Clémentine Igilibambe '09
University of Dayton Quarterly, Winter 2007
A Tale of Atrocity, Nightmare and Hope: Once Upon a Time in Rwanda
By Matthew Dewald
Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by an evil monarch. One day the long-suffering people rose up against him and drove him and his clan from the land.
Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a benevolent monarch. One day base and evil people rose up against him and drove him and his clan from the land.
Once upon a time there was a girl, 8 years old, roused in the middle of the night and sent by her mother into the darkness with her two older brothers. She dodged bullets and bombs and stepped over the mutilated bodies of her neighbors, bodies cut by machetes and smashed by nail-studded cudgels wielded by other neighbors in a methodical slaughter fueled by ideas about power and race, history and revenge.
Once upon a time, there was such a time and such a place and such a little girl. This time was April 1994. The place was and still is Rwanda. The girl is names Clémentine Igilibambe. This is her story.
Clémentine lived in a big house with her parents and brothers and sisters. Her father was an international businessman who traded in building materials. Her mother was director of a school for seamstresses and helped sell building materials at the family store.
The family lived in Gisenyi, near the shores of Lake Kivu, a resort area in northwestern Rwanda. “We went often,” she said. “We went and sat at the beach. I loved looking at the water and walking in the water. A lot of white people came there too.”
The new house was one of five her family owned. Inside its walled compound there was a warehouse, a store for selling building supplies, a plot of sugar cane and an outdoor kitchen. There were houses for the maids, and they had many. One for cooking, one for cleaning, one for tending the cows and the chickens, others for other tasks. Clémentine’s parents paid for their education.
At the back of the family’s compound was the refugee house.
Refugees were common in Rwanda in the early 1990s. They were driven from one place to another by a conflict that had raged hot and cold since 1959, when an army dominated by one ethnic group, the Hutu, overthrew a monarchy and ruling class dominated by another ethnic group, the Tutsi. The monarchy and tens of thousands of refugees fled Rwanda, others were slaughtered and the victorious Hutu established a government and gained independence from Belgium in 1962.
What for the refugees was a loss of life, wealth and nation was for the new leaders a revolution. Thus were borne divergent tales of one kingdom that parents told their children, one of an oppressive Tutsi regime brought down by the long-suffering Hutu people, another of a good Tutsi king brought down by the treacherous Hutu. One nation, two tales.
Many Rwandans told neither tale but wished simply to live their lives free of hunger and flight, politics and war, repression and violence.
Over the next decades, refugees, mostly Tutsis, formed insurgent armies and fought unsuccessfully to retake the country. The Hutu leadership of the Rwandan government responded with reprisals against Tutsis and Hutu political opponents within the country.
In 1990, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, an insurgent army of refugees, launched a new invasion from Uganda, and a Tutsi refugee named Paul Kagame soon after became the RPF’s leader. The fighting displaced and killed more than 600,000 until a tenuous peace agreement was signed in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1993. It was this fighting that refugees comeing to Clémentine’s home were fleeing.
That is a bit much to explain to an 8-year-old girl like Clémentine. When refugees arrived at the gates at her family’s home simply said, “Your uncles and their families are coming to stay.”
“We believed them,” Clémentine said, “because our families are so huge.”
She did not always welcome them.
“I was a little selfish kid,” she said. “We had all of this money and I could have whatever I wanted. Then five families showed up and they had all of these kids and all of a sudden I had to share my stuff. The families would come and go, come and go.”
Then one evening, in one moment, in the crash of one small plane, everything in Clémentine’s life changed. The plane had been hit by two rockets over Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, about 60 miles from Clémentine’s home. Among the 11 killed was Juvénal Habyarimana, a Gisenyi native and the Hutu president of Rwanda who seized power in 1973. He was returning from negotiations on the implementation of the Arusha Accords in Tanzania.
The plane went down on the evening of April 6, 1994. Who shot it down is a matter of international dispute. It may have been Tutsi rebels. It may have been Hutu extremists within the government who opposed the president’s concessions. It may have been Hutu moderates planning a coup d’etat. There are many accusations, but there is no international consensus.
