A Conversation with Mr. Aloys Uwemeyimana, guardian of virtue for saving Tutsis
Genocides reveal “the banality of evil”, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt postulated in the context of the Holocaust. Genocides reveal that human beings are capable of evil and virtue. In the midst of the Genocide against the Tutsis, hundreds of Hutus saved Tutsis who were being hunted down by the killers. Paradoxically, it wasn’t uncommon that the same family that was often hiding a Tutsi was also going out to kill other Tutsis. It was, in their view, the “most effective” way of saving people without exposing oneself to death on the accusation of betrayal. But there were others who remained consistent, displaying enormous courage under the tensest of circumstances, at great risk to their own lives and those of their families. Aloys Uwemeyimana is one among hundreds who made such an audacious choice. People like him have been acknowledged at different levels for their heroism, and it has been suggested that civic education ought to be focused on nurturing a society with a value system like theirs so that the ideals of courage, integrity and bravery can become the default setting for the next generations of Rwandans. By so doing, the tragedy that befell Rwandans in 1994 is never repeated. Pan-African Review (PAR) met with the national hero (Umurinzi w’Igihango) Aloys Uwemeyimana, to understand what it takes to stand up to evil and how his values juxtapose the values of those who said that they were nurtured in a toxic environment of the genocide ideology since childhood. What about Uwemeyiman’s childhood that shaped this radical departure, we asked. Mr. Aloys Uwemeyimana was born in 1962 in the former Gishoma commune in Cyangugu prefecture, where he was living when he saved Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. He now lives in Kigali with his wife with whom they have six children.
PAR: Where did you get the courage to save people when doing so was risky not only to yourself but to your family?
Mr. Uwemeyimana: I was raised in a Christian family and my father was a man of integrity, trusted by his friends and the community. For in- stance, he was one of the few among the church leaders chosen to provide counselling to couples going through difficult times. He was an honest, compassionate, hardworking and trustworthy man. These are the qualities that made him a trusted member of the community. Growing up, I wanted to be like my father. He would always tell us kids to be honest in everything we do [kwirinda guhemuka]. He would say that “umuswa nurya ibye akarya n’ibyabandi. Umugabo n’urya ibyo yakuye mu mitsi yamaboko ye.”
But more specifically, the turning point in my life was between 1976 and 1977. I had just sat for the national exams and passed with flying colours. Then I became a victim of an injustice that would shape my attitude to life. At the time, on a student’s form there would be a person’s family, ethnicity, and status. For me, it was written a Hutu farmer [umuhutu w’umuhinzi]. This had serious implications for my future.
I was among the 4 top students in my commune. Passing those exams at the time was such a big deal. The list of students who passed was usually announced on the radio on the 7 am news. My grades made me eligible to be admitted to the School of Health Sciences in Kibogora. Something that really pained me, when I went to the commune to collect my result slip from Nkubito Jean Chrysostome (who was the then Education Inspector for Gishoma commune), I found that a line had been drawn through my name and replaced it with the name of a teacher’s daughter. When I asked what had happened, the inspector dismissively told me, “But you are a poor farmer’s son; your father sells local brew for a living. Education will not help you (higa abana b’abagabo/abakire).” I was so disappointed. Neighbours advised my father to send me to DRC, but I refused because my wish had always been to study in my country.
I accepted my fate. But I grew with this pain inside of me, seeing others going to school yet I hadn’t failed. I had been among the best. [Nkurana ako gahinda, ndakazamukana]. I went into church work to teach catechism. I turned the pain into a commitment to fight injustice wherever it may be. It became central to who I am. I would do everything in my power as an adult to fight injustice in all its subtle and savage forms.
This was supposedly a Hutu government. But they denied me an opportunity because of circumstances beyond my control. In today’s Rwanda, I know that it is hard for young people to believe this happened. It did, to me and perhaps to many others.
PAR: Would you say that this experience and the education you received from your father were the driving forces behind your decision to save Tutsi who were hunted down during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi?
Mr. Uwemeyimana: Yes. My personal encounter with injustice and all the good values our father encouraged us to emulate pushed me to become a trusted and committed member of my society. I started preaching the gospel at the parish and made it a mission to teach my parishioners about how bad injustice and discrimination of any sort can negatively impact people.
Fast forward to 1994 when the killings of Tutsis started. I could not stop thinking of how Tutsis were unjustly being killed because they were born into a certain family. I decided I was going to help them. I was the Red Cross Coordinator in Kiranga at the time. The respect and trust I had as a Christian community leader at the parish and the fact that I lived not far from the Rwanda-DRC border helped a lot.
