- Post 09 December 2012
- Last Updated on 10 December 2012
- By Tunde Fagbenle
Meeting Eric was itself fortuitous. Though he runs a private tour guide service in Kigali, Rwanda, the 34-year old with a cherubic face is not meant to be alive now.
In 1994 when his country Rwanda, at a godforsaken moment, broke into genocidal war with the dominant Hutu (more clannish than ethnic, for almost nothing differentiated one from another: they looked alike and spoke the same language) hell bent on exterminating Eric’s by far minority Tutsi group, he was barely 16. His parents were wiped out in the orgy of violence that lasted 100 days and left over a million Tutsis – men, women, children and all – brutally murdered!
Eric, full name Eric Irivuzumugabe, survived because fate had it that he would, hiding on a tall cypress tree that he had climbed and remained upon for fifteen days, protected by the tree’s dense foliage!
It was fortuitous I had to meet Eric but meeting him has touched me immensely and his personal story and that of Rwandans – victims, villains, dead and survivors – during the 100-days of genocide, which a visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre (or Genocide Museum) exposed me to, filled me with emotions and thoughts that are at once humbling and troubling.
It is my first time in Rwanda; here on the invitation to attend a “Technical Experts’ Workshop on ‘The Media and the Challenges of Transparency & Accountability in the Public Sphere in Africa” organised by the Governance & Public Administration Division (GPAD) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) whose Director, Dr. Said Ajetumobi, is one of Nigeria’s remarkable intellectuals in the Diaspora. In collaboration with the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption (AU-ABC) it held in Kigali from 5-6 December.
My first day in Kigali was a free day, and once I had gathered myself together from the nauseating experience of not having my luggage arrive (that left me with only my passport and laptop, and the clothes I wore, on me) I decided to have a look around Kigali. Eric was he the receptionist at the hotel told me I could call. And I’m glad I did.
Nothing about Eric on the outside bore the scars of the horrors he had experienced; a calm mien and a reassuring boyish smile on a chubby face greets you. He tells you rather innocently that the two places to visit, even if you had no time for others, are the Genocide Museum and the Presidential Museum. The presidential museum was the presidential lodge of Juvenal Habyarimana until 6 April 1994 when the plane flying him and Burundi’s President Cyrien Ntaryamira was shot down just by the lodge on its approach to Kigali airport. The debris of the plane still lay strewn and preserved by the lodge turned museum – a lesson on the temporality of power!
It was only when we got talking as he drove on that Eric, almost in passing, and without any inflection on his voice, said he was a survivor of the genocide, and told me about the God-sent cypress tree on which he had spent 15 days, venturing down to forage for food or drink only for brief moments of the midnights before quickly getting back on the tree – a story that is also contained in a book published by an American of his very moving life story.
The Genocide Museum turned out not a place for the faint-hearted. The experience was most depressing and left me numb and feverish, even as I write. It is both a museum and tomb – for over 250,000 Kigali victims of the 100-day genocide given mass burial at the site.
The genocide began virtually within hours of the death of Hayarimana in April 1994. Within an instant, roadblocks sprang up right across Kigali and house-to-house searches conducted by the militia (the Interahamwe established by Habyarimana) armed to identify and kill Tutsis.
And in the span of 100 days over one million people had died, making it the worst case of genocide in the world over the same period.
The museum had it all on vivid display: the machetes, clubs, guns and blunt tools used by the Hutu militia to inflict as much pain as possible on their Tutsi victims before killing them.
On the walls of the museum and on tablets were photos and inscriptions:
“Women were beaten, raped, humiliated, abused and ultimately murdered, often in sight of their own families. Children watched as their parents were tortured, beaten and killed in front of their eyes, before their small bodies were sliced, smashed, abused, pulverised and discarded. The elderly, the pride of Rwandan society, were despised, and mercilessly murdered in cold blood. Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends on friends… even family on their own family members. Rwanda had turned into a nation of brutal, sadistic merciless killers and of innocent victims, overnight.
“In 100 days more than 1 million people were murdered… Many families had been totally wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths. The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. The country smelt of the stench of death.
“People ran to churches for shelter in large numbers. But churches were not sanctuaries of safety. The genocidaires moved into the pews and altars and massacred thousands at a time. Believers ended their lives piled in the aisles in pools of blood.
“On occasion, victims were thrown alive down deep latrines and rocks were thrown in one at a time until their screams subsided into silence. On other occasions, large numbers of victims were thrown down pit latrines.”
The pictures were gory and the images terrible.
There is a Children’s wing where thousands of photographs of children victims were on display. The photographs were brought in by their surviving relations and showed the children, gay and happy, before their brutal ends. The photos bore names of the children, favourite sport, favourite food, favourite drink, best friend, and cause of death!
Nothing could be more chilling.
I, with head bowed and body shivering, and Eric moved out unto the garden where lay the mass graves, eight in all for some 250,000 victims. The graves consist of concrete crypts three metres deep, each filled from floor to ceiling with coffins, mostly containing the remains of up to 50 victims, because of the impossibility in many cases of ensuring that the remains of individuals are kept intact.
On the way back to the hotel, I remained speechless even as Eric prodded to know my feelings.
What I wanted to know was his. I could not comprehend or come to terms with what I saw and the thought that here with me was someone who witnessed it all, live, as a child! There in the mass graves could lay the remains of his parents, his relation or friend. What does he feel? What do others feel on visits to the museum and reliving the genocide experiences all over again? How has Rwanda dealt with this and gotten over it? Just too many questions on my mind. How and why would human beings do this to themselves?
It is to President Kigame’s credit that Rwanda has rapidly found her way back and put the devastation and hurt of the genocide behind her. Indeed, citizens no longer call themselves Hutu or Tutsi, as a rule they are all now just Rwandese.
Eric says he’s forgiving it all, helped by his strong Christian faith; and believes that both the victims and the perpetrators of genocide alike bear the agony. He believes the villains can no longer live a happy life knowing what they did, and the Centre remains constant reminder of their heinous crimes, worse with possibly faces of their known victims.
“I know survivors who lost their limbs and some who were victims of rape. Some would say they have been forsaken by God. Those who carried out the crimes of genocide face another kind of suffering. They exist as outcasts. No one in the country has escaped the sufferings of genocide.”
Has he forgiven? “When I decided to become a Christian, I knew the Bible taught that our salvation comes at a price – it means forgiving ‘seventy times seven’. This is my cross to bear. I feel now a different kind of dilemma. The genocide left me with faceless enemies. There’s no Interahamwe to look in the eye and seek reconciliation, as many fled or are in prison. Still I pray God will show me fully what forgiveness looks like. Perhaps one day I may meet one of the killers face-to-face. But mostly they still remain faceless enemies that I witnessed in masses below while I was hiding in the tree.”
The Kigali Memorial Centre was opened on 7 April 2004 on the tenth anniversary of the start of the genocide. The Centre says it “is a place of dignified remembrance for loved ones lost. It is also a place of reflection and learning for the wider community, both in Rwanda and internationally.”
Eric has himself now founded Humara Ministries that supports orphans of genocide and through which he minsters to hundreds of fatherless children in need of hope.
He took me to his house to meet his wife and little one-and-half-year old daughter. And showed me his little study and his book, “My Father, Maker of the Trees – how I survived the Rwandan genocide” written with the assistance of an American lady, Tracey D. Lawrence, Ph.D.
I bought an autographed copy. It opened with a list of 70 names, members of his family who lost their lives in the genocide and to whom he dedicates the book.