother, a decision that cost him his teaching job at a Seventh-Day Adventist school. Soon after he married my mother, his first wife got pregnant; then my mother discovered she was also pregnant. Within a few weeks of each other, both his first wife and my mother delivered beautiful baby girls. He married his third wife in the 1960s, after his brother fled to Congo. My father asked the local government official to grant his brother’s land to him so it would stay in the family. The official agreed, on the condition that he marry a third woman who could live on it. So my mother helped him find his third wife: one of her cousins. My stepmothers, as I called them, and their children lived in other homes adjoining our property, just a few minutes’ walk away. Although we lived apart, we would interact daily, borrowing food or doing chores together. My relationship with them was similar to most Americans’ relationships with their aunts and cousins.
To reach their homes, I would descend another hill. As I walked, I could see Lake Kivu stretch all the way to where its shores became Congo. Beyond it I could see the imposing volcano range that divides east and central Africa. Even as a boy, before I had traveled more than a few miles from my home, I knew that I lived in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Our ancestors knew it, too. Before European colonizers arrived in Rwanda at the turn of the twentieth century, Rwandans thought their country was the center of the world. They thought their kingdom was the most civilized and their monarchy the most powerful. When Europeans arrived, they were impressed by the efficiency and organization of its government, its politics, and its military. It was that organized and obedient military that so fiercely protected the nation. Slave traders were pushed back from the borders. Few immigrants settled there. It was one of the few African nations to live virtually in isolation from other cultures. Rwandans spoke one language—Kinyarwanda—worshipped one God, and answered to one king.
That king was a Tutsi. It is unclear when Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa—the native hunting and gathering pygmy populace—first arrived in Rwanda. Most historians estimate the cattle-raising Tutsi arrived sometime between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. Somehow Tutsi established a monarchy led by an all-powerful mwami, or king, who was not mortal, but a divine creation. The mwami not only ruled Rwanda, he was Rwanda. If he was sick, it was believed that Rwanda would suffer. If he was threatened, the entire country was thought to be at risk.
The king appointed both Hutu and Tutsi to positions of authority in his administration and in local communities, but Tutsi enjoyed more power, social status, and influence than Hutu. Despite this, the two groups lived peacefully together—working together, marrying one another, having children together. The only large-scale violence in the country was within the ruling Tutsi clan, specifically during a coup d’État at Rucunshu in 1896. But relations between Hutu and Tutsi were peaceful. Unlike other tribal nations that have endured centuries of sectarian violence, the people of Rwanda—whether Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa—saw themselves first and foremost as Rwandans. There is an ancient Rwandan saying, Turi bene mugabo umwe, meaning “we are the sons and daughters of the same father.” For centuries, Rwandans believed this and lived accordingly.
Then in 1885, in a distant land no Rwandan even knew existed, white men sat down with a map of Africa and pencils and started drawing borders and writing names. It was the Berlin Conference, and although no European had ever set foot on Rwandan soil, the country was given to Germany. It wasn’t until 1894 that the first white man officially visited the country, a German official who politely informed the surprised mwami that his kingdom had been under German rule for the last nine years.
Germany established a few government offices in Rwanda, but largely ignored it, having little interest in this small landlocked farming country. Because Germany governed through the existing monarchy, few changes were imposed on the day-to-day lives of Rwandans. More changes were brought by the incoming Catholic and Protestant missionaries who established schools and hospitals and, of course, churches.
Then came World War I, after which Rwanda was taken from the defeated Germans and given to Belgium. Belgium took a keener interest in this country of rich soil and mild weather that sits just below the equator. The Belgians marveled at Rwanda’s cohesive government and strong national identity. In the 1950s, the missionary Monsignor Louis de Lacger wrote in his history of Rwanda, “One of the most surprising phenomena of Rwanda’s human geography is surely the contrast between the plurality of races and the sentiment of national unity. The natives of this country genuinely have the feeling of forming but one people.”1
Belgian colonizers put an end to that. They were fascinated by the physical differences between Tutsi and Hutu and decided to make a “scientific” study of them: their height, their weight, their eye color, the width of their noses, and even the texture of their hair. Using rulers and calipers, scientists set about classifying these differences, determining that not only were Tutsi physical features more European but they were nobler and more intelligent than Hutu, and therefore the natural rulers of the country. While stereotypically Tutsi are taller, thinner, and lighter-skinned than Hutu, in reality not many Rwandans fit these portraits. But the Belgian colonizers didn’t see it this way.
