Parallels
3:08 pm
Tue April 8, 2014

Remembering Rwandans Who Followed Their Conscience

Originally published on Mon May 5, 2014 3:10 pm

Olive Mukankusi lives in a two-room house with mud walls and a dirt floor in a village called Igati, in eastern Rwanda's Rwamagana province. To get there, you have to drive about 30 minutes down a dirt road.

It's there, in her home, on a warm and sunny afternoon, that she tells a story that she's only told three times in 20 years: first to a local judge, then to an American genocide researcher — and now.

The story begins in April 1994, at the start of the genocide of Tutsis carried out by Hutu militias called Interhamwe. As she walked down a road of recently torched houses, Mukankusi, a Hutu, met two Tutsi girls, age 15 and 17. The girls had been her neighbors before she married and moved away.

"They seemed to be confused, not knowing where to go," Mukakusi remembers. "They had a few things folded in their hands."

The girls told her to go back home.

And she told them: "Come with me."

Mukankusi, now 42, knew the act of hiding Tutsis was punishable by death. But in that moment, it didn't matter.

"I knew these girls. I saw how much pain they were in," she says. "I was ready to die with them, whatever would happen to me or my family."

Mukankusi also brought another neighbor, a 55-year-old woman. She hid them behind her house, in a pit for making banana beer. Then her husband came home.

"Of course I was a little bit worried that he might give them in, like most other men were doing," Mukankusi says. "But he saw that I had loved these people. If he betrayed these people, he would have betrayed me as well."

The Rwandan genocide — three months of brutal ethnic violence that pitted majority Hutus against the minority Tutsis — proceeded quickly in some parts of the country, more slowly in others.

In Mukankusi's village, the Hutu militias killed only men at first, saying they wished to save the women as future wives. But a couple of weeks later, they started killing women, too. A huge gang of militiamen came to her house and dragged out the two young girls and the older woman. (A neighbor had tipped them off.) They marched the four, including Mukankusi, to a killing site by the river.

All might have been lost if not for a habit that Mukankusi had picked up. Lacking a bank account and worried about thieves, she kept all of her cash sewn up in the kanga fabric of her dress. That fateful April, she'd just sold her harvest, and had enough money to last her family the next six months. It was 20,000 francs — worth about $140 at the time.

"When they saw the money, they were very happy," she says. "They didn't let me keep even some of it. They took it and forgot whatever was happening."

They left — she now assumes, to hit the bars — and left the women behind. Four days later, the Tutsi army, led by the current president of Rwanda, arrived and chased off the Interhamwe militias. The soldiers rescued the Tutsis who had survived, including the girls that Mukankusi and her husband had protected.

Then they put her husband in prison, where he would stay for the next 12 years. They said there wasn't yet evidence to distinguish killer from protector.

At the office of the Aegis Trust in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, dozens of young Rwandans wearing headphones are transcribing the testimonies of survivors, perpetrators and rescuers. Deputy Director Yves Kamuronsi says that featuring the testimonies of these rescuers is more important today than ever.

"It's now 20 years after genocide," Kamuronsi says. "And in every commemoration, every movie, we see stories of survivors, we see stories of perpetrators. We see less stories of rescuers."

Those stories are particularly important, he says, for the more than half of the country's population born after the genocide, to see that not every Rwandan played their ethnically assigned role of killer or victim.

Yet most of Rwanda's rescuers are not officially recognized. A government program to give rescuers an official "thank you" was put on hold after canvassing just 20 percent of the country and identifying fewer than 300 of them. In comparison, Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and research center — was seeking out the stories of German rescuers, the "righteous among nations," by the 1950s — less than 10 years after the war.

Godleaves Mukamunana is another rescuer from Igati village. She says she has been ostracized by some Hutu neighbors.

"When they talk to me about rescuing, they ask me, 'Well, you rescued Tutsis, if something bad happened, do you think they would rescue you?'" Mukamunana says. "And I always tell them, 'Yes they would. I have no doubt about it.'"

You're no longer one of us, those Hutus say.

And rescuers haven't been embraced by all Tutsis either. While Olive Mukankusi's husband was in prison, a local Tutsi leader claimed part of her land. They're still fighting over it in court.

And Godleaves Mukamunana says during the years her husband was in prison, her own children questioned her deed.

"They would ask me, 'If you hid people at home, why is it they decided to take daddy?'" she recalls. "I told them, 'You don't have to worry, because the act we did, God is going to reward us, the right way.'"

In 2007, Mukankusi and Mukamunana got the chance to tell their stories, for the first time, in local courts called gacaca. Neighbors confirmed the stories and their husbands were quickly released. Today, the family is making up for that lost decade of earnings. Mukamunana would like to send her bright, middle daughter to college, but she's coming to realize she'll never afford it.

After all that — as her daughter asked her before — does she have second thoughts? Had she and her family fled earlier, instead of staying to help her Tutsi neighbors, her husband might not have been rounded up and arrested. He might have avoided those 12 years in jail.

"That cannot stop me from doing it again!" she says emphatically. "Actually, I'd do it double. I'd do it again and again and again. Because now I see the outcome. I can talk with anyone, with no problem."

Her reward, she says, is her clear conscience.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In the feature film "Hotel Rwanda," the owner of an upscale hotel in Kigali uses his influence and bravery to save thousands of Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. It's based on a true story but there are thousands of untold stories of rescuers and villages across Rwanda who risked their lives trying to save others.

