Rwanda’s Genocidal Fighting Forces Woman on a Brutal Odyssey
She grew up in a house hidden by broad-leaf banana trees. She was a Hutu, but it didn’t mean much to her. Who was what in Rwanda’s ethnic mix was mainly grist for teasing at her Roman Catholic boarding school.
“We didn’t think much about it,” she says. “It was something we joked about--taunting each other, ‘Hutu nose,’ ‘Tutsi nose,’ stuff like that.”
Later, when half a million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were killed in a genocide planned by Hutu extremists, the life-or-death importance of ethnic identity in Rwanda became chillingly clear.
Living with her brother’s widow, her sister and her ethnically mixed children in a crumbling house down a steep, rocky road, Emeritha Uwizeyimana, now 27, is still trying to understand how such brutality happened.
“All of this fell out of the sky,” she says. “When my children were born, I never thought about their ethnic origin. I couldn’t even tell a Hutu from a Tutsi.”
Her odyssey--from a quiet rural life to the horrors of the massacre, from a refugee camp in Burundi to her current tenuous existence--reflects a lot about the past and future of Rwanda.
Only if she and millions like her can overcome the past and build new lives does Rwanda stand a chance of a future without violence.
Uwizeyimana was born in 1970, when Hutus ruled the country. Ethnic hostilities with the minority Tutsis were rekindled about the time she took her first steps. Still, about all she knew about Hutus and Tutsis were the stereotypes: Hutus are short with broad noses; Tutsis are tall with thin noses.
She supposes her stature--just 5-foot-4--betrays her ethnicity. Her most noticeable features, though, are her lively eyes and a crooked-toothed smile she flashes often. She has a quiet authority, a calming economy of movement.
Growing up, she felt safe among the steep, tightly terraced slopes of the Kigembe district, where peasants till rich red earth, silvery eucalyptus trees scent the air like cough drops and the sun sets salmon pink.
It was in her early teens that she learned ethnic differences were critical, during one of Rwanda’s periodic outbreaks of ethnic bloodletting. Suddenly, her neighbors disappeared from her village, Rukoko, a cluster of mud-brick huts just 2 miles north of the border with neighboring Burundi.
“My parents told me they were Tutsis,” she says quietly. “Our neighbors ran away because they were afraid of Hutus. Of us.”
Studying hard at the local primary school, Uwizeyimana became the first in her family of eight children to go to secondary school--an all-girl Catholic boarding school in Butare, Rwanda’s second largest city, 20 miles north.
She finished school at 21 and returned to Kigembe, where she was hired as a social worker. Soon, she fell in love and settled down with a local man--a Tutsi.
They never married, but they lived happily together, having a son, Usabyemungu Evode Dary, now 6, and a daughter, Umurerwa Delphine, now 4.
Her family made her leave the man in 1992--not for ethnic reasons, but because they thought he was unfair to her.
“I made money; he took it,” she says without rancor. The two stayed close through a shared affection for their children.
While visiting a cousin in Butare, she met a handsome military policeman from Cyangugu, on Rwanda’s southwestern border with Zaire.
First Sgt. Kiss Donat and Uwizeyimana married in March 1994 at the Kigembe district office, a cement-block building on a rise overlooking the only road through the village.
While living in Butare, where Donat was stationed, they heard on a crackling radio that a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, had been shot down over Kigali, the capital, on April 6, 1994. There were no survivors.
Hutu-sponsored massacres began in Kigali the next day. Less than 100 days later, the mountainous country was strewn with the corpses of at least 500,000 people, and at least half of the country’s Tutsis were dead.
Some of the biggest massacres occurred in Butare--at least 150,000 people were slaughtered.
“With machetes one neighbor killed the other,” Uwizeyimana says.
Known as a woman who had borne children with a Tutsi, she hid in a house near the military headquarters where her husband was on guard duty. She says she is certain he did not participate in the killings because he was with her.
Puddles of blood stained the streets when she finally hitched a ride back home to Rukoko to find food for her family, protected by an identity card that labeled her a Hutu.
She left her children behind with her older sister rather than risk having them killed by Hutu extremists because they were half Tutsi.
At home she found only more death.
“They killed. They killed,” she says.
Hutu militants were hunting for her children. When they failed to find the youngsters, the thugs destroyed her house, now a heap of rubble overgrown by banana trees.
