Schindler's Witch

By Sally Hayden

Photos by the author

20 years after the Rwandan genocide, the country is still coming to terms with what took place during that period of extreme violence. Perpetrators are still being brought to justice, and heroic stories are still emerging.

One such story belongs to Zula Karuhimbi, a woman some Rwandans claim saved more than 100 people through “sorcery.”

After we learned that she lived in the southern Ruhango District, we drove from Kigali to find her. On the way, we stopped at a roadside restaurant, where we told the waiter we were searching for the “witch” who had saved lives during the genocide. “The witch who was honoured by the government?” a customer asked. “I know where she lives. I'll take you to her.”

He brought us to Musamo Village, where we abandoned our car and ploughed by foot through waist-high shrubbery. Turning into an enclosure, we found Karuhimbi asleep on a straw mat outside a tiny house. She was hugging a small child, who, we later discovered, was an orphaned boy she had recently adopted.

She looked wizened and frail as she slept, but she jumped to attention when we told her we had come to hear her story. “Yes,” she confirmed, “I’m the Zula who hid Tutsis.” Pointing to the ground, she said, “I put them here in the compound and covered them with dry leaves of beans and baskets.” As many as 100 Tutsis, 50 Hutus, two Twas, and three white men had taken refuge in and around her tiny two-room house during the three-month genocide in 1994.

“I hid so many people that I don't know some of their names. I hid little babies I found on the backs of their dead mothers, and I brought them here.”

When the militia encircled her enclosure, Karuhimbi covered her hands in herbs that would cause skin irritation, according to The New Times. She touched the killers – who became fearful because they believed she was cursing them – and then retreated inside her house. She grabbed whatever she could find and shook it, claiming that it was the sound of the spirits becoming angry. “I hid those people seriously. I'd prepare some magic, and when the killers came, I'd tell them I would kill them. I told them no Tutsis had come to my house – that no one comes in my house – while all the time they were all inside.”

Karuhimbi grew up in a family of traditional healers. Her identity card indicates that she was born in 1925, making her five or six when the Belgian administration deposted Rwandan King Yuhi Musinga, who had been in power for 35 years, partly because of his refusal to be baptised as a Roman Catholic. During this period, Karuhimbi said, her mother would regularly hide people, and she was responsible for delivering their food. “Whenever I spoke out, I’d be beaten by my mother, who eventually brought a fiery leaf of a plant and slid it over my lips and told me, ‘If you say anything I will kill you.’”

When Karuhimbi was eight, the Belgians conducted a country-wide census to issue “ethnic” identity cards, classifying every Rwandan as either Hutu (85 percent), Tutsi (14 percent), or Twa (1 percent). A system similar to Apartheid ensued. Tutsis were given a monopoly on political and administrative jobs, while many Hutus were engaged in forced labour, according to We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed  with Our Families.

This grouping inspired division and tribalism. In March 1957, nine Hutu intellectuals published The Hutu Manifesto, which stated that Rwanda was a country of a Hutu majority and it was time for “democratisation.” Two years later, a group of Tutsis beat up Hutu politician Dominique Mbonyumutwa, sparking retaliatory attacks that led to the deaths of 20,000.

During this period, Karuhimbi claimed, she saved the life of current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was born in a neighbouring village and was two years old when the violence erupted. “I took the beads off my necklace and told his mother to tie it in his hair. I told her to carry her son and not put him down, so the militia would think he looked like a girl when they saw him, because they only killed boys at that time,” she said. “I told her to take him far away, and then I knelt down and prayed, saying if God helps him he will come back and work for us and he will be the heir of Rwanda.” Kagame went on to command the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the army whose victory brought an end to the genocide.

