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Wed. Dec 2nd, 2020

After learning of the sad news of the death of my father, our Hutu neighbours suggested to help me carry his body home

Teopista Bagwaneza (PHOTO/George Kalisa)

By George Kalisa

Teopista Bagwaneza, 51, is one of 100 girls and several people Sr. Helene Nayituliki saved in Rwanda’s eastern Province. She told this reporter a tear-jerking story.

Bagwaneza was a matron at Rwamagana School of Nursing and Midwifery in 1994. She recalls that when 1994 genocide against Tutsi started she had gone for holidays and it were the student nurses at school who were doing internship at Rwamagana Hospital.

She says that before April9 they had not seen anybody killed but things changed that evening when Interahamwe killed her dad, Charles Karema and looted every property in their home, including livestock.

“My father had broken news in the morning of April7 about the shooting down of the plane on which Ex-President Juvénal Habyarimana was aboard, announced by Muhabura radio,” recalled Bagwaneza. He woke us up.

Bagwaneza recalls her mum as saying that though Habyarimana’s death was good news its repercussions would mean death of masses. “Many people must die as a consequence of his death,” her mother retorted.

Many were gripped by shock and she would see in small groups perplexed and absorbed in reflection on their fate and what the President’s death would eventually mean to the Rwandan society, already polarized along ethnicity lines.  

They were in a state of confusion and fear, no work was done at all and they didn’t know where to go.

“I wish we were near the border, we would flee to another country. To make matters worse we cannot all fit in this small car,” Karema thought loudly.

On April8, they saw flames of fire and heavy clouds of smoke twirling into the atmosphere emanating from houses of fellow Tutsi in the areas of Bicumbi and Gahengeri. From the hill, Bagwaneza says they could see throngs of people fleeing their homes.

They spent that day in helpless desperation. On April9, they gathered in groups and went up to Mwurire hill to take refugee but her father and a shepherd remained at home to look after the cows.

While there her young siblings cried for food and the mother sent some old ones home to pick it. Shortly, a messenger brought some information that a Parish Chief, only identified as Nguriyengoma, had written to her father, explaining that they had lived as friends and brothers and hence nothing bad would be done against his family so he should keep calm at home. “You should therefore remain at home and you will be safe,” the letter read in parts.

Her mother cast a spell of doubt and said that the Parish Chief was kidding.

The bad days started with our father who had taken the cows to the field in the company of the shepherd when Interahamwe militias killed him while the shepherd narrowly escaped.

After learning of the sad news of the death of her father, their neighbours who were Hutu suggested to help her carry his body home. They braved the dreadful scene at around 7pm. They carried and laid his body on a bare bed and they immediately deserted the home after learning about a clandestine plot to kill them. A Good Samaritan had told them that if they delayed none of them would survive. The killing had started. 

“The family of Karema is back,” said the perpetrators who were overheard and they were tipped off by good people who had had of the plan to kill them that night.

Their family being big their Hutu neighbours separated them in two groups and offered to accommodate them for a night as they thought about where to go next. They only reunited as a family after genocide.

In the wee hours of April 11 we decided to flee and trekked towards Rwamagana town. I saw Sr. Helene Nayituliki crossing the road and by impulse yelled at her. She recognized me and I introduced my family to her. We knew each other because I was a matron at the school where she was Headmistress”. She was with her mother and three young sisters.

Sr. Helene took them to her school and provided uniforms to three. Bagwaneza shared a room with her mother because she had one there as an employee. Although they were now refugees, they could not feel it so much because there was water and food save worries about the pending death.

In dire desperation she stayed with mom in my room until they relocated to a new place.

In the dormitory bad air had started brewing up among the interns as the majority Hutu girls attempted to attack the minority Tutsi and calm only returned after Sr. Helene’s intervention.

“Those who want to join the Interahamwe to kill innocent people feel free to move out of my school but I expect you to maintain maximum discipline and calm. We don’t have ethnic groups here, we have students, discrimination cannot be tolerated by any inch,” said Sr. Nayituliki.  

Soldiers’ children were picked one by one as the killings in the area intensified.

The place of Sr. Helene in society was instrumental to their survival as most local Hutu leaders and security personnel could listen to her pleas for girls.

The nun had promised to donate food to the security people and I hope she did. In return, they gave us four police officers to guard the school and they were not attacked. Perhaps, the nun would stop them whenever they wanted to attack. They were kept indoors, praying all the time so they didn’t know much of what was happening outside.

Sr. Helene mobilized two government trucks to complement school trucks. Bagwaneza remembers she writing a list of people to board the trucks.

The journey started on April17, they went past several heavily armed roadblocks and little did they know that the worst one was just ahead of them.

“It was Karembo. Our convoy was intercepted and held hostage for about five hours. This time, the four police officers that were accompanying us became helpless. I saw fellow Tutsis being slaughtered. I sweated profusely, filled with uncontrolled fear.  A man called Teacher Fortune told me to be strong. Then, I became strong. At this spot, they ordered the nun to separate the occupants on the trucks into Tutsis and Hutus to which she objected and insisted we were all students. Interahamwe suggested searching for Tutsis. Again, the nun refused”.

“The nun laboured to explain to them that they were doing a wrong thing as she pleaded for our freedom. I saw her reaching out for her purse to give them some money and shortly they ordered us to return to school. The killers spent a lot of time on Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, the President of IBUKA today”.

“You’ll be killed by machetes before you reach Zaza, you’d better be killed by the bullets of Kagame’s RPA that you left behind because there are chances of surviving,” said the killers.  

They hopelessly stayed at school and on April19 the RPA liberators evacuated them to Gahini where the students offered healthcare services.

“We are grateful to RPF for stopping genocide and having done whatever they could to help us return to normal life”.

Bagwaneza mothers a daughter and she’s a business woman in Kigali. Bagwaneza was born in 1969 at Kabacuzi, Ntunga in Mwurire Sector of Rwamagana District. She is among Karema’s10 children. The killers killed two of her brothers.  

This story was first ran by EFE

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