Twelve years ago, over the course of just 100 days, as many as 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered in a genocide that shocked the international community. While this brutal wave of madness took thousands of innocent lives, thousands of witnesses were left to remember...and to tell.
In the early spring of 1994, 22-year-old college student Immaculee Ilibagiza went home for Easter vacation to spend the week with her parents and two brothers. Though there were signs that the long-time ethnic tension between the nation's majority Hutus and the Tutsis, her tribe, were escalating, she says on the morning of April 7th, they didn't anticipate it would erupt into genocide.
"I remember in the morning, like 6:00 a.m., my brother came to me," she says. "When I saw him, my mind went, 'Oh my God, where is he going! is there something wrong? Is my Dad sick?' He told me, 'Are you still sleeping! You don't know what happened!'"
What happened was the plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu President had been shot down, killing all on board. Well-organized attacks by Hutu extremists against Tutsis and moderate Hutus began that night.
"We started to hear in the village that groups of people were burning houses," she says. "They were killing people in the families from child to father and grandfather. And we didn't know what to do."
Three days later, Ilibagiza says, her family decided that she had to go into hiding. She didn't want to, but her father, who had witnessed a civil war and a military coup in the country, insisted.
"I remember my Dad coming to me, and he told me that if I didn't go, I might get raped, and he didn't want to see something like that, that I'm a girl and I wouldn't be able to run...but them, they can run!" she recalls.
The hiding place they chose was at a Hutu family's house in the neighboring village.
"I went to the Hutu Pastor," she says. "He put me in his home, and told me where to join his children. Then, the next morning, about 3:00, he came to wake me up and he took me through his room to his bathroom. He brought 5 other women there; I didn't even know that they were in the house. We thought it would just last for one week or two."
They stayed in that tiny, one-by-two meter shelter for three months, while the massacre continued. When Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu militias and the genocide ended, Ilibagiza says she came out of hiding to search for her family.
"Everybody in my family was dead," she says. "My father was shot when he was asking for food to give to refugees in the stadium. My Mom was...chopped up. My one brother was able to leave for a month. At the end, they caught him where he was hiding, and also they tortured him and killed him."
All over Rwanda, Tutsis went through similar experiences. Eugenie Mukeshimana, then six months pregnant, was living with her husband in the capital, Kigali. When the genocide started, they went into hiding together. Later, she says, they separated to improve their chances of survival. Her husband was found and killed, but she survived. A Hutu family saved her life.
"The family that was hiding me didn't know me," she says. "They did not ask for any money or anything. They were hiding me from the killers, but they were also hiding me from their own children. I am very grateful. I felt safe in their home, but I also understood how risky it was for them to do this favor for me."
After Mukeshimana gave birth to her daughter, she left Rwanda for the United States. Now, she is focusing on Holocaust and Genocide studies at a college in New York, and trying to understand why a murderous rage engulfed her country 12 years ago.
"I don't seem to have a clear answer to that question," she says. "But I would say that somehow, something went wrong, because people who participated in the genocide were not always like that. Some of them were normal, very good people, very caring. I don't know how or why they behaved like animals. But, I think there was also the fact that the government was telling them to do so. The government, somehow was telling then, 'It's either them or us, or 'If they don't kill us, we'll kill them.'"
The killing may have ended, but the genocide remains a part of the survivors' lives. Eugenie Mukeshimana, for example, talks about her experiences at public gatherings, raising awareness about this issue to try to keep it from ever happening again. And her fellow survivor, Immaculee Ilibagiza, who worked for years with the United Nations helping Rwandan refugees, established a foundation to continue that work.
"The Foundation is Left to Tell,'" she says. "We are trying to get money to help orphans go to school, feed them, and provide them with medical support. I want to help women, especially the widows who are trying to build together."
Left to Tell
is also the title of Ilibagiza's book recounting her story. She notes that genocide doesn't happen overnight… it takes time for the seeds of hatred to grow. However, she says, if people learn how to accept diversity in their communities, become aware of the warning signs that hate mongers are gaining strength, and have the will to work together, they can prevent such brutality and secure a peaceful future for their children.