Since the conflict ended, Rwanda has experienced a significant amount of growth and development. Although this has increased the standard of life for many Rwandans, it has been accompanied by a move away from more traditional ways of being. Karuhimbi said that she can produce potions to fix ugliness or unemployment. In front of her house, herbs dried in the sun. Her bedroom has a stone floor, and the remnants of a fire in one corner. Ushering us inside, she reached under the mattress for yellow powder that encouraged us to snort because it would fix our “head problems.” She said before she had snorted some herself and then coughed and spat on the floor.

Pouring ash through a sieve, she told me that this mixture will rid me of both mosquito bites and freckles. She emptied it into an envelope, which I later easily smuggled through customs.

20 years ago, 40 Tutsis hid in this tiny room – 20 under her bed, and 20 above a false ceiling. The minute window lets only a sliver of light inside, and with no electricity – then or now – I struggled to imagine the inhabitants lying side by side for almost 100 days, enduring pitch-black nights with little hope of salvation.

Today Karuhimbi organises her potions in this room, but fewer and fewer locals accept her craft. Traditional medicine is being rejected in Rwanda, where it’s viewed as backward and sometimes even Satanic. Karuhimbi's niece takes care of her occasionally, but Karuhimbi sadly said her niece won't accept the medicine she tries to give her for her stomach aches because she’s a “saved Christian.”

Though Karuhimbi’s concoctions are becoming redundant, many Rwandans still believe in witchcraft. (Some people consider women like Karuhimbi a witch, while others consider them healers.) On Easter Sunday in Kigali's Kimironko Church, the pastor preached about the threat of witches: “There are many witch people in the world. When you want to kill them you can't. They move around everywhere.” 

But maybe Karuhimbi's unconventional lifestyle may be what enabled her to save lives.

The Rwandan genocide was one of the most intimate and one of the most shocking mass killings in modern history. Neighbours, colleagues, and friends murdered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, occasionally with guns but mostly with the machetes they used for everyday farming.

At first, the rampage was methodical and swift. Pockets of resistance were almost nonexistent – something that astounded anyone who tried to make sense of what had happened after the fact. This wasn’t a war; it was an extermination.

In a time of mob action, Karuhimbi's actions were remarkable.

She said she acted selflessly because all humans are born of the same traditional god-like figure Kimanuka, and therefore it was the only behaviour that made sense to her. “These white men you see, they are born of us. We are one people.” She said she is certain of this because in the past, if there was a clap of thunder while a Rwandan was giving birth, their baby was born white. The same unity exists between Hutus, Tutsis, and Twas. “We are one. Our forefathers and foremothers are one for all of us. We are siblings to each other.”

20 years later, her house still displays remnants of the war. Bullet holes dotted the house’s front wall from when the Interahamwe ("Killers") fired at it. “When they shot I told everyone in the compound to lie down so that the bullets would pass over them,” she said.

“They killed my first-born, my son Hanganimana; and my other daughter, Ugiriwabo, was poisoned and died. People would mock me, saying, 'You hid people, but your own children were killed,' and I replied to them, saying, 'Our days to pass away are not the same. God is the only one who understands why these things happen.’”

At one point, she pulled out photos of some of the people she saved, which she keeps among her most treasured possessions. Few of them come to visit her anymore, due to sickness, forgetfulness, or death. She spoke nostalgically about one of the children in particular, Emmanuel, who was a baby when she found him. “I don't know where he is now,” she said.

Karuhimbi has been lauded several times for her actions. In 2006 she was presented with Rwanda's Campaign Against Genocide Medal, according to The New Times. When President Kagame gave her the award, she told him that she had saved his life as a child. She said he replied with the statement: “I wish they were all witches like you.”

In 2009, a tree was planted in her honor in the Garden of the Righteous in Padua, Italy. She was flown there for the occasion, though she herself can no longer recall the name of the country she visited.

89-year-old Karuhimbi has firm faith in the state's current leadership, but when we asked her how she felt about the future of her country’s politics, that wasn’t her first thought. This diminutive but composed woman, who has stood strong through destruction, death, and tragedy, said there is only one real thing that matters in life: “Love is the most important thing. Find someone to love and the future will always be bright.”

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