The mother would ask Mukeshimana’s advice on what to wear,
and they’d chat pleasantly about little domestic things.
This was remarkable, considering that the mother was a local
government official administering the murder of Tutsis in
that part of Kigali.
It was a hellish, through-the-looking-glass situation.
funny,” Mukeshimana remembers, “because . . . it seemed
to me that life was very normal for them. [The mother] would
wake up in the morning and a take a shower and go to work—and
that work was killing people. Getting organized, getting
more guns and grenades.”
There was also much paperwork to do: “At the end of the
day they would crosscheck lists of who was dead”—and who
still needed to be tracked down and killed.
The three brothers were all in this family business, and
any would have happily turned the fugitive in. One guarded
the house; another was in charge of getting supplies while
also murdering Tutsis on the side; the third, Mukeshimana
says, “was just enjoying killing people.”
There was never any sense that what they were doing was
wrong, or even, after a time, out of the ordinary.
was horrible, but for them life was really normal,” says
Mukeshimana. “They never felt anything—there was no feeling
that they were doing something against their will. There
was nothing like that. They were very proud of killing Tutsis.
at night, when I was living in her room, she would go on
the phone—she had a phone in her room—and just start discussing
[the genocide], and at no point did she think, ‘She’s here
listening to all this stuff.’ . . . And this was in the
middle of the war. Feeling completely OK with whatever the
Mukeshimana’s stay in this house ended abruptly when she
learned that the mother’s ex-husband was returning. The
ex- husband, also a Hutu, had left years before, remarried
a Tutsi woman and started a new family. In keeping with
the madness of the genocide, he had murdered his Tutsi wife
and children and was coming home.
It was shortly after this that Mukeshimana was caught.
Eugenie Mukeshimana did survive the genocide, and eventually
left Rwanda; she and her daughter, Mystica, are now both
students in Albany. Eugenie is a sophomore at the College
of Saint Rose, while Mystica is in the third grade at Albany’s
Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology. When,
a few years ago, Mukeshimana began to think about continuing
her education, she knew she would have to leave Rwanda:
The main university there doesn’t offer a program in her
field of interest, social work. Their quiet life here is
a world away from Rwanda.
From April 6, 1994, when Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvénal
Habyarimana was killed under still-unexplained circumstances,
through mid-July, when a rebel army drove the extremist
Hutu government out of the country, between 800,000 and
a million people—mostly ethnic Tutsis, but also some moderate
Hutu and other indigenous peoples—were murdered in this
central-African nation. This averages out to approximately
one murder every 12 seconds, in a country the geographic
size of Maryland. As journalist Linda Melvern pointed out
in her book A People Betrayed, “the killing rate
in Rwanda was five times that achieved by the Nazis” in
Meticulously planned by elements of the Hutu government—who
stood to lose power if democratic reforms being forced on
Rwanda by the international community were implemented—this
genocide was unspeakably brutal and remarkably organized.
Killings were directed by a privately owned hate-radio station,
with announcers reading lists of “traitors” to be killed.
Millions of dollars in international aid—including, according
to Melvern, $25 million from the United States—were used
to buy weapons; the country was armed to the teeth with
everything from guns and grenades to machetes.
The machetes became a principal instrument of the genocide,
and were employed by Hutu Power militias to kill people
with unspeakable brutality—a brutality reminiscent of Nazi
Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Like Nazism, the Hutu Power movement took ethnic hatred
and turned it into an ideology. Hutus were the “true” Rwandans;
Tutsis were “cockroaches” out to steal everything from the
Hutu. It was better, their thinking went, to simply exterminate
The real horror is that the international community knew
early on that mass killings were taking place, and did nothing.
The Clinton administration, having just weathered the military
debacle in Somalia, had no stomach for another African intervention,
no matter how limited. Critics argue that as with European
Jews during World War II, and the Cambodians after the end
of the Vietnam War, saving Tutsi lives carried too high
a political cost.
This calculation will not change anytime soon. As Samantha
Power pointed out in the September 2001 issue of The
Atlantic Monthly, then-candidate George W. Bush said
(in January 2000): “I don’t like genocide, but I would not
commit our troops.”
When Mukeshimana was caught, she assumed she would be killed.
The fact that she wasn’t is still a mystery to her. One
Hutu soldier taunted, “you’re not attractive enough to kill.”
Maybe it was because she was pregnant. Maybe it was because
the rebel army was closing in—they were only days away,
and many Hutu extremists were fleeing the city—and the government
troops were preoccupied with the war. Whatever the reason,
the rebels did take all of Kigali, and Mukeshimana was still
She gave birth to a daughter, and named her Mystica Rose.
The Tutsi-led rebel army—the Rwandan Patriotic Front—had
liberated the country and ended the genocide, but the victory
was, in many senses, quite bitter. Nearly a million people
were dead. Rwandan society was in ruins. The new government
was broke; six days after the genocide began, according
to Linda Melvern, the former government had loaded the entire
contents of the Rwandan treasury (estimated to be approximately
$170 million) onto trucks and hauled it away. The thousands
of local officials who fled ahead of the rebel advance also
stole as much as they could.
took all government property and anything which could be
moved . . . whole factories were dismantled and taken into
exile along with every working vehicle,” Melvern wrote.
