The stories of those who saved others during the genocide are profiled in a book called Tribute to Courage, published by African Rights. But the book highlights only seventeen cases. Why so few?
Rakiya Omar, the director of African Rights, and says accuracy is crucial, particularly because often, the same individual saved lives but also killed people.
“Very often they would save someone they knew or someone who had fled to their house, they would go out of their way to make sure that they were safe, and then they would join the Interahamwe militia to go and kill others,” she says.
“It is time-consuming to verify in the first instance that the people we profile were truly heroes of the genocide and were not also killers as well, because obviously we would not want to pay tribute to someone who was in any way involved in the genocide,” she explains.
Rakiya says that more should be done to tell the stories of these people and others like them particularly those who paid the ultimate price for their efforts. This, she reckons, might also help those left behind.
“It is unfortunate that the families of those who died (while saving others) are not being looked after, are not recognized. They must wonder why their sisters, fathers and brothers and husbands made that sacrifice, if the nation of Rwanda and Africans do not even know their names, let alone what they did.”
Emmanuel Twagirayezu was saved by Frodouald Karuhije. Twagirayezu believes there are plenty of lessons for everyone.
“What Karuhije did was simply heroic. If more people had joined together and acted with the same dedication, Tutsis wouldn’t have died. People like Karuhije took a great risk; they could have done bad things to him or even killed him as they killed Tutsis, says Emmanuel Twagirayezu.
Karuhije’s sister-in-law Beatah Mukamurenzi agrees that such courage sets a good example for others to follow during conflict. “The lesson they give is clear, it’s very obvious that just to watch someone die, while you know you could intervene to help them, is not good. Anyone can and should intervene. Everyone should do that” Mukamurenzi reckons.
In Cyangugu, the refusal of two Tutsi priests, Father Ignace Kabera and Father Joseph Boneza to abandon fellow refugees had devastating consequences.
Although they managed to save many lives, the two priests increasingly came under threat, particularly from a militia man called Bandetse, who came every day searching for Father Boneza.
Sister Bernadette, a nun who was assisting them says that on May 16 th , she heard Bandetse say he would kill the priest. Three days later, following repeated threats to his life, Father Boneza finally decided to evacuate.
He and Sister Bernadette took a vehicle to Cyangugu. She says they were followed by a car full of militia and ambushed near a shopping centre.
“They caught up with us at Gihundwe, they pulled in front and blocked our path. They got out and asked him if he was Joseph, then they took him out. When they took him I asked him if they were going to kill him, they told me I must get out too. I was so scared, I couldn’t move. They grabbed and pulled me out. They took Father Boneza near a kiosk, and killed him,” Sister Bernadette recalls.
The significance of Father Boneza’s murder is not lost on refugees like Catherine Kayundo, who survived the genocide.
“Father Joseph Boneza could have been evacuated in the same way he was evacuating others, but he refused to leave us. Father Ignace Kabera could have gone, but he refused to leave; they agreed to stay with us, until it was all over,” she says.
But Wellace Ntaganira is not so sure that anyone in the country is learning anything from the past.
“Is there any lesson that Rwandans have never been given? Yet to bear those lessons in mind has always been too hard for them,” Ntaganira says bitterly.
“Maybe slowly with God’s help we will finally begin to understand. There is nobody who could not have saved people,” he notes.
“There are those who did terrible things during the genocide but even today they do not even understand that what they did is wrong. That is one of our biggest problems. Everyday after the genocide the lesson continues, but when people meet each other face to face they continue to perpetuate the hatred. This despite the biggest lesson we could ever have: the genocide. But many simply won’t learn,” he laments.
Does this mean that those who saved lives died in vain? Sula Karuhimbi took the risk to save lives. For all her efforts Sula’s family suffered greatly. “They killed my first born; they also killed seven of my sister’s children. Let those who want to reconcile do so. As for me I have no part in that. How do I reconcile with someone who wants to kill me?” she asks. Sula is particularly unhappy with the way the justice system has worked since 1994.
“ Why do they release someone who killed others? If you poison someone else does someone say thank you? Does the community thank you and grant you pardon?” she wonders.
Annociata Mukagakwaya was saved by Sula. Today she shares similar concerns with the lady who rescued her especially about genocide suspects. “Look and see, what has the government done? Haven’t they freed them, aren’t they at home with their children, and their wives? What fairness is there?” she asks.
What galls her most is that most of the people who participated in the attacks are now at home working and supporting their families despite having wiped out the people who would have supported her in her old age.
“I have to support myself. Didn’t I have children? Now I live on handouts, I live on people telling me ‘Here is some money, buy some sugar,” she laments bitterly.
Thacien Gatete is more hopeful for the future. He believes survivors must emphasize the positive and try to value the few good things that happened. He says that’s where you can find hope and courage to forgive.
“Let me give my example. The man who threw my mother into a latrine pit is free, he has a small business here in Kamembe (Cyangugu province). The one who destroyed the houses I had, he is also out there, free. God gave me people who helped at my time of need. I was not alone, and so I have also decided to let go of what happened and live. That is the true reconciliation,” he says philosophically.
Rakiya acknowledges that it is not always easy to live together after betrayal or violence, and that Rwandans may not always agree on what the future holds.
But she takes comfort in the support some people gave to refugees during the genocide. For her, it provides a picture of how people can live in harmony and build a multi ethnic society. She says if only more people would emulate and acknowledge these examples of courageous compassion, Rwanda’s future might be a lot brighter but insists more must be done to publicize such stories.
“If it there is no effort and they are only in one book which is not widely available then I think they are less likely to have an impact,” she admits.
The stories Rwandans tell their children will probably shape the minds and culture of generations to follow. But if children hear only stories of betrayal, brutality and evil, stories of courage, dedication and self-sacrifice might be lost forever. It’s important not to let that happen.