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Struggle for life

UNHCR Columnist  02 March 2012

© UNHCR / J. Stjerneklar
UNHCR Photo: Refugees from Rwanda are arriving in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (at this time called Zaire), July 1994.

As all Rwandans, my struggle for life took a new turn 6 April 1994 when the airplane carrying the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, killing everyone on board. A day earlier my husband had just left for a business trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). So at that time I was home alone with my children in the capital Kigali and had to decide how to save my family. Under heavy bombing, shooting and killing, in the morning of 7 April, I quickly decided to flee with my six children from our home to join a family friend living nearby.

As the situation worsened in the capital city, the radio news encouraged people to leave. I had still not heard anything from by husband, but I had to make a decision and decided to take my car and flee towards the north part of the country where my family-in-law lived. It was chaos on the roads; everyone was trying to get out of Kigali. Those who had a car were asked to take small children along, others were forced to walk the around 180 kilometers to the north. Apart from my own children I managed to fit seven more in my car.

On the road, we had to stop for identity controls at checkpoints controlled by Hutu militia. The militia was looking for Tutsis by checking people’s skin color and gums as a sign. Luckily, I was registered as a Hutu in my ID card, despite the fact that I was both; my mother was a Tutsi and my father was Hutu. However, my youngest daughter, who was eleven years old, did not have an ID card. The militia men insisted that she looked like a Tutsi. Three times, at three different checkpoints, she was dragged out of the car by the militia. I cannot find words to explain how that felt. I was crying and begging everybody and anybody around me to help. At the same time I felt so empty and almost without hope. When you see a person with a machete covered by blood, how can you believe they will not use it again?

The last time the militia took my daughter was the worst. Then we had almost reached our final destination, but had to stop at one more checkpoint. This time the militia did not listen to my prayers. As they were convinced that my daughter was a Tutsi they started to drag her down a hill. Just when they were going to take her away, miraculously an official who knew my family turned up and he was able to confirm our identity. Once again my daughter was brought back to me. When I later asked her what ran through her mind during those terrifying moments, she said she was thinking whether she would prefer to die by a machete or a gun. The memories have haunted us for a long, long time.

It was late in the evening when we finally arrived at my husband’s parents’ house. We had traveled for over 12 hours, without enough food, water or even petrol. When I was sitting inside the house with my family around me, I could not stop looking at my children, not being able to believe that they were all there and that we had reached safety. It was a miracle that we managed to make the journey all 14 of us, without loosing anyone on the way. Later my husband managed to join us.

In July 1994, when the war took yet another turn, we fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) among millions of other refugees. But a new nightmare was just starting. The Congolese soldiers were brutal, refugees were beaten and robbed, women and girls were raped, and diseases like cholera threatened our lives once again. The Congolese soldiers did not make it easy for my family and some of my worst experiences happened there in DRC, but that is a different story that I will write about in my next column.

After three months in the Democratic Republic of Congo we fled to Kenya. We were registered as refugees and got a protection letter from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) giving us the right to get assistance from charity organizations. Despite the basic things we received, life continued to be difficult and my children were not able to go to school. In December 1997 I received the news that my entire family had been offered resettlement in Norway with the help of UNHCR. I was filled with emotions and it felt like a dream. I could not believe it was true until the plane left Nairobi airport. When we were in the air, I looked at my children and said:

“Now they cannot take us down again”.

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