Teopista Bagwaneza is one of the 100 girls and several people Sr. Helene Nayituliki saved at Rwamagana in Rwanda’s Eastern Province. She told The Light Magazine a tear-jerking story.
Bagwaneza was a matron at Rwamagana School of Nursing and Midwifery in 1994. She recalls that when 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi started she had gone home for holidays and it were the student nurses who were by then doing internship at Rwamagana Hospital at school.
She says that before April9 they had not seen anybody killed but things changed that evening when the Interahamwe killed Charles Karema her dad and looted every property in their home, including livestock.
“My father had broken the news about the shooting down of the plane on which Ex-President Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart CyprienNtiryamira were aboard on the morning of April7[at around 5am] which he had heard Muhabura radio announcing,” Bagwaneza recalls the events that sparked off the Genocide.
She came to the boys’ quarters to wake us up. She recalls her mum as saying that though the death of Habyarimana was good news its repercussions would mean death of masses. “Many people must die as a consequence of his death,” she retorted her mother.
Many people were gripped by shock and I would see them standing in small groups purportedly perplexed reflecting on their fate and what the President’s death would eventually mean to them, particularly to the Rwandan society that was already polarized along ethnicity lines.
Bagwaneza was born in 1969 at Kabacuzi, Ntunga in Mwurire Sector of Rwamagana District. She is among the 10 children of Karema of whom two boys were killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
We were in a state of confusion and fear, no work was done at all and we 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 (RIP) thought loudly.
“On April8, we saw flames of fire and heavy clouds of smoke twirling into the atmosphere emanating from houses of fellow Tutsi [as we learnt later] in the areas of Bicumbi and Gahengeri. From the hill we could see throngs of people fleeing their homes”.
We spent that day in helpless desperation. On April9, we gathered in groups and went up to Mwurire hill where we have the sector’s Headquarters today to take refugee there but my father and a shepherd remained at home to look after the cows.
While there my young children cried for food and mother sent some old ones home to pick the food. Shortly, a messenger brought some information that a Parish Chief,only identified as Nguriyengoma, had written to my 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 (redacted] the message read in parts.
On hearing that my mother cast a spell of doubt and she 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 my father and the shepherd narrowly escaped.
After learning of the sad news of the death of my father, our neighbours who were Hutu suggested to help me carry his body home. We braved the dreadful scene at around 7pm we carried and laid his body on a bare bed and we deserted the home immediately after learning about a clandestine plot to kill us. A Good Samaritan had told us that if we delayed in the home none of us would survive. The killing had started.
“The family of Karema is back,” said the enemies who were overheard and we were tipped off by good people who had had of the plan to kill us that night.
Our family being big our Hutu neighbours separated us in two groups and offered to accommodate us for a night as we think about where to go. We only reunited as a family after the genocide.
In the wee hours of April 11 we decided to flee that area and trekked towards Rwamagana town. I saw Sr. Helene Nayituliki crossing the road and by impulse yelled at her. She recognized me and introduced my family members to her. We knew each other because I was a matron at the school where she was Head teacher.
This is my mother and the three are my young sisters.
Sr. Helene took us to her school and provided uniforms to my sisters. I shared a room with my mother because I had one there as an employee. Although we were now refugees, we could not feel it so much because there was water and food save the worries of the pending death.
In dire desperation I stayed with mom in my room until we 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.
There were some daughters of soldiers were picked one by one as the killings within the school vicinity.
The place of Sr. Helene in society was instrumental to our survivor most of the time local leaders and security personnel could listen to her pleas for our life.
The Sister had promised to donate food to the security people and I hope she did. In return,they gave us four police officers [les gendameries] to guard the school and we were not attacked. Perhaps, the Sister would stop every time they wanted to attack. We were in hiding, praying all the time so we did not much of what was happening outside our rooms.
Sr. Helene mobilized two trucks from the ministry of works to complement school trucks. I remember I was part of the team that wrote a list of people to board the trucks.
Our journey started on April17, we went past several roadblocks and little did we know that the worst one was just ahead of us.
It was Karembo. Our convoy was intercepted and we were held hostage between four and five hours. This time, the four police officers that were accompanying us became helpless. I saw people 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 Sister to separate the occupants on the trucks between Tutsi and Hutus to which she objected and insisted we were all students and not ethnic groups. Interahamwe militias suggested todothe search for themselves. The sister refused, again.
The Sister laboured to explain to them that they were doing a wrong thing as she pleaded for our survivor and freedom. I saw her reaching out for her purse, we guess she gave them some dime, may not but shortly they ordered us to return to school. They spent a lot of time on Jean Pierre, the President of IBUKA.
They advised us not to precede saying: “Being killed by machetes just before you reach Zaza, you better be killed by the bullets of Inkotanyi that you left behind because there are chances of surviving”
We stayed at schooland on April19, the RPA liberators came and evacuated us to Gahini Hospital. The student nurses started offering healthcare services. Some were taken to Byumba.
We are grateful to the RPF that stopped the genocide and for having done whatever they can to help us return to normal life.
Bagwaneza, a mother of a daughter, is the proprietor of BLife Restaurant in Kimihurura. She holds a Diploma in Education and a degree in Finance from the College of Science and Technology (University of Rwanda).