HE IS COMMONLY known as ‘Maître Sinzi’ in the Karate circles and is a respected figure because of his skills, which have earned him medals in and outside the country. But few know him as a hero who helped save the lives of more than 100 people during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Sitting in his congested office at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Humanities in Huye District where he serve as the Director of Estates, Sinzi looks calm and gentle. But he also exudes immense self-confidencen.
His love for Karate is significant that he even calls it ‘the sport of my life’. His office is dotted with portraits of the world’s most respected and influential martial arts stars, including Bruce Lee, Hironori Otsuka, the founder of Wado Ryu school, and Nobuaki Kakuda, a Japanese Seidokaikan Karateka, among others.
Medals and awards also hang on the walls of his office.
Tharcisse Sinzi was born in 1963 in the then Rusatira Commune of the former Butare prefecture, south of Rwanda.
In 1979, he was introduced to karate by his elder brother Fidèle Karangwa. Ever since, his love for the sport increased by the day and by 1984, he already held a Black Belt, First Dan.
The following years saw him rise thriough the ranks to eventually acquire the fifth dan he holds today.
“Karate is part of my life,” he says. “I always say that you practice it and as you love it, it shapes your life. Ever since I started practicing Karate, it is the sole sport I do.”
Skills that saved lives
In April 1994, when killings of the Tutsi at a large scale erupted across the country, Sinzi who worked at the then National University of Rwanda, was in Butare town.
As the killings intensified, he fled the area and headed for his home commune in Rusatira. On April 12, Sinzi met hundreds of other fleeing Tutsi and, together, they gathered near Mwogo River that then separated Kinyamakara commune in Gikongoro prefecture with Rusatira.
Determined to live, the displaced people tried to battle the Interahamwe militia. The resistance, however, proved feeble as the group was mainly battling it out with empty hands or stones.
On April 21, Sinzi and his group were forced to flee to Songa, a hilly area they considered as strategic in their resistance.
Sinzi had then become what could be called a ‘commander’, giving orders and instructions to the group.
“At Songa, Interahamwe attacked us again and we battled them with whatever we could find,” he proudly says.
“From the beginning, I taught those who were with me some self-defence techniques using my skills. I taught them to fight with traditional weapons and stones. I told them to be firm and face the enemy bravely.”
“I taught them that they should not be scared of one individual holding a gun and let the armed fellow kill many people. We were not afraid and we were united in our fight for survival,” he recalls.
“Whenever someone attempted to approach us, we could pelt them with stones. That gave us an upper hand against our attackers, at least for some days,” he adds.
Sinzi says his training in Karate had made him a fearless man and stimulated his determination to organise the resistance.
“‘Never give up because when you lose your spirit you die’, that is my motto,” the Karate master says. “I was never afraid [throughout the battle].”
At one time, because of how they were organised, the extremist radio, Radio Télévision Libres des Mille Collines (RTLM), started broadcasting messages saying the Rwanda Patriotic Army had taken over the Songa hill and were the ones battling the Interahamwe militia.
Cost of the misinformation
On April 27, a military helicopter flew low over Songa hills in what the Karate master says was a reconnaissance mission. It later landed at a nearby place and munitions were offloaded. In the following hours, reinforcements arrived from Kigali in preparation for a major attack against the Tutsi at Songa.
That night, Sinzi and his group called a meeting of all displaced people. A head count revealed that they were 3,480.
Sinzi, who already anticipated a major attack, advised people to move from the hill that night and head to the neighbouring Burundi.
But his advice was ignored.
“That is the only time they rejected my advice,” he regrets, noting that had they obliged, perhaps many, if not all, could have survived.
The next day, at around 4pm, a major attack was launched against the displaced people. Sinzi says huge weapons that had been installed at the adjacent ‘Arreté’ village were used to spray bullets on the hill. mortar bombs were also fired at them.
Many people died while others were blown up in the attack.
That evening, those who survived headed for Akanyaru with hopes to cross to the nearby Burundi.
Having lost their compass, and with no one who knew well which direction they should take to reach Burundi, the refugees found it hard to get the right escape route. So they camped at Muyaga, an elevated hill that lay near the Rwanda-Burundi border.
Unfortunately, while moving through bush and shrubs, the group was ‘accidentally’ split into two. The first group met the killers. They were wiped out.
Sinzi and the small group he was with survived and managed to reach Akanyaru river, at the border with Burundi.
Terribly sad moments
Sinzi recalls several incidents that he says shocked him and remain inerasable in his mind. In one incident, he says, he saw a woman throwing her baby away for her to be able to run for dear life.
In another, a woman tried to drawn herself in Cyiri marshland before she was butchered by Interahamwe militia.
Sinzi also says he was extremely saddened by the refugees’ refusal to heed by his advice to flee Songa in the night of April 27, 1994, hours before the major attack against them was launched.
At Akanyaru river, Sinzi says they could see dead bodies of colleagues who had taken the lower route floating on the waters.
“That is when we knew they had been killed,” he says.
He asked the people he remained with to surrender their clothes, tied them together and made a long rope that they used to cross over to the other side.
Out of the 3,480 people who were with Sinzi at Songa, only 118 managed to cross to Burundi at 2am on April 29.
Sadly, despite helping many to get to safety Sinzi could not save his wife and their child.
Even after reaching Burundi’s Ntega village, Sinzi and his group faced attacks by militiamen. But three days later they were saved by the UN High Commission for Refugees that moved them to Bunnyari camp near Kirundo.
They returned shortly after the Rwanda Patriotic Army had stopped the Genocide.
“Twenty years down the road, I am proud that I am serving the government that put an end to the Genocide and brought pro-people policies that contributed to uplifting our lives,”Sinzi says.
He advises survivors to champion improved living conditions, something he says will be a mark of ‘respect’ for their survival.
“Survivors should avoid being desperate because we survived for a reason. Everyone should have the courage to work hard in whatever they do and whatever conditions they live in,” he says.
The Karate instructor says he always feels proud for having been able to help the over a hundred individuals survive.
“Whenever we meet, it is all joy and happiness. Some call me their father, others most their saviour. But what makes me proud is that I contributed to saving lives,” he says.
Source: The New Times Rwanda