Thousands joined Bugesera residents on Sunday to pay respect to the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis at Ntarama Genocide Memorial where over 5,000 Tutsis were brutally killed by Interahamwe militia and government soldiers.
Minister of Local Government Francis Kaboneka recounted the history of the Bugesera region, which is one of long persecution of the Tutsi that started well before 1994 – the district was exposed to mass killings of Tutsis in 1959, 1963, 1972 and 1992.
Before 1960, most of Bugesera was arid, inhabited and Tsetse infested. At that time however, Tutsis from the northern part of the country were massively deported to the region. A second group from former Gikongoro followed in 1963. They were not expected to survive.
Between 1960 and 1969, Tutsi who had fled Rwanda attempted to attack the country from Burundi. This resulted in massacres of Tutsis in Bugesera.
“Those who say that genocide happened in 1994 are showing disdain. What took place here in 1994 was just the conclusion of what had been going on for a long time. Churches where people would go for purification, blessings, prayers and holly communion turned into slaughterhouses in 1994,” Kaboneka said.
Minister Kaboneka further urged Bugesera residents, especially Genocide survivors, to draw strength and courage from the country’s tragic history to rebuild their lives. He called on all those who are yet to pay reparations to survivors to do so in the nearest future and challenged the communities to follow up on such cases.
“From our history, we drew strength and courage to carry on, fight for our dignity. Let us remember with hope. We have a brighter future before us. We deserve to live better and decent lives. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones who were killed to always strive for the best,” he said.
Chantal Niwemugeni, a survivor who fled to Ntarama Church during the Genocide, recalled the gruesome killings that took place there. Narrating the ordeal that she and other Tutsis who had sought refuge at the church went through, Niwemugeni recalled that when Interahamwe militia and former government soldiers attacked the church, old people tried vainly to put up a resistance.
“We were suffocated with a pepper-like gas, before the militia threw grenades inside the church. Thereafter, throngs of Interahamwe mixed with soldiers flocked in with machetes, clubs, spears and other crude weapons to finish off those who were still breathing,” she said.
Those who survived the killings at Ntarama fled to Kimpima hill, to former Nyamata Parish, to wetlands along the Akagera River and to many other places.
“In the wetlands along the river, most of us preferred to drown ourselves and commit suicide rather than being hacked to death by the militia. Eventually, RPA soldiers came to our rescue. Today, we have soldiered on with hope,” said Niwemugeni, who caught up with her studies after the Genocide and now has a Master’s Degree in Finance.
Ntarama Church became a Genocide Memorial in 1995. On 7 April 1994, a day after President Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down, Tutsi homes were set ablaze in Ntarama, with some resistance from local farmers. Tutsi families in Bugesera fled to Ntarama Church because in previous massacres, attackers had respected religious sites.
On 13 April 1994, Interahamwe militia conducted a census of Tutsis who had fled to the church. After the census, they were told to stay together so that the government could guarantee their security. This was a strategy to draw out even those who were still in hiding. Two days later, the militia and government soldiers from Gako military barracks began coordinated, systematic killings of Tutsis.