As a result of the data they collected, Belgians stripped Hutu of any authority they had been granted by the Tutsi king, and all leadership positions in the colonial government were given to Tutsi. Admission to schools to prepare for government jobs was reserved predominantly for Tutsi; only a handful of Hutu could go. The only truly accessible education for Hutu was the seminary. As if this weren’t enough, in 1935, Belgium institutionalized ethnic identity cards in one of history’s first incidences of large-scale, state-sponsored racial categorization. Ethnicity descended from the father, so a person with a Tutsi father was a Tutsi, even if his mother was Hutu. Despite this imposed ethnic division, Hutu and Tutsi continued to live an integrated existence, sharing the same neighborhoods, the same schools, the same churches. But the seeds of discrimination and resentment were sown, and Rwanda’s strong national identity began to erode.
It eroded further when decolonization spread throughout Africa in the 1950s. In the latter part of the decade, the Tutsi elite claimed Rwanda’s independence from Belgium. Out of anger at their Tutsi subjects—and out of a desire to extend their stay in the country—the Belgian colonists shifted their support to Hutu. Under the guise of social justice, the Belgian government systematically took away power from Tutsi and gave it to Hutu. The colonists helped Hutu leaders take political and military power—often by force—in the years leading up to Rwanda’s independence in 1962.
While Hutu leaders had every right to seek equality and compete for power, their methods—and the complicity of the colonists—were unjust. Between 1959 and 1967, twenty thousand Tutsi were killed and three hundred thousand fled to neighboring countries to escape death.2 The worst massacres occurred in the space of just two months, between December 1963 and January 1964, leading British philosopher Bertrand Russell to describe it as “the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.”
Violence would erupt periodically, usually in retribution for the attacks of Tutsi rebel forces living in exile in neighboring countries. The state would paint the victims as the aggressors, telling Hutu that the Tutsi planned to exterminate them, and if they didn’t kill them first, then they would be killed themselves. “Clear the bush” was the call to Hutu to incite them to kill—and without fail, some did.
These rounds of massacres used to be called muyaga, meaning “wind.” It was a fitting description of the nature of the violence. It would come suddenly and forcefully and then, just as suddenly as it came, it would stop. Those who were killed were gone, and those who survived would continue to live with their persecutors as if nothing had happened. Part of this was because those who survived had no other choice. But it also demonstrated Rwandans’ strong obedience to authority. Rwandans kill when they are asked, and stop as soon as they are told.
In addition to periodic ethnic massacres, a state-sponsored system of discrimination was put in place. Hutu leaders had taken the injustice they suffered during colonization and replaced it with another injustice. Tutsi could make up no more than 10 percent of a business’s workforce. Their access to military service and the government was also severely limited. Members of the military were unofficially forbidden to marry Tutsi. Intermarrying among nonmilitary citizens still existed, but the Belgian practice of establishing ethnic identity based on paternity continued, and discrimination persisted. In schools, teachers were tasked with taking a census of all the Hutu and Tutsi students in the classroom. They would ask all Tutsi children to stand or raise their hands, and then ask all Hutu to do the same. Hutu children who were old enough to understand ethnicity would stand to be counted with a beaming sense of pride, backs and shoulders straight, heads held high. When the Tutsi children stood or raised their hands, they looked ashamed.
