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Rwanda's Genocidal Fighting Forces Woman on a Brutal Odyssey

Africa: Ethnic violence propelled her from her home and took the lives of relatives and friends. Now, she seeks to overcome the past and build a future in her scarred country.

April 06, 1997|KARIN DAVIES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

RUKOKO, Rwanda — She grew up in a house hidden by broad-leaf banana trees. She was a Hutu, but it didn't mean much to her. Who was what in Rwanda's ethnic mix was mainly grist for teasing at her Roman Catholic boarding school.

"We didn't think much about it," she says. "It was something we joked about--taunting each other, 'Hutu nose,' 'Tutsi nose,' stuff like that."

Later, when half a million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were killed in a genocide planned by Hutu extremists, the life-or-death importance of ethnic identity in Rwanda became chillingly clear.

Living with her brother's widow, her sister and her ethnically mixed children in a crumbling house down a steep, rocky road, Emeritha Uwizeyimana, now 27, is still trying to understand how such brutality happened.

"All of this fell out of the sky," she says. "When my children were born, I never thought about their ethnic origin. I couldn't even tell a Hutu from a Tutsi."

Her odyssey--from a quiet rural life to the horrors of the massacre, from a refugee camp in Burundi to her current tenuous existence--reflects a lot about the past and future of Rwanda.

Only if she and millions like her can overcome the past and build new lives does Rwanda stand a chance of a future without violence.

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Uwizeyimana was born in 1970, when Hutus ruled the country. Ethnic hostilities with the minority Tutsis were rekindled about the time she took her first steps. Still, about all she knew about Hutus and Tutsis were the stereotypes: Hutus are short with broad noses; Tutsis are tall with thin noses.

She supposes her stature--just 5-foot-4--betrays her ethnicity. Her most noticeable features, though, are her lively eyes and a crooked-toothed smile she flashes often. She has a quiet authority, a calming economy of movement.

Growing up, she felt safe among the steep, tightly terraced slopes of the Kigembe district, where peasants till rich red earth, silvery eucalyptus trees scent the air like cough drops and the sun sets salmon pink.

It was in her early teens that she learned ethnic differences were critical, during one of Rwanda's periodic outbreaks of ethnic bloodletting. Suddenly, her neighbors disappeared from her village, Rukoko, a cluster of mud-brick huts just 2 miles north of the border with neighboring Burundi.

"My parents told me they were Tutsis," she says quietly. "Our neighbors ran away because they were afraid of Hutus. Of us."

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Studying hard at the local primary school, Uwizeyimana became the first in her family of eight children to go to secondary school--an all-girl Catholic boarding school in Butare, Rwanda's second largest city, 20 miles north.

She finished school at 21 and returned to Kigembe, where she was hired as a social worker. Soon, she fell in love and settled down with a local man--a Tutsi.

They never married, but they lived happily together, having a son, Usabyemungu Evode Dary, now 6, and a daughter, Umurerwa Delphine, now 4.

Her family made her leave the man in 1992--not for ethnic reasons, but because they thought he was unfair to her.

"I made money; he took it," she says without rancor. The two stayed close through a shared affection for their children.

While visiting a cousin in Butare, she met a handsome military policeman from Cyangugu, on Rwanda's southwestern border with Zaire.

First Sgt. Kiss Donat and Uwizeyimana married in March 1994 at the Kigembe district office, a cement-block building on a rise overlooking the only road through the village.

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While living in Butare, where Donat was stationed, they heard on a crackling radio that a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, had been shot down over Kigali, the capital, on April 6, 1994. There were no survivors.

Hutu-sponsored massacres began in Kigali the next day. Less than 100 days later, the mountainous country was strewn with the corpses of at least 500,000 people, and at least half of the country's Tutsis were dead.

Some of the biggest massacres occurred in Butare--at least 150,000 people were slaughtered.

"With machetes one neighbor killed the other," Uwizeyimana says.

Known as a woman who had borne children with a Tutsi, she hid in a house near the military headquarters where her husband was on guard duty. She says she is certain he did not participate in the killings because he was with her.

Puddles of blood stained the streets when she finally hitched a ride back home to Rukoko to find food for her family, protected by an identity card that labeled her a Hutu.

She left her children behind with her older sister rather than risk having them killed by Hutu extremists because they were half Tutsi.

At home she found only more death.

"They killed. They killed," she says.

Hutu militants were hunting for her children. When they failed to find the youngsters, the thugs destroyed her house, now a heap of rubble overgrown by banana trees.

She says she lost many friends.

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