When he narrates what he went through during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and how he miraculously survived, you might think he is just recounting a scene from a Hollywood movie.
However, what Eric Nzabihimana, 48, tells is his personal experience in the hills of Bisesero, west of the country, 20 years ago.
Bisesero is known for the bravery of Tutsis who had sought refuge in the hills during the Genocide and organised one of the toughest and heroic resistances against Interahamwe militia killers.
Bisesero comprises nine hills that make up the zone that formed the 1994 battlefield where Tutsis fearlessly tried to defend themselves against the militiamen.
Nzabihimana was one of the dozens of thousands of Tutsis who organised the resistance against the killers and successfully contained their attacks for about a month.
“We used anything available to repel their attacks,” Nzabihimana reminisces, citing stones, sticks, bows and arrows among some of materials they used.
“We used to shield women, children and old people behind us and then the most energetic were the ones at the forefront of the resistance,” he narrates.
“We were well organised that we managed to successfully fight back their [Interahamwe] attacks for about a month,” Nzabihimana says. “We believed that the killings would soon end and that we would manage to escape but that was not to be.”
In the first days of May 1994, as Bisesero continued to gain notoriety for its organised resistance, local Interahamwe in the former Kibuye prefecture received reinforcement of soldiers, gendarmes and policemen and more militiamen arrived from other parts of the country, mainly from Cyangugu, Ruhengeri and Gisenyi, according to testimonies.
And on May 13 and 14, they launched a massive attack on Tutsis in Bisesero, killing thousands
Tens of thousands killed
“In only two days, about 40,000 of us were killed,” Nzabihimana says.
The survivor says the attackers were not only in large numbers, but also armed with traditional weapons, rifles, grenades and bombs.
“One bomb could kill up to a hundred people. The deaths that we registered in those two days left us demoralised, so everyone started running to try and save their lives,” Nzabihimana says.
Estimates indicate that more than 54,000 Tutsis perished in the hills of Bisesero.
But there is another element that changed dynamics, he recalls.
“Around that time, French soldiers arrived in Bisesero and surrounding areas and convinced us that they had come to save us, to stop the killings. They encouraged us to come out of our hideouts, promising that they would protect us,” he narrates.
“They lied to us. When the killers attacked us, the French disappeared, they never raised a finger. I think they tricked us, we fell for their trap and paid dearly.”
The French contingent constituted an exclusive French mission, dubbed Zone Turquoise, which was hastily deployed in western Rwanda under a UN mandate at the height of the Genocide.
Critics argue that the move was calculated to bolster the government army against the advancing RPA rebels, or at least to provide the genocide machinery a safe passage into the neighbouring DR Congo in case the rebels seized the country.
Nzabihimana, who was among the few survivors of the mass killings, still remembers the tragic moments as if it happened yesterday.
“Because Bisesero is a relatively vast area, everyone tried to hide and protect themselves as much as they could. It was all about spending days and nights running through the hills and luckily don’t get hit by the many bullets which were being sprayed at us or don’t meet the killers… it was a difficult moment,” he reminisces.
Nzabihimana continued hiding in the bushes in Bisesero hills, “drinking water infested with bodies of the dead” until the then Rwanda Patriotic Army secured the area, ending months of killings.
Life after the Genocide
Like other survivors, Nzabihimana lost several members of his close family in the Genocide.
Having been born in a family of 17 children (his father was a polygamist), he only survived alongside two siblings–an elder brother and a younger sister.
All the other siblings and their parents perished in the Genocide. Many more members of his extended family were also killed.
After the Genocide, Nzabihimana was left desperate with little hope of rebuilding his life.
“Life for me had ended with the Genocide,” he says.
However, as years passed Nzabihimana started regaining hope, a fact he attributes to the support he got and the many developmental programmes that were rolled out to rebuild the nation.
“As the Government [of National Unity] continued to put a lot of emphasis on rebuilding the nation, I started regaining hope that my future would be better,” Nzabihimana says. “We have since regained the rights we had been deprived of, like the right to education. Life continues.”
Nzabihimana says since the Genocide, he has been able to complete his university degree and is soon starting a masters degree programme, something he says he had been deprived of when he was a young man.
He cited an incident when his father was detained for two weeks after he complained to the then local leaders that Nzabihimana had been denied a place to continue his secondary school studies though he had passed the primary leaving examinations.
Currently, Nzabihimana, an agronomist with Karongi Tea Factory, is married with four children.
“I am now better off, I am able to fend for my family. The future looks even brighter,” he says. “We should embrace our history however bad it might look and work together to build our nation.”
But he has also another message to those who participated in the killings.
“Those who took part in the Genocide should have the courage to seek forgiveness for what they did because that will help cement our unity,” Nzabihimana says before concluding: “We are ready to forgive them.”
Contact email: jp.bucyensenge[at]newtimes.co.rw