With her newborn, Mukeshimana tried to pull together the
threads of her own life. First, she went home. It had been
went to the house where we used to live, and the whole house,
all the doors were open. Anything that they were not able
to take away, like papers and photographs . . . they burned
them. There was nothing [left] of what I used to own in
She then went looking for her sister, though she didn’t
hold out much hope. On the way to the neighborhood where
her sister had lived, she ran into one of her sister’s neighbors.
The woman told her to stay away. Mukeshimana recounts her
said, ‘All the people who were involved [in the genocide]
believe that you are dead, because when they came to take
your sister, they put her in the car and she was supposed
to show them where you had moved. . . . Don’t even bother
going there, she’s not there. It’s not safe.’ ”
Despite the desolate state Kigali was in, she decided to
mom and my daddy lived in the rural area, far away,” she
says, “and I could not travel there.”
Luckily, Mukeshimana met someone she knew who lived in a
small Tutsi neighborhood—about “two blocks” long, she explains—that
had, miraculously, been left untouched. She theorizes that
either the militias had missed this place in some kind of
bureaucratic oversight, or they simply had not had time
to get there before all of Kigali was liberated. Her friends
gave her and her daughter a place to stay.
After this three-month ordeal, she fell ill. Taken to a
clinic run by a nongovernmental organization, the doctors
couldn’t find anything specifically wrong with her.
She now guesses that it was “just the whole thing of sleeping
under the beds, and all the fatigue . . . I was coughing
and very weak. They gave me some medication [anyway].”
Mukeshimana knew she had to recover quickly, however.
She understood her situation: “I have a child and she doesn’t
have clothes, she doesn’t have anything. I was getting now
worried because the whole country, when the genocide was
over, was a mass grave. Decomposed corpses everywhere, it
was horrible. No running water anywhere, you’d have to go
and get water—walk miles to get water. It was very tough.
And at the same time, it was like, I have to find a job,
because I have to feed the child.”
One of her friends gave her some money to buy clothes for
her daughter. She went to a secondhand market to look for
baby clothes, only to be confronted with more grim reminders
of what had happened.
that was in there,” she explains, “there would be some bloodstains.”
The clothes had been removed from genocide victims.
never bought anything from that place,” she says sadly.
“It was very depressing.”
The neighborhood where she was staying was at some distance
from the center of the city. One day, she remembers, the
people she was staying with decided to walk downtown. All
of them shared, she says, “the impression you’re the only
one alive . . . so we hoped that if we go to [central Kigali],
we’ll see if there’s anyone else we know who’s alive.”
There was no working public transportation, so they walked.
On the road, an elderly woman walked up to Mukeshimana,
and hugged her, crying. After a brief conversation, she
realized that the woman was mentally disturbed, and had
mistaken her for someone else. At no point during this trip
did she meet anyone she had known before the genocide.
The city was changing rapidly, she says. Tutsi exiles, who
had been living in Uganda since the late 1950s, were returning
to Kigali. Compared to the Tutsi survivors, Mukeshimana
notes, they had money.
was like,” she says, “this is the city I grew up in, and
I’m a stranger from another planet. It was too depressing
to see these people, they’re so happy and you’re just alone.”
Mukeshimana persevered. She had completed a six-year accounting
program in high school, and had learned how to use computers
from her husband. With these skills she got a job, though
it didn’t pay well. She knew that in order to earn more
money, she would have to learn English.
She spoke both the native language, Kinyarwanda, and French,
the official language used in the government and schools.
She bought a dictionary, and looked up words she found in
the English-language newspapers thrown out by a U.S. relief
organization whose offices were next to where she worked.
She listened to the BBC on the radio.
Laughing, she says “So I taught myself, and within six months
I was able to say a few words, enough to apply for a job.”
Things were looking somewhat better. She discovered she
was not the only survivor from her family. She met someone
who told her that they had seen her two brothers alive sometime
during the genocide; later, Mukeshimana learned that they
had hidden successfully and joined the rebel army.
Then she met a man she knew from her childhood, who had
come to the city from her rural village to look for members
of his family. Her mother was alive. That was the only good
news the man had, however.
couldn’t tell me what happened to my father,” she remembers.
Mukeshimana asked about neighbors and relatives. He told
her that except for her mother, everyone else that she knew
back home was gone.
After a time, she managed to visit her mother—“It was nice
to see my mom”—and was told that her father was dead.
took us two years to find where they dumped my father’s
body,” she remembers. At first, her mother wanted to stay
in the village. After time passed, however, Mukeshimana
says, the burden of being alone without anyone she had known
became too much. Her mother moved to Kigali, where she lives
today—though she remains unhappy.