History lessons were biased and politically motivated. Instead of honestly recounting events in a way that would foster reconciliation, the lessons fueled the us against them mentality. I believe that children can be taught in a way that prepares them to live in peace with each other and to become good leaders. Sadly, in most schools, teachers would tout the heroism of Hutu revolutionaries who helped Rwanda gain its independence from Belgium and topple the Tutsi monarchy. They would dehumanize the Tutsi and deify the Hutu, making all Tutsi into aggressors and all Hutu into victims. This message was reinforced through radio and newspapers, particularly on national political holidays. Tutsi were referred to as Inyenzi, meaning “cockroaches.”
The discrimination in the classroom extended to the accessibility of education. Rwanda didn’t have enough schools to educate its population. While all Rwandan children, regardless of their ethnicity, could receive an elementary school education, only about 10 percent of the population could go on to high school. Of that 10 percent, the government made certain that virtually all were Hutu. Rare was the Tutsi child who received the great honor of attending high school. One of my earliest memories is of overhearing my father ask a Hutu friend who held a position of influence in the local government if he could secure fake Hutu identity cards for his children. My father knew that the best chance his children had to receive an education beyond elementary school was if we could “pass” as Hutu. His friend looked at my father and then at me and shook his head. “Your children are too Tutsi,” he said. “They would be caught.” He was right. We all had undeniable Tutsi features. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I knew enough to know that being Tutsi was somehow a bad thing, and I felt ashamed.
Despite all this, my parents never said a harsh word to us about Hutu. Our Hutu neighbors were our friends. They never told us we had reason to fear them, or that we should hate them. They never told us we were ethnically inferior or superior. I was raised believing we were all equal human beings. We were Rwandans.
I feel as if my childhood ended the night my mother told me that people wanted to kill us for being Tutsi. For the first time I had a sense of “other.” When the day began I innocently believed that I lived in a peaceful, secure world. There was no “us” and no “them,” only “we.” Now that had forever changed.
That evening, after we finished our dinner, we went to the main house to get ready for bed. Each night before we went to sleep, we sang and prayed together. It was an important ritual, one that kept us united as a family through our shared faith in God. Rwanda is predominantly Christian—with a slight majority Catholic, about a quarter Protestant, and just over a tenth Seventh-Day Adventist. Muslims account for only about 5 percent of the population. We were Adventists, and each evening we would sing the hymns we learned in church. Then each child would offer a prayer, followed by my parents. Usually my mother’s prayers were simple. She would thank God for His many blessings and then ask Him to give us a peaceful night’s sleep and keep us healthy. If we were planning a big event like a wedding, she would ask for His help. But this night my mother’s prayers were very powerful. She asked for God’s protection during the violence that was brewing. She prayed that we would all survive whatever came. I still didn’t understand what she was talking about. My world was safe and when I went to sleep, I slept soundly.
In the morning, my mother went room by room to wake us all for school. Every morning, as we did at night, we would sing and pray together as a family. Again, my mother prayed fervently for our protection. As she led us out of the house for our five-mile walk to school, she told us, “Violence may be starting soon. Be very careful. Be prepared. I’ll keep praying for you to be safe.”
My brother, sisters, and I left for school. Beatrice and I still did not fully understand what my mother was talking about. Despite what she had told me the night before, life seemed normal. I couldn’t grasp the idea that our Hutu neighbors might kill us. I couldn’t imagine that human beings would kill other human beings.
We ran to school that morning. We were late and if we didn’t make it to school on time, we would have to endure a painful beating by switch at the hands of the school principal. I had suffered a few beatings before and had no interest in another one.
We arrived at school on time and the day proceeded as usual. At our morning and midday breaks, I played with my Hutu and Tutsi friends. I ate lunch with them. We played soccer. My brother and I were good players and usually picked the teams. We would pick the best players—we didn’t care about their ethnicity. Our teacher showed no sign of anxiety or concern.
