‘I have chosen forgiveness over blood’ …Rwandan genocide survivor tells his tale
By JEAN KASSONGO and MTHULISI SIBANDA in Kinshasa, DRC
KINSHASA – HE may be nowhere near the global stature of his hero Nelson Mandela but Willy Ngarambe, a survivor of the genocide that claimed close to one million people, mostly from the Tutsi tribe in the Great Lakes region in the mid-1990s, is emulating the late former South African statesman by embarking on a reconciliation path with his tormentors and rebuilding his country.
While most attention has been given to the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, in earlier years, the skirmishes in the East African country date back to 1990 with the first civil war that had a devastating impact on the Tutsis in the Great Lakes region.
Only aged five when that war began, Ngarambe remembers vividly the horrors that included the killing of his father, siblings and relatives as well as escaping extrajudicial killing (by narrowest of margins) alongside his mother and some family members as well as being condemned to statelessness.
“I was born in a beautiful village called Numbi, high in the mountains above Lake Kivu in South Kivu province. My father had land in a place called Gatoyi, a lush rainforest. Due to this forest’s fertility, he was able to plant many crops,” Ngarambe recounted.
But life would turn horrendous when the war started in Rwanda in 1990.
“We started having problems at school and on the streets. In 1993, skirmishes broke out and many people were killed. I was only eight years old. I returned with my family to Numbi in search of safety. We lost everything we had in Gatoyi,” Ngarambe said.
The worst was to follow a year later with the genocide in Rwanda that resulted in the deaths of more than 800 000 Tutsis at the hands of the majority Hutus.
The genocide and widespread slaughter of Rwandans ended when the Tutsi-backed and heavily armed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Paul Kagame took control of the country.
An estimated two million Rwandans, mostly Hutus, were displaced and became refugees.
They crossed the border into the eastern DRC where Ngarambe’s family was living.
“After the Rwanda genocide, our country opened its borders allowing all the killers (majority Hutus) in for free. They killed us. Being Tutsi was a sin. The only place we could flee to was Rwanda, which was in the same situation,” he said.
In the ensuing bloodshed, his uncles were killed and his father arrested.
The family became separated with Ngarambe’s older brothers and one sister making their way to unknown locations. He believes they were in some camps.
He remembered how the family suffered and targeted after his father fled what was an illegal detention. Featuring on the DRC government hit list, he was eventually tracked down and killed but the family bore the brunt of the search.
“As we were trying to locate my father, we stayed in my uncle’s abandoned home. We stayed in the home at night and hid in the bamboo forest during the day time,” Ngarambe said. However, soldiers from his village tracked them down. “I remember the morning we were found,” he recounted.
“We were outside the house we had been using for shelter and getting ready to continue our journey to find my father. Suddenly, we were surrounded by bullets. I was convinced that death was imminent. We were taken as hostages back to the village by foot. We were put in prison and we waited to be killed at any moment.”
The fifth child in a family of 10 children, he somberly remembered how his mother was tortured.
“I had never seen my mother cry before. She was with four of her children, including a one-year old who was breast feeding.”
Ngarambe is grateful to an unknown prison official who rescued them.
The family eventually trekked to Rwanda after escaping death row.
“We finally managed to get to Rwanda in 1995 after a long and horrible journey. There, we were put in Mudende Refugee Camp, which unfortunately was also attacked. Scores of people died.” At least 120 people were killed at the refugee camp in 1997 when the Hutu diehards shot victims dead and hacked others with machetes.
“All this narrated here is a drop in an ocean. I am writing a book that will reveal all,” Ngarambe said.
He eventually secured government-assisted refuge in Canada where he is enjoying a new lease of life but has neither forgotten the suffering masses nor begrudged his tormentors.
“Considering all of these horrific and traumatic events and other experiences that I cannot discuss here, I have decided to do something positive about it. Nelson Mandela once said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.”
“I believe that if there were enough educated people in Congo, the conflict would have had an end. Generally, educated people are able to think critically and I believe that education can help the younger generation to change the (DR) Congo’s future for the better,” Ngarambe said.
He has founded the Heroes for Peace through which he plans to uplift the youths and spearhead peace and reconciliation back in the crisis-torn country.
His Canadian wife, Dianne, with whom he is expecting their first child early next year, is among the board directors.
It is anticipated the project will soon get international endorsement after it was sent to Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations. At the time of publication, US$20 000 had been raised to kickstart the project.
“I have put everything together, found a lawyer and started the registration process. It is almost done. We have been doing campaigns in Canada, Netherlands, Sweden and US. I want the world to understand the burden of growing in a refugee camp with nowhere to call home,” Ngarambe said.
A school is among the major projects Heroes for Peace plans to build in the DRC.
This school would help to rehabilitate young child soldiers by educating them and preparing them for the future.
We, who have lost our loved ones, can only move forward once we forgive those who have wronged us,” the survivor said.
A hospital is also planned, he disclosed.
“My mother birthed all her children at home. She never went to the hospital not only because of the distance, but because there were also no roads or transportation. Many people would walk for days to go to hospital
or carry the sick on their shoulders. I do not wish for anyone to experience this.”
He counts like-minded and world famous figures he has met to include the father of microfinance and Nobel prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, ex-UN
Secretary General Koffi Annan, academy award winner John Landau and Romeo D’allaire, who was the head of the ill-fated UN mission in Rwanda during genocide.
“These are extraordinary people but Mandela is my favourite,” Ngarambe emphasized. He has chosen to embark on a path of reconciliation and giving back to his home country which he has horrible memories of.
“It is all okay I live the future and let the past be past. It is up to you and I to live for those who passed on. I have chosen forgiveness over blood. I want to go to the same country that rejected me and help its people,” he said.
He plans to move to the DRC upon the birth of his child but is well aware of the recurring problems in his country of birth.
Ngarambe advocated for good governance and peaceful transition of power to resolve the problems.
“Think of it, people rule forever and yet they don’t lead by example. They wait to be taken out with a gun. They also wait until another one comes with a gun,” he lamented. – CAJ News