Mukeshimana observes, “She thinks it’s so unfair she’s alive.”
Having learned basic English was immediately useful. First,
Mukeshimana went to work for a Norwegian aid agency, who
sent her to a hospital compound located at the northern
end of Kagera National Park; this is in the northwest corner
of Rwanda, near the Ugandan border. It was an increase in
pay, but she had to leave her daughter behind with friends,
and send money back for child care.
She was hired as an accountant, but soon discovered there
was much more to do—“anything else that needed to be done,
we’d have to come up with whatever would work,” she explains.
The aid agency primarily served the poorest Tutsi refugees
returning from years of exile in Uganda, people with very
few skills. It was this experience that awakened her interest
in social work.
Mukeshimana missed her daughter, however, and returned to
Kigali after a year. She took another job, with another
was able to run my home and get a place to stay, get organized,”
she says. She even met a few more friends who had survived
the genocide, which, she remembers, made her feel much better.
Life was beginning to seem more normal.
The last job Mukeshimana had before coming to the United
States was in the British Embassy—which gives a good indication
of the skills and experience she had acquired. Plus, she
liked working there.
the rules—you know the British,” she laughs, explaining
that “it’s like another world. It made me understand a little
bit about, you know, diplomacy and all the games being played.”
When asked why she chose to come to Albany and study social
work at the College of Saint Rose—of all the U.S. colleges
available—the 31-year old gives reasons both mundane and
mysterious. A friend in Rwanda put her in touch with someone
here, but it was the name of the school that first caught
her attention. After all, her daughter’s middle name is
In the living room of the uptown Albany home she and her
mother share with their sponsors and hosts, Marggie and
Ken Skinner, Mystica Rose Mukeshimana proudly displays a
large photocollage of her first year in the United States.
She is an irrepressible, quick-witted 8-year-old, and the
pictures show a very happy child. There are photos of a
birthday party, visits with members of the Skinner family,
summer swimming idylls, and Mystica’s first experience with
ice skating (“I fell down,” she laughs).
Mystica is becoming Americanized. She may have been here
for only a year, but she’s already a typically media-savvy
kid, with a dizzying array of opinions about TV shows and
songs. Mystica declares: “Nickelodeon? That’s for babies,”
with a disdain worthy of the snootiest critic. Pretty good
for a kid who is supposed to watch only an hour of TV per
must get it from school,” her mother sighs.
Mystica is at an age, her mother explains, where she’s beginning
to gain some understanding of what happened. When Eugenie
gave a lecture on the genocide at the Albany Diocesan Center,
her daughter was in the audience—though she left the room
for part of the presentation.
Next, Mystica presents her album of photos from Africa.
my fake swimming pool,” she points out, making a
careful distinction between the little inflated rubber pool
occupied by a younger, equally ebullient version of herself,
and something she apparently considers more substantial.
Whenever she comes to a picture she now finds embarrassing,
she ostentatiously covers it with both hands, turns her
face away, closes her eyes, and says: “No no no no no no
. . .”
She keeps turning the pages.
my babysitter. . . . That’s my other babysitter. . . . That’s
This is the only picture in the album of the father she
never knew. An unidentified woman sits at a small table;
her father is standing, smiling, on the left side of the
frame. She continues turning the pages.
me in my fake swimming pool again . . .”
Mukeshimana is looking forward. She outlines various business
ideas she has for helping people in Rwanda. She talks about
school, and things she would like to do.
some point,” she says, “I’m going to learn Spanish.”
She is also speaking out about her experiences. In addition
to the aforementioned January lecture at the Albany Diocesan
Center—the first time she spoke in public about what happened—Mukeshimana
will be giving school presentations on the Rwandan genocide.
Asked about returning to Rwanda, she pauses.
Things have changed so much there, she says, and then talks
about tremendous social upheavals caused by the genocide,
and the resulting enormous problem of homeless kids—a population
she would like, somehow, to help.
no provision made if you lost your parents,” she explains.
“If you don’t have money, you don’t go to school. There’s
so many kids on the street—they don’t have anybody, they
don’t have anywhere to go. So they end up arrested and incarcerated.
They use drugs, it’s cold, they sleep outside . . .”
On the other hand, there is the issue of the people who
perpetrated the genocide. According to an Associated Press
story dated Feb. 26, 2003, Rwanda still holds 115,000 genocide
suspects in prison. Under a government amnesty program,
however, up to 40,000 of these prisoners are likely to be
released, provided they admit their guilt and submit to
two months of civic reeducation, followed by a longer stint
in a work-release program. This troubles Mukeshimana deeply.
though I don’t know the people who killed my husband, the
people who killed my father, there was this kind of hope
that they’re in prison.” She pauses. “But now the whole
thing of releasing them kind of changes everything. I don’t
want to see them. I can’t trust them. . . . I want my child
to grow up in a normal society,” she explains.
Right now, Eugenie Mukeshimana is happy. “I like Albany,”
she says. “It’s peaceful and calm.”