Then, at our afternoon break, as I was walking outside to the playground, I heard the shouts of my other classmates who were already out the door. “Look! Over there! Look what’s happening!” I ran outside and followed their pointing fingers to a hillside far in the distance and saw it: burning houses dotting the hillside. Huge billows of smoke filled the air. I had never seen anything like it. I remembered my mother’s story from the night before, her prayers, her warning as we left for school. I still didn’t grasp everything that was happening, but I knew it was Tutsi homes that were burning. Everyone began talking, trying to figure out whether they were Hutu or Tutsi. I approached one of my best friends, a Hutu, and said to him, “These houses are being burned because they belong to Tutsi.”
“I don’t think my family is Tutsi, so our house won’t be burned,” he said. Then he asked me, “Is your family Tutsi?”
“Yes,” I said, remembering my mother’s quiet voice the night before.
He looked at me sadly. “Your house will be burned then.”
Then the principal’s whistle blew and we all retreated to our respective classrooms, where we were dismissed early, without any word about why. It was clear from the flames on the hillside that the situation had gotten worse and we all needed to return to our families. But still, we were children, so as we made our way home, we played on the road, kicking the soccer ball among us as we ran.
When we reached home, my mother was anxiously waiting for us. “Things have gotten bad,” she said. “The burnings have started.” We listened much more attentively than we had the night before. “We have to be ready,” she said. “We won’t stay in the house tonight. It’s too dangerous.”
That night, my mother and siblings snuck into the bush, down the hill not far from the lake. I spent the night with my father a few miles away, where he had bought a beautiful piece of land surrounded by Lake Kivu on three sides and built a farmhouse. Its soil was rich and so were its grasses, perfect grazing for our cows. He wanted to make sure the house and cows were safe, so we stayed there, singing and praying together.
“You have a very good voice,” my father told me.
I beamed with pride. I always remember this night alone with my father with great tenderness. It felt special to be with him by myself, keeping watch over our house and cows together. I was not his oldest son, so I felt even more important being asked to go with him. My father was a very strong man and I admired him immensely. A birth defect outturned his left leg and he walked with a limp, but I never thought of him as disabled. It seemed as if there was nothing he couldn’t do, and I always felt safe with him. But I was careful around him, too. He was a strict disciplinarian. If any of us children did something wrong, he would tell us to go pick out a stick. We would lie on the ground and he would hit our backsides with it eight times. In Rwanda this wasn’t abuse, it was discipline. I remember the time he caught me staging a fight between two cows. I wanted to show my friend how much stronger my cow was than his, so I brought his cow into our field. When two cows that don’t know each other are introduced, they circle each other and butt heads to establish dominance in the herd, and that’s exactly what these two cows did. I didn’t realize that my father was watching from some distance away, and I paid a painful price for it.
In my eyes, my father was all-powerful. Whatever terror was taking place outside our farmhouse that night, I was with my father, sleeping in the same bed—protected. I had no worry that something bad could happen to me.
In the middle of night, my father tapped my shoulder. “Sebarenzi, Sebarenzi, wake up. I want to show you something,” he said.
We walked outside and he pointed to the village across the lake. The hillside glowed with the flames of burning houses. “We need to stay awake because anything can happen,” my father calmly said. “We need to stay faithful. We need to keep praying so nothing will happen to us.” We stayed awake the rest of the night, waiting for the shouts of the approaching mob. But they didn’t come.
Early the next morning we returned to our house, where my mother and siblings were waiting for us. Our village was spared. Our home was still standing. Our belongings were still there. Our family was safe. My mother told us about their terrifying night in the bush, how quiet they all stayed, how even my three-year-old brother John, the youngest, didn’t cry.
But the violence wasn’t over.
Later that morning, a very close Hutu friend, Eliezer Ngarambe, came to our house. He told my father that the Hutu mob was coming to our village. “No one will kill children or women,” he said. “But with men, you never know. You should hide.”
