The voice from Rwanda
Oftentimes we think of war and genocide as something that happens in distant lands, or a scourge already dealt with in generations past, but the ongoing crisis in Syria – and the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya – is a stark reminder that this is a daily reality for too many people. This September I had the privilege of meeting a survivor of those horrors; this is his story.
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In April 1994, nine-year-old Jean was taking refuge in the Rwandan city of Gisenyi, by the border with what was then known as Zaire. The eldest of three children, his family had separated and fled in different directions. Jean’s mother took his younger brother and sister out of Kigali; together with his father, he escaped westwards. One night, as he went out to stock up on food, his father never returned.
Jean’s tone was matter-of-fact, with the calm air of someone who had recounted the story many times. “My father was lucky. He was shot. Other people, they were killed with knives. Machetes.
“My parents were Tutsi. Even before the genocide, when I went to school, the Hutu teachers didn’t want to teach Tutsi children. They hated us. Then when the president[‘s plane] was shot [down], the majority Hutu suspected the Tutsi and started killing everyone. My parents’ house in Kigali became a target… we had to go or the neighbours would kill us.”
Long-running tensions between the two ethnic groups were exacerbated by European colonialism; Germany ruled Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi between 1885 and 1916, using the strategy of divide and conquer to empower the minority Tutsi, already the traditional ruling class. From 1916 onwards, the Belgians maintained this socio-economic distinction, while imposing a new standard of racial classification: “Tutsi” became the term for anyone wealthy enough to own more than ten cows, or anyone who was taller with a long nose. Shorter, broad-nosed residents were classified as “Hutu”.
This system based on superficial physical features persisted beyond independence, up until the days before the genocide. “It said so on our I.D. cards,” Jean told us. As the massacres broke out, those of mixed parentage were not spared, and Hutus who refused to take part in the violence were also slaughtered. Jean, as a Tutsi, faced certain death. But he also saw a glimpse of compassion amid the brutal insanity of those 100 days.
“When I found out my father was killed, I knew there were others coming to kill me. I hid in the forest, in the bush, and only came out at night… a close friend of my father, he was a Hutu. When I came out he caught me and hid me with his family.”
Together they attempted to cross the border into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC), but in the chaos Jean lost track of his adoptive family. From the refugee camps, he flocked to Goma, living on the streets and eking out a living carrying small loads in the markets, until the conflict came to Goma itself. “Then I decided to leave… I decided to go back to Rwanda. If I died, at least I would die in my own country.” We listened in stunned silence, knowing that these were the thoughts of a ten or eleven-year-old. “I thought, maybe if I went back to Kigali I would find my mother, my sister and my brother… all I wanted was someone who could take care of me.”
Jean returned to the site of his family’s house, walking down war-torn streets that he no longer recognised. Finding no trace of his mother and siblings, he became the homeless wanderer that he was in Goma. “I was used to that life,” he told us.
The eventual turning point came when Jean met a businesswoman, with whom he pleaded for shelter and a family. “She owned a big shop,” he said, “and she told me to come tomorrow because she knew people who could take me to the right place.” Thanks to the help of an NGO, Jean was brought into a new home environment, where he returned to school and began the long road to recovery.
“I had scars… well, not the injuries that you can see.” With the tip of a finger, Jean flicked invisible lines across his arm. “But I was broken inside. I needed healing… and so many people in Rwanda still do.
“Some think God left Rwanda in the genocide. How could He let that happen? People were killed praying and worshipping God in the churches. They believed that He could do anything, that He could save them.”
I could barely comprehend his words, knowing that this unspeakable violence had played out in sanctuaries all across the country. To this day the church at Ntarama, where 5,000 people were massacred, still holds bloodstained clothing and racks of bones, kept as a memorial to the genocide.
“What can you say to people who lost so much? But I had that same experience. My parents were Christians. I lost many friends who were Christians. If God could not protect them, how could He protect me? But when I was hiding in the bush, I was a boy… sometimes they would leave women and girls [alive]. They would kill boys.” Jean raised a fist to his forehead. “Because when they grow up… they could take revenge. But God protected me in the forest. In the refugee camp in the DRC, I got very sick. I got diseases that killed many children, many adults. But somehow I was healed.”
Eventually Jean learned the fate of his immediate family. “My mother went with my sister and brother to Kenya. But she passed away from sickness. Then an aunt came to pick them up and take them to Canada.” Jean’s siblings embarked on new lives in Montreal, and have since reconnected with him through Facebook. “Sometimes we have phone calls from Rwanda to Canada and Canada to Rwanda. I was so surprised – but so happy – to know they were alive.
“Why was I born in Rwanda? There must have been a reason, a bigger purpose.”
After finishing high school, there were opportunities to learn, grow and even travel beyond his home country. Jean laughed. “I used to think that Rwanda was the whole world, that everywhere I went, it was still Rwanda.” Subsequent training courses brought him to Tanzania and Cape Town, and now, after overcoming repeated rejections for a U.S. student visa, he had arrived in Hong Kong, en route to Atlanta for a year-long leadership and community development programme.
“When I was a street kid, I never dreamed that I would graduate from primary school. I never dreamed that I would take a plane, because in Rwanda, only rich people take planes. And now, I am here.” He smiled brightly, his eyes brimming with hopeful resilience. Jean continued, speaking of his quest to acquire knowledge overseas before returning to rebuild his country.
“We don’t talk about tribes any more. Our generation, the young people, we just want to be Rwandan. Tribalism will get us nowhere.”