Remembering Rwandans Who Followed Their Conscience
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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.