What is known with certainty is that by the morning of April 7, the most massive, efficient and lethal campaign of genocide since the mid-century Nazi regime was under way. It would last 100 days and kill an estimated 800,000. Within hours of the president’s death, ordinary citizens suspected of being Tutsi were being killed at makeshift roadblocks. Roving army units using prepared lists assassinated political opponents. By midday, the dead included Rwanda’s prime minister, the president of Rwanda’s highest court, the minister of agriculture, the minister of labor and community affairs, and the minister of information.
In his memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, head of the U.N. peace-keeping forces writes, “By noon on April 7 the moderate political leadership of Rwanda was dead or in hiding, the potential for a future moderate government utterly lost.”
The violence spread quickly from Kigali. Targeted killings of Tutsi and Hutu moderates began occurring all over the country. By the evening of April 7, the RPF had launched an invasion of Kigali and warned the U.N. to stay out of its way.
This was the new world in which 8-year-old Clémentine found herself after the president’s plane went down.
“For me, it fell apart just like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “I knew there were Hutus and Tusis, but I didn’t know there were problems between them until then. We intermarried. We had Tutsis and Hutus as best friends. This is when I learned that these two people are different.”
Being Clémentine is complicated. Her father is Hutu. Her mother is mixed Hutu and Tutsi. At a recent dinner honoring scholarship donors and students, a video was shown that included her—she is now a UD student on scholarship—as a smiling girl in Nairobi, Kenya, where her family lived for several years after fleeing Rwanda. She wears a red top and a leopard print fabric wrapped around her skirt. A white strand of beads around her neck compliments the white band keeping the hair out of her eyes. She sways her body in rhythm as she dances with other girls her age dressed like her. All are refugees, all have broad smiles on their faces like hers. The sun shines brightly.
The video does not show her dance teacher, Cyprien Kagorora, nor does it show the famous Rwandan pop singer under whom Kagorora once studied, Simon Bikindi. Bikindi is now on trial at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha. He is charged with using his fame and talent to indoctrinate and incite members of the Interahamwe militias, one of the chief agents of the genocide. Bikindi has pled not guilty.
Clémentine’s father was out of the country on business those days in early April 1994, so she remained secluded within the walled compound of her home with her mother, who was pregnant, and her siblings. She saw trucks coming and going on the road outside, bringing people with machetes and wooden bats studded with nails.
She heard repeated cries. “Kill him. Kill him.”
“One day I climbed a ladder to see what’s going on. I saw bodies right outside. Their heads were chopped off.”
The wall was about 8 feet high. The ladder she climbed was made of wood.
“I didn’t even cry. I remember my reaction. I went up and I looked around for about 10 seconds. After that I climbed down slowly and went and sat on the veranda and looked into space. I didn’t know what I thought. I didn’t know what to think.”
After about two weeks, a maid awoke Clémentine one night and said, “We have to go now.” The RPF was advancing on Gisenyi, and the genocide was about to be compounded by civil war.
“My dad…had taken our big truck. We only had a small car. My mom, pregnant, got into the car with my younger siblings. The car was full, so me and my brothers walked alongside. There were bombs exploding everywhere. There were bullets everywhere. People were dying. And then a bomb went off near us. My two brothers and I dove for cover and when we got up, my mother’s car was gone.
“We walked for two days. I think it was two days. We stopped to rest at a clearing once. We thought our mother and brothers and sisters had been killed. When I went to sleep it was dark and when I woke up it was dark. I don’t know if I woke up that same night or the next. We were just following this line of children, maybe 20 of them. I knew a couple of them from before. There were other vehicles on the road and bodies everywhere. We jumped over them. On the first day, it was like, ‘Whoa,’ but then we got used to it. It wasn’t like, ‘There’s a body!’ It was ‘Just keep going.’
“We were walking toward the border (at Goma, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I was thinking, ‘If I could just get across that little stick (the barrier at the border crossing), I will be safe. I will be out of Rwanda.’ We were begging the border guards to let us go through. There were five or six of them with guns holding back the crowd. They robbed everyone. I had a little bag my mother had given me when we left. I don’t even know what was in it, but they took it at the border. I was relieved. It was getting heavy.”
