By: Tom Ndahiro
Twenty years ago, a group of young people paid the ultimate price for rejecting the divisiveness of colonial divide and rule.
On the evening of 18th March 1997, around eight o’clock, in St. Joseph’s boarding secondary school in Nyange, Western Rwanda, students had just finished their evening meal, and had separated into their respective classrooms to do their homework as usual.
The students were older than normal for a secondary school. The youngest was eighteen. This was because conflict had disrupted their education. Some had come to the school from refugee camps, others had had their own local schools destroyed, or had missed their schooling because of institutionalized ethnic discrimination which had existed everywhere including the education system.
In 1997, the then Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) was still battling the genocidal forces’ insurgency which, thanks to the support of the French government of President Francois Mitterrand, had set up operation in what was then was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from where they launched attacks against Rwanda, generally aiming at soft civilian targets.
Large parts of the country, including the West and Northwestern regions were particularly vulnerable to these attacks.
On this day, a group of heavily armed men, some carrying heavy machine guns, one an AK-47 and sword, entered the school’s premises, firing indiscriminately. The skeleton staff at that time of the evening, took cover, as did the students who lay or crouched under their desks.
But, as they waited, hopefully for the danger to pass, two of the armed group stormed into one of the classrooms, as another kept guard at the door. The man in the classroom demanded that the Tutsi should go to the right, and Hutu to the left.
After three short years of learning their recent history of genocide, the students no longer accepted no longer accepted the artificial divisions along ethnic lines. One of their number, Marie Chantal Mujawamahoro, to the fury of the attackers standing in front of their classroom, stood up to say, “Twese turi Abanyarwanda”, that is, we are all Rwandans.
With the words, “Do you know who we are? We’ll show you who we are”, the man went out pulling the door shut behind him. Once outside, they broke one window, and tossed a grenade through it into the classroom.
The attackers then went back into the now bloody classroom where a number of students lay wounded, some fatally. “Why not save us the trouble and tell us who the Tutsi are” they cajoled.
But, once again, another student, Sylvestre Bizimana, raised himself up and declared, “Twese turi abanyarwanda”. With that, one of the attackers walked over to the now injured Mujawamahoro, and shot her in the head. It was the cue for the others to start shooting indiscriminately into the body of the students.
That any of the students survived was because the attackers knew they had very little time before the RPA would arrive on the scene. They left some of the students alive and moved to another classroom.
This time their demand was slightly different. “We know there are Tutsis and Hutu here, point them out the Tutsi.”
There too the response was the same. But, this time, one of the attackers recognised one of the students, Seraphine Mukarutwaza. “I know you are a Tutsi”, he said, “Point out the others.” He was interrupted by another student Helene Benimana. “We are all Rwandans” she said. She was the first to die, as the attackers begun to shoot into the students.
It is of utmost importance to understand the ever-changing Rwanda. Whereas Helene Benimana lost her life guarding Rwanda’s real identity, her father was in detention with genocide charges.
One of the students, Ananias Sibomana, shouted to his companions, urging them to rush the attackers, “before they kill us all”. Those who could rushed the attackers, who fled after shooting at many including Ananias Sibomana who became the attackers’ special target.
Sibomana’s quick thinking undoubtedly saved lives. By rushing the attackers, the students prevented them from going to other classrooms.
Six students lost their lives that day, many more seriously injured. One was to die of his wounds over a year later. The attack which must have seemed like a lifetime to the students, lasted only a few minutes, before the RPA arrived, getting the injured medical help, and processing the dead.
The Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) detachment which pursued the attackers later identified them as belonging to the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR). This was a group made up of genocide perpetrators, mostly Interahamwe militias, and members of the former Rwandan Army (ex-FAR).
They went on to morph into FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), which is still terrorising civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and recently Burundi, where it is supporting Pierre Nkurunziza’s murderous madcap government.
The Nyange students were declared national heroes, and are commemorated annually. They represent the new Rwanda, the post 1994 Rwanda.
But, ironically, these young people also represent a more ancient Rwanda, a pre-colonial Rwanda, before the colonial powers applied Western racist beliefs to draw manufactured racial lines between Hutu and Tutsi.
It is these lines on which Western academics like Dr Susan Thomson of Colgate University and Belgian Professor Filip Reyntjens, and others like Jean-Hervé Bradol, Anne Guibert of Doctors Without borders (MSF) obsessively toil to apply fresh paint, attacking Rwanda’s reconciliation policy including the abolishing of national identity cards with “ethnic group” as mere Rwandan Patriotic Front’s “hegemonic” project!
And as well they would. They are after all protecting a colonial project, a Rwanda of their creation, divided, the better to be ruled.
If these academics and the likes of J.H Bradol had their way, the Nyange students would have saved the attackers the trouble of having to ask who was a Hutu, who was a Tutsi, as they would have been carrying ethnic identity cards.
They twist history, presume an understanding of Rwandan culture they do not possess, all to champion an ideology that would lead to genocide. And yet still they remain undeterred, unbowed.
Theirs is the Rwanda of Catholic Priest Fr Athanase Seromba, who, in April 1994, lived not too far from where the students made their moving, heroic stand. The catholic priest is remembered by actions of quite a different order.
The Catholic Priest was tried and convicted by the International Criminal tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and is now serving a life sentence. Fr. Seromba ordered the bulldozing of the church of Nyange of which he was a Vicar, to more easily kill the two thousand Tutsi who had sought refuge in it.
In 1994, when the genocide against the Tutsi began genocide, many survivors recall, an identity card with the designation Tutsi, meant a death sentence at any roadblock mounted by the Interahamwe or ex-FAR. This is the Rwanda imagined by these academics and so-called experts.
It is a Rwanda so inimical to the well-being of Rwanda, that the flower of the nation, in Marie Chantal Uwamahoro, Sylvestre Bizimana, Helene Benimana, and all their comrades were willing to pay the ultimate price to repudiate it.
Today, only twenty three years after one of the most harrowing genocides of any Century, many Rwandans believe that reconciliation has taken root, and nearly all Rwandans now echo the young students of Nyange—Turi Abanyarwanda.
Today we remember that as we remember them.