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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.

*        *       *

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.”

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on KMSRAJ51-Always Positive Thinker.

    November 12, 2013
  2. “Tribalism will get us nowhere.” Jean’s words echo profoundly to many people around the globe who might be questioning why they were stuck in tribal conflicts at the first place. But the history keeps repeating itself with us, humans, taking the key role of many atrocities. Too many lives have lost in the name of tribalism – or to some extent, religious extremism – with no evident victor. Only grudge that persists and fuels further calamity.

    As someone who lives in a diverse country myself, I see in a daily basis the potential tribal and religious frictions in the society. Today most people would take such thing lightly. But that is not always the case in the past, and even today where sporadic violence stubbornly persists in some areas.

    Having said that, most of the people that I met were those of the kindhearted and peace-minded ones, reminding us that there is hope for a better world, indeed.

    November 12, 2013
    • One of the lessons of Rwanda is the fact that this tribalism was deeply ingrained from the start. The genocide didn’t just happen overnight – it grew from generations of mistrust and suspicion, and a history of warring between the two groups.

      As for large-scale ethnic/religious tensions, we don’t have anything like it here in Hong Kong, but what I’m extremely concerned about is the rise of blind Chinese ethno-nationalism, particularly how that helps to perpetuate racism and fan maritime disputes with neighbouring countries.

      November 13, 2013
  3. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it. It’s like the phoenix rising from the ashes. What resilience we humans have. What courage.
    Life is not fair, and we arise, are born, into a duality, and so the conflicts will continue until we evolve beyond the fear of extinction. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just how it is. The darkness and the light. One “day” we will all see that it is all the same, and embrace each other as life itself recognizing itself. Until that day we can be buoyed by stories like Jean’s where the light shines brightly through the darkness.

    November 12, 2013
    • I have to thank Jean for being bold enough to share his story with me and a few others – most of whom he had only just met. Hearing what he went through in 1994 and beyond really put things in perspective… it was one of the most humbling things I’ve heard in a long time.

      November 13, 2013
  4. A wonderful post ! I loved it. My college actually has a partner school in Rwanda so I happened to be twice as excited when I saw your post! We live in a changing world. It’s time to move on, even for Africa!

    November 13, 2013
    • Thank you, Suze! When I met Jean, I instantly knew that his story had to be told – and what a powerful testament it is to the human spirit.

      November 13, 2013
  5. What a poignant and inspiring story James! My heart goes out to that terrified nine year old struggling to survive all by himself. I am always acutely aware of the accident of birth that separates us. Humbling is an understatement. Thank you for sharing, and here’s wishing Jean never looks back on his journey to a bright and happy future..

    November 14, 2013
    • You’re welcome, Madhu! Jean certainly has a lot to look forward to; there’s no doubt he’ll be a future leader when he returns to Rwanda.

      November 14, 2013
  6. A powerful and inspirational story indeed. As heartening is the progress that the Rwandan people have made in the short 19 years since the tragedy of the genocide – Rwanda today is a flag-bearer for the African continent and a great example of what can be achieved with the right leadership and by working together for the benefit of the country rather than a select few.

    November 15, 2013
    • Absolutely – I’d love to visit Rwanda myself and see just how far things have come… it’s the emerging youth who bring real hope!

      November 20, 2013
  7. As all of the comments above say, that was really inspiring. Thank you for sharing the story. Love your work!

    November 16, 2013
    • It’s my pleasure! Thanks in turn for the kind words.

      November 20, 2013
  8. Hi my name is Sofia and I just wanted to say thank you for always keeping your readers entertained! Great blog, I love reading it. I would love for you to check out my travel blog at
    Thank you! 🙂

    November 18, 2013
    • Thanks too Sofia, glad you enjoy my blog! Will have a look round yours when I have time. 🙂

      November 20, 2013
  9. directorb #

    Sobering yet inspiring story. Amazing how someone who goes through such horrors has such a positive outlook on the future. Awesome story and so well written. Really puts into perspective how we can view small problems as big, when we really don’t have any problems like those experienced by others.

    November 22, 2013
    • You’re right, our everyday problems pale in comparison to these life-and-death situations. I don’t know if I would have the same courage and graciousness if I went through the same horrors – hearing it narrated firsthand was beyond humbling.

      November 24, 2013
      • directorb #

        I can’t imagine hearing it directly from someone who went through it.

        November 24, 2013
      • directorb #

        I can only imagine hearing it first hand, how that must have been.

        November 25, 2013
  10. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Si no te importa ¿podrías abrir la página y dar un LİKE:) ?

    November 27, 2013
  11. catsymonds #

    Great article, I really like your blog!

    We’d love it if you had a read of our new blog too, a spot for top travel secrets and inspriation with Booking Request:

    Thanks for the great post!

    December 3, 2013
  12. What a story. Thanks for sharing.

    December 7, 2013
    • You’re welcome, Rebecca.

      December 7, 2013
  13. Love this post. I have a friend who was in one of the first teams that entered Rwanda after the massacre. He was a psychologist. Of course when he arrived non of his training meant anything really. He let the people teach him – some upturned crates and a fire for a cup of tea. In the end it was his capacity for compassion that was required. It was a major turning point in his life and I have to say he is one of the most compassionate human beings I have ever met. Yes, the Rwandans were victims but now they are survivors and have a lot to teach us if we could only listen.

    May 20, 2014
    • It must have taken a sheer amount of courage to face the aftermath of what happened – I can’t even fathom what your friend would have seen with his own eyes. And it is sobering to think that we never learn from history. As Rwanda commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide, South Sudan seems to be following dangerously close in its footsteps.

      May 22, 2014

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