He helped my father find a safe place to hide in our banana plantation. “Stay here until I come for you,” he said. “I’ll come get you when it’s safe.” Then, Eliezer left us and joined the Hutu mob as it began roaming our village and destroying Tutsi homes. It didn’t seem strange to me that Eliezer would join the mob. It was his duty, like an act of patriotism. Here was our good friend destroying the homes of our neighbors. The houses with corrugated roofs were cut with machetes. The houses made of grass were set on fire. I remember watching an excited crowd of Hutu running and shouting, burning house after house. It was strange to watch. They were not angry, as I thought they would be, but happy. It was like a party. Burning the houses was like some sort of amusement for them. Because of this, I still wasn’t afraid. I was standing on top of the hill overlooking our home with my mother and other Tutsi families as they helplessly watched their homes being destroyed. We just stood there. The Hutu mob could see us, but no one threatened us. They seemed to be having some sort of celebration, and we were the spectators. A Hutu neighbor, Kayugushu, saw us and approached my mother before the Hutu crowd reached our house. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, nothing will happen to you,” he said. “We will protect you, you are very good people.” Then he said, “I need matches to burn houses.”
My mother looked down. “I don’t have matches,” she said.
Kayugushu said again, “Give me matches.”
“I don’t have any,” my mother replied.
“I know you have matches,” he said, his voice becoming more threatening. “You are a rich family—of course you have matches. Give them to me!”
My mother knew that defying him would put us all at risk, so without saying another word she hurriedly went down the hill to our house and returned with a box of matches. Her eyes didn’t meet his as she gave them to him, waving a dismissive hand in his direction with a look of disgust on her face and saying, “Take them.” He did, and then ran to join the mob.
A short while later, they reached our house. Kayugushu was with them, and so was our friend Eliezer Ngarambe. They began shouting, “This is Kabogora’s house!” referring to my father, Daniel Kabogora. “He’s is a good man! Don’t touch that house!” And they didn’t. They walked right by it. Eliezer and Kayugushu had kept their promise: Our house was spared, as was that of a widowed neighbor. Because she had no husband, they decided to leave her house alone. It was a rare display of compassion on a day filled with hatred.
After the violence of the day finally ended, Eliezer came back to us. “Come with me to get your father,” he told me. “It’s safe now. Let’s go tell him.”
We ran together down the hill to where my father was hiding. I can only imagine what his day must have been like—huddled silently among the dense banana trees, hearing shouts in the distance and wondering if his family was safe. Every insect’s call, every animal’s scurry, every branch cracking in the breeze must have stood his hair on end. I imagine the loneliness he must have felt. The discomfort of his gathering thirst and hunger. The doubts running through his mind about whether he should leave his hiding place in the trees and find his family.
And then, a sound. What was it? Another branch snapping? No, footsteps. This time he knew they were footsteps. And they were not the footsteps of a single man. There was more than one. And they were running at him fast. This is it, he must have thought. This is where I will die. His eyes darted right and left, but there was no escape. Anywhere he ran would be out of the cover of the trees. He stood, trembling. He couldn’t stop the trembling. It started in his legs and rolled like a wave up his body. His eyes dilated. Every sense, every muscle told him to flee. But he couldn’t. He could only stand and tremble.
And then two figures appeared. “Don’t worry, don’t be afraid,” said one. An arm reached out and grabbed his. “It’s over. Nothing will happen to you. You’re safe.”
My father saw his friend and his son standing before him. And he wanted to break down crying out of relief and fear and anxiety. But he couldn’t. He just trembled.
This is how I imagine it, but I don’t know for sure, because he never told me. All I know is that for the first time in my life I saw my brave, strong father shaking with fear. It was an image that would stay with me for the rest of my life. As a boy, seeing my all-powerful father tremble made me tremble, too. I realized then how serious this was. I realized that we could be killed.
That night, my father and I returned to the farmhouse to protect it, as we had the night before. In the morning, I went back home, leaving my father behind. As I was walking home, I saw a group of people on the neighboring hill running. I wondered why they were running—wasn’t the violence over? I couldn’t believe it was already starting again.
A few yards from my house, I saw my mother and siblings running in different directions. I followed my mother, who was running with my brother John in her arms and my niece Esperance beside her. “What’s happening?” I asked.
