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A 13-Year-Old Girl, a Slaughtered Family, and Life After the Rwandan Genocide

Twenty years ago, Alice Musabende's family were killed by their neighbors. Since then, she has had to figure out how to continue to live.

by Alice Musabende
Apr 7 2014, 4:10pm

Photo via Getty Images

When I was five years old, I didn’t know what the word injustice meant. But I knew how it felt.

The government official had come to our home before. It was 1985 and we were living in Kimihurura, a suburb of the Rwandan capital of Kigali; the official was trying to convince Grandfather to sell him a parcel of land so the official could build his house there. Grandfather was willing to negotiate a fair price, but the man wasn’t in the mood to pay it.

One day, construction trucks carrying bricks and stones, a bulldozer, and an excavator showed up on our street. Our neighbors called Grandfather to warn him, but as a small Tutsi family with little money and no powerful connections, there was nothing we could do but watch as the excavator dug up our cassava and potato crops, then loaded them into trucks. As they pulled away, our neighbors followed, hoping to collect food that fell onto the road. When I tried to do the same, Grandfather grabbed my arm. He said we weren’t going to scavenge what was rightfully ours.

The man who stole our land was a Hutu who worked for the government intelligence office, and he made sure that my family’s efforts to seek justice were never responded to. He knew that if our requests were ignored long enough, we would eventually stop trying.

Today that man lives somewhere in Europe. I wonder if he ever thinks about what he did.

* * *

After World War II ended and the horrors of the Holocaust came to light, the world collectively promised that no genocide would take place ever again. Half a century later in Rwanda, it did. And the world was unable — or unwilling — to stop it.

Historians say, quite correctly, that the events that led to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda were rooted in ethnic tensions that had plagued my tiny country long before even its 1962 independence from Belgium. The politics of favoritism practiced by colonial powers, including the Catholic Church, sparked and fueled anger and resentment that built up thanks in part to a Hutu national government assisted and protected by international powers.

But an academic analysis doesn't convey the reality of life for an ordinary Tutsi living in Rwanda during the years leading up to the genocide. Even then, I knew our country was a powder keg, waiting to explode.

After learning who had killed my family, the 14-year-old girl I was then was certain no justice would ever take away the pain. Or the hatred.

A year after our land was stolen, Grandfather sold the rest of it, along with our cattle and our house; nearing 80, he was getting too old to care for a farm. And so we moved to the neighborhood of Kanombe — which was a strategic choice. There’s a saying in my language of Kinyarwanda: "The king doesn’t kill — it’s the people who kill." And one of our new neighbors was Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana. For many Tutsis who lived in our part of the city, there was a sense that, God forbid, should anything happen — a civil unrest, let’s say — our powerful neighbor would protect us from the madness of the people.

For four years, we settled into a pleasant routine. My school wasn’t too far away, and my family had a bit of land to grow food. But things changed in October 1990, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a movement started in 1987 by Rwandan Tutsis who had been living in exile in Uganda, returned to Rwanda determined to reclaim their right to live in their homeland. A civil war began immediately; four days later, my family’s home, along with the homes of Tutsis all over the country, was ransacked by soldiers and police pretending to look for accomplices of the RPF. They took my grandfather's bow and arrows because they were "weapons." They had belonged to his father, and to his father's father before that. They were a family treasure.

For the next four years, like many other Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the country, we were subjected to continual abuse and humiliation. My mother couldn’t get a job. My cousin’s wedding was shunned by most of our Hutu neighbors, as ours was no longer company they were comfortable keeping. One Sunday in 1993, my grandmother and I were on our way to morning mass when we were stopped at a roadblock by Hutu soldiers and militiamen. They asked my grandmother for her ID card, which revealed that she was a Tutsi. When the soldiers saw this, they looked at her, disgusted. One ordered her to sit on the ground and wait while he decided whether she could pass. She had no choice but to do as she was told, the dusty red earth soiling her beautiful Sunday clothes and her sparkly yellow shoes.

For some reason, those yellow shoes still haunt me.

* * *

On the evening of Wednesday, April 6, 1994 — exactly two months shy of my 14th birthday — a plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down above Kigali. In the following 100 days, an estimated 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered at the hands of their Hutu neighbors. My family were among the first who were killed, butchered by the president's guards.

