11 PM. A friend calls my name from the window to warn me of the massacre that looms. She tells me I need to leave my house because we won’t see morning. Right after her warning, in the background, we hear screams and crying of women and babies.
Everyone knew that something terrible was going to happen in Rwanda. Now, the time has come. Panic wraps around me.
Two days ago, Hutu attackers consisting mostly of our neighbors and friends, including people with whom we worshiped, turned against us, they came running into our house with clubs and machetes. They accused members of our Tutsi ethnic group to be responsible for the assassination of the president. We didn’t even know he was dead.
I manage to climb the ceiling with my child and my sister as gunshots explode about us. We hear cries and groans of dear ones, Keza my daughter asks,
“What is going on?”
“Shhh” my sister holds her mouth in hers and tries her best to explain what is going on. She is old enough to know that danger looms. Keza is my only daughter and we are very close. She just turned twelve.
We couldn’t see it but we could hear the cries and screams of family.
It was not an easy thing, to hide while your relatives are being slaughtered. Hutus killing your relatives. The only thing we could do was to hope for divine help but I had a difficult time comprehending how human beings wanted to kill simply because of differences.
I could never have imagined that life was about to be drastically changed, that my peace and emotional balance might be cut short or I would lose the people and the country that l belong to despite the discrimination.
This night in question we descended from the ceiling. I tell my sister and my daughter to walk as slowly and quietly as possible, I unlatch the front door and put my head out to see if anyone is nearby. My heart really pounds. A body lies out of the door. Two others lie lifeless under the avocado tree in the compound. I couldn’t recognize anyone.
Rwanda is as dark, but we were ready to move; if not now, we never would be.
“Let’s go” I whispered. This is the time it starts for us.
We step out of the front door, as I hold Keza’s hand and we tiptoe out of our house into a banana grove and hope no one finds us. Our chests heave. The earth is dry and our steps sound louder in the dark, yet we step with the greatest caution not to reveal our presence. The clouds have covered the moon and stars. It is airy and cold. We hear dogs barking in the distance. We each hold a torchlight So many homes have been destroyed.
The neighbors don’t realize that we were doing this. It is very dangerous to be seen escaping. We hear loud talking from local militia, where men were boasting about how many they had killed. Roadblocks and household properties are burning in the distance in every direction. We could hear women shouting for help. The marching and cheerful sounds of the killers on the streets gives the illusion of a festival, underneath are cries and groans of babies and their mothers being massacred. The stars look down in their silent splendor.
I am positive there will be assistance from the church. Our mother once told us in the past, the church has been a sanctuary in times of conflict.
Our neighborhood is full of roadblocks manned by the Interahamwes; for the sole purpose of identifying and killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They are fellow church mates, neighbours, and acquaintances who have allowed themselves to be manipulated by hate-filled army officials.
We arrive safely in the church house but we are surprised by the sheer number of refugees gathered in there under the care of Pastor Mukarubuga. A lot of families, women I see on the market, a lot of children by their mothers; everyone sitting on the floor of the house of God hoping for angels to save them from the impending doom.
One family has a radio which is talking and the rest of the night is spent listening to broadcast from across Rwanda. There is report after report of Tutsis being rounded up and murdered simply because of who they are. The FM says that across the capital Kigali, entire families have been taken from their homes in the night and forced to kneel in the dirt and shot; school parks and refuse dumps have become cemeteries.
As the night presses on, more Tutsis join us in the church house, some arriving with machete wounds.
Sometime around 2AM, a father says he wants to go out there to see if he can find his wife and children. We try to argue with him to avoid stepping out yet he insists ongoing and he leaves. After some minutes, we hear his cries as he is being killed.
At dawn, a truck loaded with Rwandan soldiers and followed by columns of civilians carrying locally manufactured guns, clubs and machetes enters the village to annihilate us. We have a strong feeling that this is not going to turn out right.
‘Where are the Inyenzis?’ the soldiers shout in frenzy and it sets us all cowering inside the church. As the tension thickens, a white UN peacekeeping jeep arrives with eight soldiers in sky blue helmets. Everyone looks on as a French UN commander bluffs his way through the crowd waiting in front of the church to kill us and declares that the families inside the church are under UN protection. But the Hutu soldiers raise their weapons, blocking them from exercising any influence.