“They want to kill us,” my mother said. “They’re coming for us! We have to run fast.” So we did. We ran toward the house of the Abrahams, our longtime Hutu friends. When we reached the door we were scared and out of breath. Without hesitation, they hurried us inside. “You must hide,” they said, corralling us into the next room. The four of us scrambled under their bed, a traditional Rwandan bed with enough space under it to sit. It was dark. I could see nothing. Our breathing was rapid and shallow. My throat was dry. I tried to swallow, but couldn’t. Our house was close enough to Abraham’s that we could hear the mob destroying it. We could hear machetes rip through the corrugated metal roof; the crackling flames engulfing our cooking house; the cheering of the crowd.
Suddenly, we heard three Hutu men at the door of the Abraham’s, machetes and spears in hand. “We know that Kabogora’s family is hiding here,” they said. “Send them out! We’re going to kill them!”
Under the bed, my mother whispered prayers over and over again. “O mighty God, please protect us from harm.” Because it was dark, I couldn’t see her face, I could only feel her tight grip around my shoulder and her trembling body. I imagined she looked just as my father had when I found him hiding in the banana plantation—vulnerable, weak, scared.
“Send them out!” the Hutu men called again.
Fortunately, Abraham had two young, strong sons named Bunyenzi and Segashi, who stood at the door with their machetes, ready to protect us. “They won’t come out of this house!” they shouted back. “If you try to come in here we’ll kill you!”
My mother kept whispering her prayers, asking God to protect us and our Hutu friends, who were risking their own lives trying to save ours. The argument with the mob continued, voices rising with each exchange.
“Send them out! We’re going to kill them!”
“No!” Bunyenzi and Segashi yelled again. “If you come into this house, we’ll kill you!”
I thought for sure we would be killed. Abraham’s sons were strong, but there were only two of them. The three men at the door could easily overpower them, and there were many more in the mob who would gladly come to their aid. I didn’t see how we could survive.
Then the drum beat. A methodical thud reverberated through the hills.
In rural areas of Rwanda, where telephones were nonexistent and even radios were rare, the drum was a major means of communication. The sound of the drum told people to listen for a message that was then shouted from hilltop to hilltop. At that moment, the drum beat and the message came: “Ihumere … ihumere … ihumere …” “It is time for peace.” With that, the violence stopped. Immediately. The muyaga was over. The men at the door turned around and walked away.
Later we would learn of the reason behind this muyaga. The massacre of Tutsi had been going on for several weeks in other parts of the country, precipitated by fighting within the Hutu leadership and growing dissatisfaction with the president’s regime. In an effort to rally support for himself, the president mobilized Hutu against a common enemy: the Tutsi. The plan was enthusiastically embraced by the president’s supporters as well as his opposition, who thought the violence would serve as justification for a coup. This cheap grab for power cost thousands of Tutsi their lives in 1973—and thousands more fled the country.
But the drum beat and we were saved.
We hid under the bed for a few more hours until Abraham’s sons finally came to us and said, “It’s safe to come out. The mob has left. You can go home.”
But home, as we knew it, no longer existed. We arrived at what had been our house to find our food, furniture, and clothes gone. Our cows and calves had been taken. Our main house had been severely damaged. The metal roof was hacked apart. Our cooking house was in ashes. Our house had been targeted, we learned later, because of a Hutu man named Marere. When I was younger, Marere stole cassava from our property. My father had him arrested and Marere spent a few days in jail. When he heard our house had been spared in the previous day’s violence, he was livid. He saw destroying our home as a chance to get his revenge—and he did.
We had no food and no money. The rainy season was at its height and we had no roof over our heads. There was no humanitarian assistance, because according to the government, nothing had happened. We couldn’t report the crime to the authorities, because the authorities had sanctioned it. We could do nothing but suffer.