As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, 20 years after the genocide, those stories are slowly starting to be heard.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: To get to the house of Olive Mukankusi, you have to drive for about 30 minutes down a dirt road in the eastern Rwandan province of Rwamagana to the village of Igati.

OLIVE MUKANKUSI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: The banging is Olive's husband fixing a pig shed outback. And inside their house, with mud walls and dirt floor, Olive tells a story that she's only told three times in 20 years. First, to a local judge, then to an American genocide researcher, and now here.

MUKANKUSI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: The story begins in April 1994, the start of the genocide against the Tutsis by Hutu militias called Interhamwe. Walking down a road of torched houses, Olive met two Tutsi girls, aged 15 and 17 - two former neighbors before Olive got married and moved away.

MUKANKUSI: (Through translator) They seemed to be, you know, confused and not knowing where to go because they have a few things folded in their hands. They told me go back where you're coming from because here, the Interhamwes are killing all the Tutsis that they're coming across.

WARNER: Right there, on the road, the then 22-year-old Olive, a Hutu, made a decision about these two girls, one that even now with everything that's happened since, she's never questioned.

MUKANKUSI: (Through translator) I decided to bring them with me, and I was ready to die with them whatever would happen to me or my family.

WARNER: Behind the house, she shows me a pit for making banana beer. There, she hid the girls and also an elderly neighbor that she met. Later, she moved them inside the house under some clothes, knowing she could be killed for this act of collaboration. She steeled herself to break the news to her husband.

MUKANKUSI: (Through translator) Of course, I was a little bit worried that he might give them in, like most other men were doing. But he saw that I had loved these people. And if he did anything bad to these people, he would have betrayed me as well.

WARNER: The Rwandan genocide moved quickly in some parts of the country but more slowly in others. In Olive's village, they killed only the men at first to save the women as future wives. But a couple of weeks later, they started killing women, too. And a gang of 100 militiamen, she says, came to her house and dragged out the two girls and the older woman. A neighbor had tipped them off. Grabbing Olive as well, the militiamen singing battle songs, marched the four to a killing site by the river. And there, all might have been lost if not for a habit that Olive had picked up.

Lacking a bank account and distrustful of thieves, she kept all her cash sewn up in the fabric of her dress. She just sold her harvest and had enough money to last her family for the next six months, 20,000 francs, worth then about $140. The militiamen gave her the option to buy her life back.

MUKANKUSI: (Through translator) When they saw the money, they were very happy and forgot whatever was happening. They decided to leave us and go with the money.

WARNER: Four days later, the Tutsi soldiers, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, arrived and they rescued all the Tutsis. But then they put almost every Hutu man in prison, even the rescuers like Olive's husband. Back then, there wasn't yet evidence to distinguish killer from protector.

Today at the office of the nonprofit Aegis Trust in Kigali, dozens of young Rwandans wearing headphones are transcribing the testimonies of survivors, perpetrators and rescuers. Deputy director Yves Kamuronsi says that featuring these testimonies of rescuers is more important today than ever.

YVES KAMURONSI: It's now 20 years after genocide. And in every commemoration, in every movie, we have seen stories of survivors, seen stories of perpetrators, but we have seen less stories of rescuers.

WARNER: He says these stories are important especially for the more than half the country born after the genocide. He says they need to hear that not every one of their countrymen played their ethnically assigned role of killer or victim.

KAMURONSI: I would say it's educational tool for young people, for young generation, but also for the rest of the world.

WARNER: Yet, most of Rwanda's rescuers are not officially recognized. A government program to give rescuers that recognition, that official thank you, ran out of funds after canvassing just 20 percent of the country. Rwanda has been slower on this front than Holocaust researchers who were seeking out the stories of German rescuers, so-called righteous among the nations, by the '50s, not 10 years after the war.

GODLEAVES MUKAMUNANA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Back in the village of Igati, I speak to another rescuer, Godleaves Mukamunana. Speaking through the same translator, she says that some Hutu neighbors have ostracized her.

MUKAMUNANA: (Through translator) When they talk to me about rescuing, they ask me, well, you rescued Tutsis. If anything bad, do you think they would rescue you? And I always tell them, yes, they would. I have no doubt about it.

WARNER: You're no longer one of us, her neighbors would say. You're one of them. But that also was not the case. While Olive's husband was in prison, a local Tutsi leader claimed part of her land. They're still fighting it out in court. And Godleaves says that for all those years her husband was in prison for a crime he didn't commit, her children were asking her hard questions.

MUKAMUNANA: (Through translator) Why is it that - we know you hid people here at home - why is it that they decided to take daddy? So I told them, you don't have to worry because the act we did, God is going to reward us.

WARNER: Now, in 2007, Olive and Godleaves got the chance to tell their stories for the first time in local courts called gacaca. Their stories were quickly confirmed by neighbors and their husbands were released. Today, they're making up for that lost decade of earnings. Godleaves longs to send her brightest middle daughter to a university that she's coming to realize she'll never afford. And so I asked if she has any second thoughts. Had she and her family fled earlier instead of hanging back to rescue, her husband might not have been rounded up and arrested. He might have avoided those 12 years in prison.

MUKAMUNANA: (Through translator) No. That cannot stop me. I'll double even that. I'll do it again and again and again because I now see the outcome. I talk with anyone with no problem.

WARNER: Her clear conscience is her reward, she says. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kigali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.