Ntongwe district in Gitarama is a quiet rural area where people farm the land and graze their cattle. But in April 1994, it was a dangerous and hostile place for Tutsis trying to flee from ruthless militia seeking to kill them.
Frodouald Karuhije is a mason who was living in Ntongwe at that time. But while other people in his community were busy killing, he was busy saving lives.
Karuhije had little power to stop the genocide. Instead, he relied on his wits, looking for Tutsis and hiding them in pits he dug on his farm. “Some of the women were too big and could not fit in. The men withstood such conditions much better. They squeezed in and lay down.”
Karuhije often went out of his way to find and hide Tutsis, even if he didn’t know them very well. He found Emmanuel Twagirayezu at the Shongwe parish, hiding with some of his colleagues. “He updated me on Ntongwe and told me to go with him, so that he could hide me. I didn’t believe he could protect me, I thought it was all over, we were just waiting to die. I told him there was nothing he could do and suggested we enter the church and pray.” Twagirayezu remembers.
“Honestly, I thought he just wanted to find out where I was hiding so he could tell others, especially seeing as we had made no previous arrangement that he would search for me in Shogwe,” he adds.
It was the local pastor, Celestin Hategekimana; also hiding Tutsis, that convinced Emmanuel to take up the offer of protection. Emmanuel says he accepted Karuhihe’s offer as a last resort. “ We had decided that staying and leaving amounted to the same thing. You know? One death is the same as another, and since we were close to the end, we thought we might as well try all our options,” he recalls.
Fidentia Mukamwiza, is a large buxom woman who enjoys a good laugh. But in 1994, her family were chased from several hiding places by people who feared for their own lives if caught helping Tutsis. As the killings increased, hiding became harder. According to Fidentia, when their hosts saw what was happening they became afraid and chased her and her nice Claudette, away.
“We walked alone in the night. On our way we passed through Karuhije’s house and asked him to escort us. He said: “The swamps are full of Interahamwe (militia). They will kill you. But if you stay here, I will hide you” . He dug a trench overnight, his wife assisted him dispose of the dirt. At dawn, he took us to it so we could hide,” she remembers.
Karuje also hid women with children in irrigation ditches and covered them with weeds. Fidentia recalls how she and the others survived in these ditches, for over a month.
“Every night after the patrols, when it was safe, he’d put sweet potatoes in a bucket and drop it in the ditch with a gallon of water, so we could eat. Sometimes he would enter the ditch and tell us: ‘I will take you out at dawn so you can stretch your legs ‘. He would take us to his house and light a fire for us to get warm, as it was the rainy season ” she narrates.
But it was a difficult time, without even the most basic amenities. “If you wanted to go to the toilet, there was a tin. Later, he would dispose of it. That’s how we survived.”
Karuhije’s sister-in-law Beata Mukamurenzi helped Fidentia and others hiding from the militia death squads. She says it was a very dangerous job. “Karuhije would sometimes bring people we didn’t know and tell us to help them, so that’s what we did. He had a good heart. You know it was a bad time. Many people died for hiding Tutsis.”
Karuhije and his family managed to hide and feed seventeen people: seven men, seven women and three children. Despite his efforts to maintain appearances, people got suspicious.
Twagirayezu says the killers would pass right next to Karujihe’s secret pit, where he and several other men were hiding, but Karuhije ensured they wouldn’t guess at what was happening.
“He had dug all round the pit and planted sweet potatoes. Looters would pass every morning and see him digging and say “Hey Karuhije, what’s the matter with you, you spend all your time farming, don’t you know what’s happening?” He would reply: “Sure, I’m coming, just let me finish a little work here and I’ll be right with you.”
Hostile neighbors sometimes saw refugees moving from the ditches to the house and demanded bribes to keep quiet. Others told the Interhamwe, who came to search and ransack the house, again and again. Sometimes, Karuhije and his family were assaulted by these militia death squads. One night in particular stands out in Karuhije’s mind.
“The Interahamwe came with guns,” Karuhije recalls. “Luckily the fugitives were still in the ditch, I had not yet brought them into the house.”
But it would not be so easy for those in the house. “The militia beat us up. I was with my wife and my sister-in-law, my brother had already fled. Despite the beatings, they denied I was hiding anyone, and in any case they did not know the exact location of the ditches,” Karuhije says, smiling.
According to him, the attackers thought the refugees were staying in his house and didn’t know about the trenches. “ I was the only one who knew where they were apart from my five year- old niece, who would take food to them in the evening in a bin while, pretending to throw away rubbish.”
Karuhije received help from a neighbor, Gaspard Nsengiyumva. Gaspard provided shelter for those too sick to stay in the ditches or canals. He says it was not easy. “What we did required self-sacrifice. As you know, at that time they’d announced that anyone caught hiding Tutsis would be killed with them. To do what he did, was like accepting your own death sentence,” he says.
In July 1994 militia finally discovered the women’s hiding place. After long negotiations, Karuhije and the women were spared. But Karuhuje was worried about the men, so he left to get help before they too were discovered. Emmanuel says that when he did this, Karuhije once again risked his life.
“On his way, Karuhije met some people coming from Kabgayi, they stopped him and checked his identity card. They said, ‘It is a Hutu, one of those who’s been killing us”. They started to harass him, until a man called Zack asked them to stop, saying: “ I know this man; he saved my wife and children”
Karuhije’s brought back Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) soldiers before the militia found the hiding men. In total, he saved over twenty-five lives.