When we talk about the Rwandan genocide, we must remember countries such as South Sudan and Burundi who have been suffering for far too long
Thomson Reuters Foundation
I felt so guilty for surviving. For many years I did not want to talk about it. I lost many of my extended family - cousins, aunties, uncles and my best friend.
I came from a family of 14 children, but by the time the genocide started in 1994 only two of us lived in Rwanda with my parents.
My other siblings lived in exile, in Burundi, Congo, Belgium and Canada, because of the persecution and discrimination that was going on for many years.
On 7 April 1994 when we learnt about the death of the Rwandan President, Juvénal Habyarimana, we knew it was over for us. We decided to gather in a small house hoping the militia wouldn’t find us.
But a few hours later, some militia and soldiers came to our house. They said, ‘We are going to kill you’. My dad gave them whatever he could find and they left. Two hours later they came back. My dad begged them, ‘Please don’t kill my children!’ He gave them the rest of his money and asked one of them to take us to the church. He could have killed us, but he took us where we wanted. When we got there we thought we were safe, but that was not the case.
FIGHTING TO SURVIVE
There were so many people – some injured, others dying. We spent the first night there. We were so scared.
I was the teacher at the school just next to the church, so I knew the priest well. I went to him and told him there was another small house where some other teachers lived and asked him if my daughter and I, along with my sister and her children could hide there as we might find milk for the children. He agreed and we went to hide.
An hour after we had left, the militia and soldiers came to kill the people in the church. My mum, dad, nephew, niece were all at the church. Someone came running and told us they were killing people, so we thought, ‘That’s it, they are dead.’
During the night my dad came to the house, with the priest and my nephew. We could not believe it! We cried because we were convinced that mum and my nieces were dead.
On 13 April, a priest asked me to come and meet someone. I thought I was going to be killed, but when I went outside, I saw my brother-in-law, a Belgian soldier and member of the UN peacekeeping mission. He told me to pick up my baby and call my sister and my father. He took us into an army tank and when we got in my mum and my niece were there!
We thought my mum was dead, but when they started killing people in the church, she fell on the floor and bodies fell on top of her. The priest found her amongst the bodies and hid her with other survivors. My niece managed to run and hide in the bush! How can you explain that? It is a miracle. We were taken to the airport and flown to Nairobi, Kenya, before eventually settling in Belgium.
PART OF THE SISTERHOOD
My family and I had experienced so much in Rwanda. Arriving in Belgium was a shock. I was suddenly an outsider, a refugee.
I was used to growing up in a society that discriminates. It could be felt in school, in the community. Yet, as an active member of the Girl Guides Association in Rwanda, there was a spirit of being together, no matter where you were from. We just wanted to learn about being citizens and responsible and it didn’t matter whether you were Hutu or Tutsi.
Guiding was – and still is – a huge part of my life and it’s made me the woman I am. When I arrived in Belgium, I was amazed to see of two of my Guiding friends waiting to greet me and my family. We were united by being part of this global Movement for girls.
They gave us food and support and provided a safe space for me to open up about what I’d experienced without fear of judgement. My fellow Girl Guides also gave me the confidence to be myself and made me realise I could still do something with my life.
PASSION FOR PEACE-BUILDING
I was given the space to follow my passion for peace-building and when I returned to Rwanda after two years, I went to see my former Girl Guide Group.
It was incredible to see how women had taken control of their destiny and rebuilt their association and the way in which the Hutu and Tutsi had done it together. The Belgian, French and German Girl Guides supported the rebuilding too, by donating money, advices, training…
When I think about where I am today, what I’ve achieved and what I’ve survived, I know much of it would not have been possible without the support of this sisterhood.
One of my cousins was raped by 10 soldiers. My best friend was killed in a way I cannot explain. Rwanda was a 95% Catholic country and people committed and used to go to church every Sunday; they killed each other in those same churches. It took me so long to accept it. But, the priest who saved us, and a few others, were good. I need to accept that not everyone is bad.
Nowadays, I work for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, as well as visit schools to educate young people about the genocide. I am also a trustee of SURF, a fund that supports the survivors of the Rwanda genocide. It is so important to work with young people and support them to be open-minded, show respect for one other, have understanding and demonstrate a commitment to human rights.
Every time we talk about the Rwandan genocide, we must remember countries such as South Sudan and Burundi who have been suffering for far too long. Collectively we need to support other communities and make our voices heard so it doesn’t happen again – and this starts with young people. For me, it’s incredibly heartening to see young people sit up and take interest, even 23 years on. Even though my daughter who is the same age as the Rwanda genocide doesn’t remember what happened, she wants me to share our story no matter how painful, because it’s important we learn from it.
And when she says, “Mum, I am so proud of you, you are my role model” - I know it’s a story I must continue to share.
Alphonsine Kabagabo is head of member relations for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.