Silent Heroes from the Rwanda Genocide Tell Their Story

We spend our days here in Rwanda in personal and emotional volley between the horror of the genocide and the astonishing cultural healing and social/infrastructural impetus that has since catapulted Rwanda into the 21st century through great ingenuity and courage.

From the moment of the initial onslaught of attacks following the downing of President Habyarimana’s aircraft by rockets, Col. Bagasora, who opposed the Arusha peace Accords, promised an “apocalypse” in Rwanda. He had begun his work with the murder of the president. Within a matter of hours, road blocks were set up across Rwanda, and the killing began. State radio spewed demands that Tutsi “cockroaches” must be exterminated, along with any Hutu directly assisting them. Rwanda citizens followed orders and took to the streets in a mass murderous chapter that will be burned forever in Rwandan history.

Within four months, one million women, men and children were slaughtered while the international community turned our back. The U.N. sent in rescue to the embassy diplomats and official personnel, passing thousands of imperiled citizens on the road as they made their way up the hill to evacuation and safety. Most of those they left behind died a cruel death. David, age 10, uttered as his last words, “UNAMIR will come for us.” Little did he know that the diplomats were long clear of the country. Moments after uttering those words to him mum, David was tortured to death by the genocidinaires.

Issa and Dora, founders of Memos Project, with Rescuer & Rescued in between

But even amidst this tragedy, we hear stories that lift our hopes in humankind. We met Josephine, a Hutu woman who spoke with quiet voice but great conviction during her telling. Bursts of chuckles interspersed her narrative as she chronicled the clever but astonishing risks in her adventure to save Tutsi neighbors and strangers who showed up at her door as news of slaughter of Tutsi’s spread and the smell of fire filled the air.

Among them, two small boys emerged from the bush, clearly having wandered for days, hungry almost to starvation, bewildered and frightened. They had not seen their parents since the arrival of the murderers and had no idea of their fate. Josephine took in the boys, fed them, and provided a hiding place while she determined a way to give them safe passage out of the country.

Josephine’s husband became increasingly distraught at the danger of hiding Tutsis, insisting that she not try to help, as not only would the children certainly be killed, but indeed, Josephine’s entire family would perish as well, including their own two small sons. Defying him, she responded, “People are being killed every day and sent her sons in the dark of night to search for a boat in the water near their home that might provide passage to safety for the small ones. Their neighbor’s boat was at the shore, but was chained in place. And the oars were missing.

Josephine walked for hours to her father’s house hoping to find another boat. When she found that all boats were already been taken, she gathered two large poles and camoflauged them with leaves of sweet potato plants in case she were accosted by inquiring government officials at check points. She would claim she was simply carrying roots to be transplanted in her yard. Those poles would hopefully become oars in the escape of her Tutsi guests.

As darkness closed in, Josephine grabbed a chain cutter from the family tool chest and took her small sons to the lake where the precious boat was moored. She instructed one to swim and splash in order to create distraction as the other sawed at the chain. When one tired, they changed places and for hours worked to free the boat. Finally, success!

Josephine’s small guests stole away in the night with ample food to reach safety, but with great danger ahead of them to avoid the killing masses, some of whom patrolled the river.

Sitting before us beside Josephine on this day was one of those little boys, now a university student studying accounting. He tends Josephine and assists her as she enters elderhood. He hopes to give her a cow one day, the ultimate Rwandan symbol of gratitude and friendship.

Samia, activist from Sudan and Sheikha, activist from Nepal, take a stand with Josephine and ‘child’ she rescued, now grown

Memos: Learning from History ( chronicles the stories of the silent heroes. While many claimed only to be following orders from the government, Memos highlights the personal responsibility that was claimed by some as they refused to turn their backs on the value of human life. Memos work continues today, as more and more silent heroes are found quietly living their lives without recognition or fanfare.

I post this on February 1, National Hero’s Day in Rwanda. These silent examples teach us that in every horror there is hope — from the Underground Railroad during the U.S. slave owning era, through the Holocaust when Italian and Swiss villagers hid Jews, to Rwanda’s genocide. Human suffering is met with human courage. Hope is born.

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