But still, we knew that it could have been far worse. My father, siblings, stepsiblings, and the rest of my extended family emerged safely from their hiding places. Some people were beaten, but unlike other parts of the country, not a single death was recorded in my village. Had the violence continued, Tutsi in my area—including ourselves—would surely have been killed. The muyaga always followed the same path: first looting, then burning houses, and then mass killings. The logic of the killers went like this: They could loot under the cover of state-sanctioned terror. After they looted, they began to worry what would happen when the violence ended. Would the people they took from come to get their things back? Would they come seeking revenge? So they concluded that the only way to keep their newly acquired possessions safe was to kill the rightful owner. But it was not enough to kill just that person, they also had to kill anyone who would have a legitimate claim to his property, so his family was also murdered. And so the cycle of violence was the same, over and over again: loot, burn, kill. It had happened periodically between 1959 and 1967. It was happening this time in other parts of the country. It would have happened in my area, too.
Eventually the authorities ordered the looters to return the stolen things. We managed to get our cows and some of our furniture back. We were fortunate that our cows were returned, so we had milk to drink. But our beans, the staple of our diet, were gone. We had bananas from our plantation, but they were grown to make beer, not to eat. My mother did her best to make these bananas edible by putting them in the hot atticlike space to ripen, or cutting pieces and drying them. We also had cassava, but the freshly picked roots are bitter. Cassava root contains a naturally occurring cyanide that can be deadly if it’s eaten before it is completely dried. The drying process took several days, however, and it was hard as children to wait. We were so hungry. So we would eat it before it was ready. Luckily, no one got sick.
Day in, day out, we ate cassava and bananas. Yet even this was not enough. We did not have near enough food and my mother constantly worried about how she was going to feed all of her children. But at least we had something to eat. Other families had nothing and were seriously starving. We were lucky.
When the rain came, it poured into our house. It was impossible to repair the corrugated metal roof, but my father tried to cover the damaged parts with banana leaves. We would sleep under the parts of the roof that were patched, but still, rain would soak our clothes and mats. Everything was wet. We had to sit, eat, drink, and sleep in the wetness. We used a straw broom to push the water out, but still, our house was wet. It was awful, but we had nowhere else to go. It was several months before my father was able to buy more metal to replace the roof.
Soon after the muyaga passed, life slowly returned to normal. Schools reopened and interactions with neighbors began again. When the bananas were harvested and beer was brewed, we would go to one another’s homes to drink. Tutsi and Hutu would eat together and help cultivate one another’s fields. At school, we would once again pick our soccer teams on the playground without paying any attention to ethnicity. But even though our actions were normal, our feelings had changed. I began to pay attention to the ethnicity of people in my neighborhood. Whenever I was unsure if a particular person was Hutu or Tutsi I would ask my parents or surreptitiously ask another Tutsi. I was not alone. I later learned that all children—Tutsi and Hutu alike—did this. We were wary of one another. We didn’t know whom to trust. At school, students would spontaneously gravitate into small groups based on their ethnicity, and then come back together as if nothing had happened. Yet still, we all worried about what would happen next.
Through all of it—the terror, the hunger, the wet, the suspicion—my parents never taught us to hate Hutu. Even after all they had been through, I never heard them vilify Hutu as a group. Instead, my parents taught us never to hurt others. They taught us specifically never to shed blood, because “amaraso arasema”—which means “shedding blood curses the perpetrator.” They taught us the passage in King Solomon’s proverbs: “The Lord blesses everyone who is afraid to do evil, but if you are cruel, you will end up in trouble.” I believed it then, and still do. I wanted to live in peace.
1 Quoted in Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. New York: Picador, 1998.
2 International Panel of Eminent Personalities. Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide. OAU. 2000.
© 2009 Joseph Sebarenzi
Posted May 18, 2012
This is an incredible, informative, inspiring book. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in Rwanda, or interested in reading about overcoming adversity and the pain of a terrible loss. Mr. Sebarenzi holds in his heart and mind the key to reconciliation and peace.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 18, 2011
No text was provided for this review.