A lesson to learn from Rwanda's dead teenagers
This year, Rwanda's Heroes Day got our blogger thinking about six secondary school students who were killed in 1997 by former Hutu militia and the relevance of their courage today.
If one believes all the reports, tribalism, sectarianism and all the other -isms are a chain that Africa cannot break free from. However, that pessimism should be challenged with stories that counter the overwhelming narrative. Here is one.
Western Rwanda close to Zaire, as the DRC was then known. Nyange Secondary School. 18 March 1997. 8 PM. The boys and girls studying at this school have just left their dormitory rooms to return to class for a couple hours of evening prep. Like any other evening, they shuffle to their desks. Some quietly converse while their more studious colleagues concentrate on reading material. It seems like just another day, but in only a few minutes an unspeakable horror will engulf the school, shattering lives and snuffing out hopes and dreams.
Phanuel Sindayiheda, today a 36-year father of two, was sitting in class that fateful day, three years after the genocide had ended. He recalls: “I was in Senior Six in 1997. It was around 8 PM, the main gates were locked, we had finished dinner and some of us were back in our classrooms revising. Then we started hearing gunshots, but thought it was nothing big – that it was just rebels fighting the government soldiers.”
Rwanda now and then
Ethnic politics have been the bane of the vast majority of African nations, but Rwanda is probably the place where sectarianism reached its zenith with the fastest genocide in history; one million people died in only one hundred days.
Today Rwanda is known as being one of the safest countries in Africa. It is admired around the continent for its stability, reconciliation, economic growth and social advancement.
But, then again, in 1997 it was like a different place.
Bloodthirsty bands of machete-wielding, gun-toting former Interahamwe – the militia responsible for the deaths of more than one million Tutsis – still roamed. They killed genocide survivors in their homes and attacked vehicles on the highways in an attempt to make the country ungovernable.
Those were scary times. I was barely 16, but I can still remember how jittery the situation was. While those in Kigali could pretend there was no insurgency in the country, those living elsewhere could not forget that fact.
One of the most infamous tactics of the insurgents was stopping buses, ordering the passengers out and then asking the Hutus to stand on one side and the Tutsis on the other. They would then mow the Tutsis down, letting the Hutus go. Stories like those got plenty of media coverage.
So, on 18 March 1997, when the three men, toting grenades, machetes and automatics weapons rushed into Nyange Secondary School, the students must have known what would follow.
According to Sindayiheda, a man who looked like the leader said, “I want you to help me, to facilitate me with my job. I want Hutus in this room on the right, and I know we have Tutsis here, so Tutsis go on the left.”
“We all heard him clearly and knew what this meant. There was a deathly silence. So he repeated his command,” Sindayiheda remembers.
“‘We do not have Hutus or Tutsis here, we are Rwandans,’ Chantal Uwamahoro, one of my classmates, said,” recalls Sindayiheda.
The men went out and threw two grenades inside the small classroom. After the smoke cleared, the men went back inside. Once again, they ordered: “Tutsis here and Hutus there.” The teenagers stood firm. “We have already told you, we are not Hutus or Tutsis, we are Rwandans.”
This time it was Sylvestre Bizimana, a boy who had survived the genocide, who spoke for the rest. Outraged, the three pulled out their guns and started shooting indiscriminately. They killed six teenagers: Chantal Uwamahoro, Sylvestre Bizimana, Beatrice Mukambaraga, Seraphine Mukarutwaza, Helene Benimana and Valens Ndemeye.
A new kind of hero
On Heroes Day, 1 February, Rwanda celebrates the life of heavyweights like Fred Rwigema (first chairman of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front), King Rudahingwa (second-to-last monarch) and Agathe Uwilingiyimana (first female prime minister, who was assassinated at the onset of the genocide). They were all leaders or military who fought and died for their country.
However, the students in Nyange Secondary School, who are also remembered every Heroes Day, were nothing like them. They were simply teenagers who dreamt of the things that teenagers dream about. But when they were put to the test, they chose unity over division and sacrifice over selfishness.
And if these teenagers could do it, I don’t see why the rest of us can’t.
Sunny Ntayombya is a journalist and blogger working with a Rwandan English newspaper. He has an avid interest in global socio-political affairs with a particular fascination for the issues besieging the African Great Lakes region. He lives in Kigali, Rwanda. You can read more on his blog The Thing Is and follow him on Twitter @sannykigali.