We watch the lieutenant make calls on his radio to try to get someone who might overrule the army’s evil decision. After jabbing and jabbing on the radio for a while, the UN soldiers start their jeep and leave. My body shakes as an earthquake and my heart jumps into my stomach.
In a jiffy, the crowd tries opening the church doors from outside but struggles because it has been barricaded.
‘I want everybody out or we are going to shoot into the church!’ says the Rwanda army general who is going to oversee the killings.
‘Go home please, go home!’ Pastor Mukarubuga meets them, ‘this is the house of God!’
The general insists and shouts that all of us must come out on the count of three or they would throw grenades at us. It seems to every soul in the church house this is our final moment on earth and some burst into songs.
The next thing we know, the church ground is shaking and cracking and windows are shattering inwards while bullets and stones whiz round us. People scream and fall backward while others start lying on the ground, hit by bullets with such intense savagery. Babies in their mothers’ arms begin to cry from discomfort as their mothers try to save themselves. I see people of all ages fall in front of me, dead or wounded causing what international politicians call the worst bloody crisis in Africa.
By some miracle, we gather strength to flee, stepping on bleeding corpses through a backdoor. We stay alive.
My sister, my child and I knock on seven homes. We thought they were our friends; these people we have shared life with, but they all turn us away without thought. Distant rifles sound in multiples after screeching of military vehicles. I hear the screams of women and children where they are being butchered. It is so frightening, and I shake from fear. Rwanda has always been a place I call home till now. There were multiple times we tried fleeing because Rwanda is no more a place to call home, but the time is always either bad or worse.
When we are kicked out of one house we leave quickly and hide. The whole time, I tell my daughter to keep praying silently. That way she will keep her young mind off the panic.
As we walk with a few belongings bundled on our heads we have to avoid bodies strewn along the path. Dead men, women, and children killed by their assailants’ machetes. We come by a familiar man from our church lying dead with his arms over his head perhaps shielding himself from the machete blow. There are hundreds on the path as we step further into the night. Rwanda belongs to corpses.
We have a flashlight but we can’t turn it on because the Hutus will find us.
We do not know who to ask for help.
One of my husband’s Hutu friends lives out of town. She meets us in the night wandering and recognizes us and horrified by our state, she helps us. We arrive in their home but her husband turns us away, calling us cockroaches. But the kind woman begs her own husband to save us, she begged him till he relented and let us in. He tells us that he is only saving us because his wife is asking him but we should pray the killers do not come to the house.
I stay awake and pray ceaselessly that night. His wife feeds us and we are finally able to rest.
Later in the morning, I have to listen to friends and neighbors return from town and talk of how many souls they have taken in the night. Mostly, they celebrate with Christian songs.
The couple’s oldest son returns from killing in the morning and finds us hiding in the house. He goes and tells the neighbors his parents are hiding us and some local boys and men immediately arrive amidst anger with clubs and machetes to slaughter us. I quickly fall on my knees, my sister and daughter hiding behind me, our faces wet by a waterfall of tears. They look at us like we are not human beings.
By the grace of God, the man and his wife plead on our behalf. They depart without killing us. But we don’t feel safe because they know where we are hiding. So the man and the woman tell us they do not want to keep us anymore because they do not want our blood to be on them and they send us out.
My younger sister, Immaculee gives up. I realize she does not want to live anymore and I am also barely holding it together. I encourage her while I continue to fight and carry the pain of all three of us. I tell her and Keza that we are going to get out of the country since we do not know where to get help and that once we get out, we shall be free. I assure them that it will be better for us to be alive together no matter what happened. We wait till night comes and then we get out of the swamps.
We go by bush, keeping far enough from the road and near enough to prevent losing our way. As our feet break dried leaves and pieces of dead sticks we also have to overcome sinister snakes, scorpions and the possibility of getting lost.
Neither I nor Immaculee has any idea where the border with Tanzania lies or how many miles away or how we will reach it, yet the responsibility of success or failure lay heavily upon me.
It’s the third day about three o’clock and we are lost. Keza is seized with a violent aching of her feet and limb. We give the girl a swallow from the water bottle. Then, in a mixture of grief and relief, we lie in the jungle and wait anxiously for morning. But Keza loudly exclaims and jumps about, frantic. Before we have time to enquire what the matter is, we find large black ants crawling up our legs, which sting us dreadfully, digging into the sores on our feet. We have some difficulty in tearing them off.
