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Searching for peace: Eugenie Mukeshimana and her daughter, Mystica. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Out of Africa's Killing Fields
By Shawn Stone

A survivor looks forward with hope, but is determined to bear witness the horrors of the Rwandan genocide

When the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, Eugenie Mukeshimana was six months pregnant. Along with thousands of their fellow ethnic Tutsis, Mukeshimana and her husband, Damascene—who lived in Rwanda’s hilly, sprawling capital city, Kigali—were marked for extermination by ethnic Hutu extremists. The couple went into hiding together, but later separated to improve the chance that at least one would survive. Mukeshimana stayed at a succession of safe houses, spending weeks at a time hidden, painfully, under beds and in closely confined spaces.

At first, she and her husband were able to exchange notes through friendly intermediaries. Then, communication ended. She later learned that he had been killed.

She was in between hiding places when a sympathetic young Hutu woman recognized her. Mukeshimana’s husband had owned a small company that offered computer training; this young woman had been one of his students. She did not want to see her teacher’s wife murdered, and offered sanctuary.

The woman lived with her mother and three brothers in a comfortable home. At first, Mukeshimana hid in the woman’s room, but later—after the woman went away—she moved into the mother’s room. It was an oddly domestic situation, as she explains: “In the morning when [the mother] would get ready to go out, she was happy to have me there to do her hair—she was friendly with me—because the daughter was not there and there were no places to get her hair done.”

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.

“It’s 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.

“It 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.

“Sometimes 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 situation is.”

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 the Holocaust.

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 Tutsis.

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 alive.

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.

“They 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 thoroughly looted.

“I 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 that house.”

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 warning:

“She 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 stay.

“My 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.

“Everything that was in there,” she explains, “there would be some bloodstains.” The clothes had been removed from genocide victims.

“I 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.

“It 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.

“He 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.

“It 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 aid organization.

“I 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.

“All 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 Rose.

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 day.

“She 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.

“That’s 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.

“That’s my babysitter. . . . That’s my other babysitter. . . . That’s my daddy.”

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.

“That’s 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.

“At 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.

“There’s 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.

“Even 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.”

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