“I feel like I stayed there an hour begging. For anyone in that situation, five minutes feels like forever.”
Finally, she crossed the border into Goma with her brothers, Epaphrodite and Marcellin, ages 10 and 12, respectively. Clémentine did not know it, but she was part of one of the largest mass movements of refugees in human history. Roughly 2 million Rwandans fled the country, mostly to camps just across the border. Another 1.7 million were internally displaced. More than half of Rwanda’s 7.5 million were uprooted or dead.
After crossing the border into Goma with her two older brothers, “we were just walking,” Clémentine said. “We didn’t know where we were going. We knew we were out of Rwanda and we just kept going. Finally, we got to an abandoned house, and we stayed there for three weeks with about 40 other kids.
“We hadn’t eaten in two days. We saw a couple of kids get some food out and we all tackled them. We ate snails, grass. Once or twice other refugees passing by gave us some food.
“My brothers would always say, ‘Eat faster and you’ll feel full.’ My parents had made me go to church by I had never prayed. I thought my parents were dead. I prayed all the time then. Today, I think that’s what brought my parents back.
“I would sit outside crying and praying. One day I was there, sitting on a rock watching the road, praying and crying, and my parents drove up. I’ve never seen anything as awesome as that in my life.”
Her mother pregnant, her family with nowhere to go, Clémentine and her family went into the city and rented an apartment for three months. It was their bad luck that someone with an expensive jeep had a habit of parking it in front of their building. One night, when her father was in Kenya trying to find a way to move the family there, the Congolese police decided they wanted the jeep.
“They came and knocked at our house and demanded the keys,” she said. “My mom told them, ‘It’s not my car.’ They threatened to kill her. I got out of bed and went under it where I could see what was going on…I’m under the bed trying not to cry so they wouldn’t come in our room. I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna die. I’m only 8. I have so many dreams.’ I don’t know why, but I had always wanted to marry a white person.
“They took everything we had and finally left. Three days later, my dad came home and we moved to a refugee camp.”
The family, including a new baby brother was born in Goma, spent two months in Makumba Camp in Congo. Millions of refugees were crowded into similar camps.
“Some people had tents,” she said. “Those are the fortunate people. People were laying in the dirt. They would just take a piece of clothing and lay down on it. There was a lot of smoke from people cooking. Wives were crying. Husbands were frustrated and beating their wives. People were dying every day of cholera.
“I used to pray a lot. I thought that my little brother was going to die. My mother had no milk for him. She refused to eat so we could.”
Her father continued to travel to Kenya and eventually found place for the entire family. They stayed in Nairobi fiver years and applied annually for visas to the United States.
“During my stay in Kenya, I started growing up. …That’s when I started to realize something serious was going on. I realized my parents lost weight. They weren’t eating for a week at a time, only drinking water so we could eat. …That’s one thing I’ll never forget in my whole life, the way my parents sacrificed.”
Money was always running out, and the family lived in six different homes in five years. Then one Tuesday, here family received a letter saying they would leave for the United States in two days. Her uncle, a UD staff member at the time, was sponsoring them, and they would come to Dayton. The family sold its possessions and took a taxi to the airport.
“I thought, ‘I’ve always dreamed of marrying a white person, and now I’m going to the U.S. There are a lot of white people there.”
After waiting in the airport and fearing her family would not be allowed to board, she finally took her seat on the plane and looked out the window as Nairobi got smaller and then disappeared.
“In my whole life, from ’94 to ’99, I feel like that was the first time I took a deep breath and thought, ‘I’m going to be OK. It’s over. I lost a lot of friends in the war but I’m going to be OK.’ That’s when I thought, ‘I’m going to do humanitarian work.’ That’s when the passion of what I’m doing now came to me.”
Clémentine today is beginning her junior year at UD. She is a human rights and international studies major who speaks six languages. She is co-founder and president of UD’s Afrika Club and a member of the Student Leadership Council, the World Youth Alliance and the U.N. Agents of Change. She sees law school and work with refugees in her future. Clémentine is also working to raise money for scholarships so that orphans in Rwanda can attend UD after high school.