Throughout the journey, we go hungry for days till we come across wild pawpaws. Keza cries all the time; she wants us to go home, she wants to eat and she wants to get out of the woods. This makes it even more difficult for us. I sometimes have to carry my young girl on my back while my sister follows us.
The journey lengthens into weeks on routes stretching through several rivers and streams. As we lose our toenails, our feet also start breaking apart. When that happens we rest for days. A pile of our cloths is all our bedding. I am awakened a million times by the howling of the wind, sinister birds screeching, and the apprehension of wild beasts. It is a bleak existence but the three of us are inclined to make it to Tanzania alive. That is what keeps us going.
Our water and food run out and we start getting hungry, we eat wild pawpaws and fruits. There is no medicine, no food, no water. We talk little. We understand we have to survive by starvation.
Very far away from home, we can track the progress of the massacres because of large flocks of vultures who own the cities hovering over fresh killing sites.
One night, the rustling of upper branches of the forest prepares us to expect what is so much to be dreaded; a rainfall which in a few minutes rages with unabating fury for nearly an hour and seems to set the whole forest in commotion. The awful roaring of the thunder and the vivid flashes of the lightning which constantly illumines the forest and the lofty and stupendous trees falling with the dreadful crash are most appalling. As the rain causes a deluge, we are up to our knees in muddy water, destruction appears to threaten us and it is only with the most determined perseverance that, we are able to survive to the end.
But on a clammy forest morning, as we are getting out of the limits of thick bush, we spot a long lake stretching full length ahead of us.
Lake Victoria- the dividing lake between Rwanda and Tanzania. The feeling of seeing Tanzania can be described as nostalgia.
We all look like three women who have escaped a den of wild beasts and barely escaped them. Here we drink freely from the cold water of this beautiful lake.
We have never stepped in a river before, let alone swam in one but we start with the largest lake in Africa. Soon, however, we are passing bloated corpses washed into shallows or caught in weeds and partly eaten by fish in the lake and in less than five hours arrive at the bank in Tanzania.
Keza cries seeing that she survived what has killed thousands. As we make it to land, we sing to Jesus with tears in our eyes. I fall behind Keza as we walk and she would look back and come and help me.
We keep walking without looking back until at about one o’clock in the afternoon, we see refugees lined on the streets with few belongings bundled on their heads lifting razor wires and streaming into a camp. The UNHCR logo is displayed on the fence.
NYARUGUSU REFUGEE CAMP. This is where another story begins.
It is a refugee camp that has been established in the western part of Tanzania under the office of the Tanzanian government and the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). We come across offices and centers owned by the Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross.
The scene inside is like special effects in a Hollywood movie. Rwandans are choked in this God-forsaken camp like sardines. I am talking a whirlpool of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi people, a good many of them deformed, incredibly malnourished, with protruding cheekbones, almost only skin and bone and with no tears left after God knows how many crying and despair for living on international charity. I am met by Rwandan widows and mothers, comforting and breastfeeding their malnourished children, and young wives nursing their husbands’ wounds. Babies tired of suckling the milkless breasts are crying in their mothers’ tents here and there. I see dozens of dirty-looking and deformed Rwandan children in ragged clothes and matted hair digging into trash cans, salvaging anything that might be useful to them and demanding to anyone who may listen for some help to get something to eat. The heat, the crisp smell of garbage and urine evaporating in the sun are overwhelming.
The thousands of tents, kiosks and small shops with almost empty shelves of veggies, fish and other basic food forms the camps only landmarks of luxury for the majority who are unable to pay for anything. All in this group are a symbol of how desperate Tutsis in Rwanda have suddenly become in a foreign land. Everywhere there is something that reminds me I’m a victim.
The authorities give us two cups of cornflour, a cup of peas, three tablespoons of cooking oil and ten grams of salt distributed by the UNHCR and also assign us a small tent house. We also receive a ration card with an ID number to be used on Mondays. This is the rest of our lives.
Paa Kwesi Arko Cee (Philip Arko Ewusi) is the winner of the Ghanaian Writers Award in 2017, with his short story, University of Hard Knocks. Cee also makes poetry and has featured on online newspapers with his articles. Cee holds a teaching diploma and works as a teacher in Ghana.