Habyarimana had been returning from Tanzania, where peace negotiations between his government and the RPF had been taking place for two years. Today, people still argue about who shot down the plane — no one really knows. And to me, it doesn’t matter. Many say that his death set the genocide in motion, arguing that if he hadn’t died, things would have been fine. But Tutsis were being killed before the plane went down, and the genocide was not conceived of overnight — it was a fully masterminded plan to wipe out Tutsis. With or without the death of the president, it would have happened.

Two days before the plane went down, my mother gave me documents to bring to her sister in the neighborhood of Kacyiru, on the opposite side of the city. I was supposed to return home on April 6, but for some reason I decided to stay with my aunt an extra night. It's why I'm still alive.

Every so often, men from the Interahamwe would choose people from the room and take them out to be killed.

Perhaps 100 Tutsis lived in the area surrounding Habyarimana's home; at the end of the genocide, fewer than 12 were left alive. I am the only survivor from my house, home to 12 family members. The close relationship between France and the Génocidaire government is no secret, and Hutu neighbors spoke of the presence of French soldiers who visited our neighborhood after the president’s plane was shot down. Did they notice how quiet it had suddenly become?

During the three months the killings lasted, I remained with my aunt and her family on the other side of the city. We stayed in the house the first day of the genocide, unaware of what was going on; the national radio simply told people to remain calm and in their homes. Two days later, a Hutu friend of my uncle came to tell him that we needed to leave if we didn’t want to be killed. A neighbor let us to hide in his house for the next week, but when the killings intensified in the neighborhood, he told us that he was afraid he might be caught.

We then went to a nearby Red Cross center. A Hutu friend walked us there, just in case we met one of the Interahamwes, the Hutu killing militias backed by the government. Upon arrival, we realized that the center was full of people; mostly Hutus fleeing the outskirts of the city, where the RPF and army were fighting, but also some Tutsis who didn’t know where else to go.

The local Interahamwes had infiltrated the center, and when they saw us, they made us stay in one room with the other Tutsis. Every so often, men from the Interahamwe would pick people from this room and take them outside to be killed. After two days of watching this, my uncle decided that we needed to sneak out or be killed ourselves. And so during the night, we left and went back to our neighborhood.

The same neighbor was kind enough to let us stay that night, but he asked us to leave early the next morning. He said he didn’t want us to die in his house.

For the following few days, we wandered through the bush, hiding when someone approached. The plan was to go from Kacyiru to Kimihurura, where my oldest aunt was living. The journey took an hour under normal circumstances, but because of our need to stay hidden, it took us five days. When we finally arrived, we were able to stay with my aunt and her husband until the end of the genocide. My uncle, however, died.

Every day, I wondered what had happened to my mother, or to my youngest brother. He was 2 years old at the time.

* * *

Paul Kagame led his RPF forces into Kigali on July 4, 1994. By the time they arrived, the city was empty; the Hutus had run away to Congo. Tutsis who managed to survive had been hiding for so long, we didn't even realize the sound of gunfire had stopped.

My aunt and I were still alive, but her husband was dead and we didn’t know where her youngest son was. The hills of Kigali were covered with rotting bodies, but there was no time for self-pity. We immediately embarked on a search for our family.

My aunt and I went back to Kanombe and found my house demolished. My sister’s dress and my mother’s clothes were hanging from the window of a Hutu neighbor. I learned that her daughter had taken my family’s clothes and jewelry, and her son had led an Interahamwe militia that had aided the presidential guard in their killing spree. The son had also taken our furniture, our food — even our books that he didn’t know how to read. He later died in prison before I had the chance to speak to him.

After seeing where my family died and learning who had killed them, the 14-year-old girl I was then was certain no justice would ever take away the pain. Or the hatred.

But Rwanda mounted an effort at justice anyway. Genocide courts — they were called Gacacas, which in Kinyarwanda is a word for traditional community gatherings — were set up to try those accused of participation in the genocide. I learned how my family had died and what happened afterwards. Their bodies, along with other Tutsis in our neighborhood, had been loaded in trucks, much like our crops had been a decade before, and taken to a military camp. The accounts of what happened then differ; some said the bodies were burned, others that they were dissolved in acid. Either way, my family had been killed and made to vanish.