She says she lost many friends.
Uwizeyimana’s ethnicity spared her life during the massacres, but then she had to fear reprisals from Tutsi rebels who were defeating the Hutu government’s army.
She said goodbye to her husband in Rukoko on July 4, 1994. It was the last time she saw him. Their parting was tearful--she had just learned she was pregnant.
He fought at Gitarama, then fled with the rest of the defeated military to Zaire, she says.
A week after their parting, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front arrived in the Kigembe area, and she fled along with other Hutus the few miles to the border and crossed into Burundi.
Worse than the flight were her worries about her two children, who were trapped in Butare, and about relatives--Hutus and Tutsis--who refused to leave.
The children’s father was killed with eight other Tutsis in Kigembe by Hutu militiamen who were retreating toward the border ahead of Tutsi rebels, she says.
Tutsi soldiers who swiftly followed killed her 25-year-old brother, five of her uncles and two of their children, she says.
Part of a flood of tens of thousands of scared Hutus, Uwizeyimana arrived at Busiga, Burundi, where aid workers had set up a transit camp.
She was assigned to Magara camp, which became one of the largest in Burundi with 50,000 refugees, part of a nation in exile. Nearly 2 million Hutus fled from Rwanda in July and August 1994, fearing reprisals for the genocide.
It wasn’t until a month after she left them in Butare that she saw her children again, when they arrived at the camp with her sister. “I was afraid they had been killed,” she says.
She quickly settled into the role of being the family’s caretaker.
Her good French, experience as a health worker and comfort with foreigners’ ways--she prefers, for example, Western clothes to an African woman’s traditional swaddled skirt--enabled her to get a succession of jobs with aid agencies.
The World Food Program provided corn, beans, oil, soap and flour, but it was never enough, she says. “Life was very difficult if you didn’t have money to buy extra food.”
Her favorite job was working with the camp’s nearly 2,000 orphans and children who had been separated from their families during the escape from Rwanda.
She often heard the children talking among themselves about Tutsi soldiers “with tails and red eyes,” but she didn’t try to tell them otherwise.
“They were so afraid,” she says. Some had seen their whole families killed by Tutsi rebels.
Her third child, Innocente Diane Appoline, was born on Feb. 1, 1995, the beginning of a weekend, so she didn’t lose any time at work or her job.
Authorities in Burundi--which has the same ethnic problems as Rwanda--began to forcibly clear out Rwandan refugees last July.
Although Uwizeyimana’s mother and father had safely returned home months earlier, she was afraid.
“My brother was killed. I wondered what they would do to us. Would they kill my kids? But, finally, I had no choice but to go home.”
On Aug. 5, she put the accumulation of 2 1/2 years in Burundi into a small bundle and climbed aboard a U.N. truck with her three children.
The camps for Rwandan refugees in Burundi were deserted by Aug. 22. Refugees in Zaire and Tanzania followed them home in November and December.
Because her house in Rukoko was in ruins, Uwizeyimana moved in with relatives.
The three manless families cook over a fire between the soot-blackened walls of the kitchen. They share meals from a communal cooking pot, scooping up morsels of rice with their fingers. The children are always hungry.
Uwizeyimana is clearly the head of family.
Her first chore on returning was to plant crops on a plot near the border using seeds and tools donated by an aid group.
On Sept. 1, she got her old job back at the health clinic.
Working at the heart of the community, she sees signs that emotional wounds are healing: Hutu men have married Tutsi women; survivors of genocide have given school uniforms to Hutu orphans.
“It’s difficult, but we have to go on living. Too many have died already.”
Instead of regretting what’s past, she thinks of the future.
“I wait for news of my husband. I just want to know if he’s dead or alive. If he’s coming back or not.”
She is sure he could return safely from Zaire, although other men who wore the same uniform are now accused of genocide and locked up in prisons.
She wants to rebuild her house, but that takes time and money, neither of which she can spare.
As always, her children are her biggest worry.
The older two look just like their dead Tutsi father, she says.
She wonders how she can explain that they are made of two ethnic strains--and that the one killed the other.
For now, she won’t tell them anything.
“It is a time to build, not destroy.”
‘All of this fell out of the sky. When my children were born, I never thought about their ethnic origin. I couldn’t even tell a Hutu from a Tutsi.’