My teachings in the church about fighting injustice and helping others [kudatererana abari mu kaga] must have been the reason some Tutsi families came to seek refuge in my home on the 6th of April. I managed to help them cross the border on the 13th of April 1994, which was the day they started killing people in our commune. When we reached the border, I could not believe that the people I had preached the gospel to, my godsons, were the ones brandishing machetes and guns, eager to pounce on fellow parishioners simply because they were Tutsi. I pleaded with them for close to two hours. I gave them money and asked that they let those people cross the border, and I promised them that we would discuss the rest of the issue after that. I knew I was putting my life at risk but that fear was not greater than my conviction. In total, there were, I think, 118 people or more that I hid and helped cross the river to DRC.
PAR: What was the reaction of the authorities to your actions?
Mr. Uwemeyimana: Meetings to decide the fate of Hutus who did not participate in the killings and those who were hiding Tutsis took place. A list of “useless men” ‘(ibigwari) was drawn up and my name was first on that list. When they asked for an explanation, I told them that I didn’t think hate was the way to go; it went against what I teach in the church which, ironically, most of them attended.
On the 18th of April 1994, Yussuf Munyakazi, who was convicted of genocide crimes, was in Bugarama. That day, so many Tutsis were killed. The people accompanying Munyakazi made it clear that I had to help them kill and to also show them where Tutsis were hiding, without which they were going to kill me. So, when they started listening to the radio and got distracted, I fled. They went to look for my wife, but luckily the people they sent didn’t know where exactly I lived. They decided they would keep looking for me and my family the next day. That was one of the many assassination attempts that my family and I survived by luck. However, they looted my property.
PAR: What does it mean for you to be Umurinzi w’igihango?
Mr. Uwemeyimana: As I think about it today, I was first on the list of “useless men” or “traitors” during the genocide, but history has now made me first, as ‘’Umurinzi w’igihango’’ in Cyangugu. It’s heart-warming; I take pride in that. Most importantly, I take pride in seeing the people I helped alive, happy, living a dignified life, and not being unjustly treated. It is very fulfilling.
To stand by the truth and do the right thing came with challenges, however. For example, after the liberation of Rwanda by the RPF, my next struggle was to testify so that justice could be fully rendered. However, there was a group called ‘’Ceceka’’ made up of Interahamwe’s wives that stayed back in Rwanda while their husbands fled to DRC or wives of those who were convicted through Gacaca. Those women had threatened genocide survivors and widows into silence. The “Ceceka’’ movement would threaten anyone testifying during Gacaca. I feared for the safety of my family, but I knew that testifying was morally the right thing to do.
Because of the Ceceka movement, people started walking out of church when I was leading the prayers. They would call me names such as “karimi, cy’inyoma,” etc. But the late Father Ubald Rugirangoga, who worked at our parish, provided me with much-needed moral support. He also started an initiative of visiting genocide convicts in jails, who later on confessed the crimes they had committed and confirmed the truths I had been sharing for more than a year. Only then did people understand that I wasn’t lying or undermining unity as they had thought when they sought to discredit me (“Ukuri kuravuna ariko kuratsinda’’). People who had been hostile to me came to ask for forgiveness and I did forgive them without hesitation. I think being Umurinzi w’igihango comes with the moral responsibility to continue to work tirelessly towards achieving healing and reconciliation for all.
The other day, TV1 came to my home for an interview. My last born who is still in primary school told them that he would like to go on the radio like his dad, teach about unity and reconciliation and be a hero. I found satisfaction in seeing our children being keen on emulating the values of Umurinzi. It gave me hope.
PAR: What message do you have for Rwandans, especially the youth, during this commemoration period?
Mr. Uwemeyimana: My message to young people is that they are lucky to live in a country that allows them to live, study and have equal access to opportunities.
I have a son studying in China. It’s a wild dream I wouldn’t have had in my time as a student. Also, all my other children are in school. I get really tough on them when they fail a subject in school because I feel they have everything in place that sets them up for success, a chance most of us didn’t have.
I really would like to urge parents, teachers and religious leaders to vigorously channel the energy that was used in the past to teach the genocide ideology (in homes, schools and churches) into positive energy; to teach our children the value of human life. We must teach the youth values that encourage them to stand by one another. We must also teach them our country’s history without twisting facts to ensure that what happened never happens again. Our children should inherit a peaceful and united country.