At our local Gacaca, I saw the neighbor whose family looted our belongings. She simply said hi and told me that I looked like I had grown up. I wanted to know more about what had happened to my family, and I knew that she knew. Had my mother suffered a long time? Had anyone said anything before they were killed? Had they pleaded for mercy? Had they died in silence? Were they all shot? Was my baby brother scared?

But I froze, and no words came. I never went back to the Gacaca.

My surviving aunts, however, kept going back to the hearings, and the courts ordered the neighboring family to pay compensatory damages. But having no money, they weren't able to do so. That was "justice.”

Agathe Habyarimana, the wife of the president, now lives in France, shielded by the French from an arrest warrant issued by the Rwandan government in 2010 accusing her of genocide, complicity in genocide, and conspiracy to commit genocide. She knew us as neighbors. At least once every year, at Umuganura, the day of the celebration of the harvest season in Rwanda, Tutsis and Hutus alike were invited to her house. It is not a stretch to think that she knows what happened to the dead. Dozens of your neighbors don't vanish without you noticing.

* * *

My own journey is filled with pain, but also with an incredible amount of luck and love.

For 10 years after the genocide, I simply tried to survive. I returned to high school in 1995, but I didn't do well; no one knew what post-traumatic stress disorder was then, and so people just thought I was difficult and crazy. For three years I could barely sleep or study — or do anything, really; my aunt had to enroll me in a new school every year. I felt guilty for surviving.

Finally, a Catholic nun at one of the schools figured out that I needed to see someone; I wouldn’t have made it without her. In 2005, I was lucky enough to be admitted to graduate school in Canada, where I still live today.

I have all but given up on justice. It promises peace and harmony, but in practice it can’t bring back the dead. When my family died, I died inside. The toughest thing survivors of the genocide have had to do is live.

Last November, one of my two surviving aunts died, though she had given up long ago. Her two daughters, 6-year-old Mamie and 4-year-old Cadette, were at my house for Easter when the genocide occurred. They were killed with the rest of our family. My aunt would talk about the pain in her chest, her knees, and her migraines. But I think it was really the pain of losing her girls.

What would justice have looked like for her? Would it have filled the holes in her heart and relieved the heaviness of her soul?

Many of my cousins battle alcohol problems today. Twenty years ago, like me, they were barely teenagers. The genocide forced us to grow up fast but lonely. The last time I spoke with one of them, he couldn’t remember that I had visited the year before. He is not even 40.

What justice do I wish for him? One that brings peace, one that will help him care for his three children, one that will help him feel less like a failure. Justice that will help him forget the death of his older brother.

A few years ago, one of my closest friends left Rwanda to study in England. When she arrived, she told us that she didn’t want to be in touch with anyone who reminded her of the genocide. She has since disappeared; no one knows where she lives or if she is alive. And we die inside again.

When I met Valentine Iribagiza 10 years ago, her smile was contagious and her voice kind and calming. But during the genocide she had been left to die, the fingers of her left hand chopped off, in the hecatomb of the Nyarubuye church; almost her entire family had perished there under the machetes of the Interahamwe. Only she and her younger brother survived to move on, go to school, build a life.

A year or so ago, a young man showed up at the home of Valentine's aunt in Rwanda and said he was Valentine’s second brother, who she had thought died inside the church. After the massacre, this boy, then about 5 years old, fled to Tanzania. He almost died of starvation, but eventually he grew up and found work. When he encountered someone telling stories that sparked memories of the genocide, he went back to search for his family.

There’s no justice for him. He and his sister could barely speak to each other when Valentine went home to see him last year. He doesn’t speak Kinyarwanda very well after 20 years spent wandering in neighboring countries. In a way, they have lost each other. In a way, it is more death.

If there is one word to describe Rwandan genocide survivors, it is resilience. Even with little or no justice, we have carried on. We have a sense of duty — we can’t waste the lives we have. My friend Kayitesi was a 16-year-old girl who survived with three younger brothers and a sister. She took on the task of raising them, and today she is completing doctoral studies in Canada. She helped found Tuhebo, an organization that supports young genocide survivors. Tuhebo is Kinyarwanda for “let’s live."

When my son was born a little over a year ago, we named him “Ishami,” which is Kinyarwanda for “a branch of a tree.” Even if the murderers cut our roots, those who made it through the horror will grow branches.

My son is a victory over hate and death.

Follow Alice Musabende on Twitter: @amusabende