Being Clémentine remains complicated. In the West, the Rwandan rebel leader turned Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, is widely celebrated. President George W. Bush presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2005. Kagame’s victory is generally credited with stopping the genocide while the West turned its back. He has introduced reforms to reduce ethnic divisions; passports and other identity cards no longer define the bearer’s ethnicity, for example. Rwanda’s currency now depicts its natural beauty and resources, not its leaders. The government is an aggressive critic of the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, arguing that its trials of the genocide’s leaders are too slow.
Clémentine is also a critic of the ICTR, though she believes it is biased against Hutus. She believes that RPF leaders, many of whom now lead Rwanda’s current government, should also stand trial for war crimes. The RPF and its successor, the RPA, summarily executed genocide suspects and massacred innocent civilians as it established control of the country in 1994, according to a U.N. commission and several human rights groups. “If the ICTR completes its trials without providing justice to victims of crimes committed by both sides in Rwanda, the tribunal’s legacy will be at risk,” Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote in an open letter to the United Nations in June 2006.
She also distrusts the gacaca, the village court system set up to try the tens of thousands of ordinary people accused of participating in the genocide. The rules of evidence are too informal, Clémentine believes, and Hutu are sometimes convicted on the word of a single witness. Supporters point out that often only a single witness remains.
In her mistrust of the current government, Clémentine has company. Paul Rusesabagina became famous when his story was told in the film Hotel Rwanda. He has criticized the current government in speeches and his autobiography. Now he “is being denounced by some in his country as a traitor and a criminal,” Terry George, the film’s co-writer, director and producer, wrote in a Washington Post editorial in May. Resesabagina, Rwanda’s hero, no longer travels there out of fear for his safety.
As there was once a large, unsettled Tutsi diaspora, so there is now a large Hutu one living uneasily in exile. Subsequent battles between Rwanda’s new government and remnants of the old Hutu regime who fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo have brought years of war that continues today. In these battles, Kagame faces a Gordian knot he hasn’t yet cut: defeating a Hutu insurgency while reassuring ordinary Hutu refugees that he is not their enemy. In the ruins of Rwanda, in refugee camps and in rebel bases in the bush, the two tales of Rwanda continue to be told.
Such talk concerns Julius Amin, chair of UD’s department of history and an expert in African history.
“One of the fundamental questions is not being asked: How did it get to this situation?” he said. “The crisis is still there. Some of the fundamental issues still have not been addressed. Only by asking and answering this can Rwanda move forward. Families have been shattered. Communities have been shattered. Those things cannot be shelved. They must be dealt with. Kagame ended the genocide. Were Hutus killed in the process? Sure, but a point is being missed by trying to focus all of the attention on the president.”
Clémentine doubts she will ever return to Rwanda. She fears more mass killings lie in Rwanda’s future.
“What happened was genocide, but other things happened too. We have to give respect to all who died in the war, not just the Tutsis killed by the Hutu, not just the Jutu killed by the RPF, but also the Twa. No one ever talks about them.”
The Twa, hunter-gatherers indigenous to Africa’s Great Lakes region, numbered about 30,000 inside Rwanda before the genocide. The United Nations estimates that 10,000 were killed.
Clémentine now focuses on helping refugees, like those her family once took in and she herself once was. There were nearly 15 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide at the beginning of 2005, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The people of Rwanda no longer rank in the top 10 in either category.
“My role is to help those who have suffered because they’re not as fortunate as I am now. I don’t want to concentrate on the political side of it. I want to help the victims, whether Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. I want to concentrate on the education of orphans. By educating the people, maybe one day they’ll go back to Rwanda and use their education to make a better country. …The big issue is that so many people lost their lives. Whether it was genocide or a civil war, I just know a lot of people were killed.”
She hopes for peace and reconciliation. Rwanda is by most accounts a country of breathtaking beauty, a land of mist-covered mountains and rolling green countryside. It is the place where God comes to sleep at night, according to a Rwandan saying. It hurts Clémentine that her country is now synonymous with genocide.
“I want to have children,” she said. “I want them to be proud of being from Rwanda.”
She may one day tell them a story of her country, one that begins, “Once upon a time, there was a kingdom and a hose by a lake and a little girl, 8 years old…”
Clémentine Igilibambe '09