JUSTICE

Precious possessions: The genocide survivors who kept them tell their stories

Kwibuka Kalamazoo 24

Immaculee Mukantaganira lighting a candle in Kalamazoo MI, during an event commemorating the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Photo/Bahizi Olivier.

Chicago Tribune published today a very moving story  and video clip of  four Chicago-area residents who have survived genocide in different parts of the world including our very own Immaculee Mukantagara, a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Below, Read  Immaculee’s story as written by Howard Reich  and find out the precious possessions she kept for over two decades before donating them to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie (Zbigniew Bzdak).

What happened?

When I was a child, there was no peace in my region and in Rwanda. Sometimes we had to spend night in the forests, because we could not be in our houses, with the fear of being killed, because we’re Tutsi. My parents’ house was burnt twice during my childhood.

It was just a challenge to grow up in the environment, just because, you know, Tutsi were denied education. Tutsi could not attend high school. So some parents would try to do everything possible for their children to go in private school. And private school, weren’t many. There were very few in the country. And so we had many Tutsi were fleeing to neighbouring countries, so that they can live their life, they can live without a fear of being killed.

So for me, when I got married, and I had my children, and when in 1993 we realised that the genocide was being planned, and there was reason (to believe) Tutsi were going to be exterminated.

(The) government had been preparing, planning for the genocide. In the city, you could hear shots everywhere. Military on the road are saying, “Every Tutsi will die, have to die.”

The strategy of killing people was to tell them: “Let’s go to one area, so that you can protect you better.” I was reading this morning about the Holocaust and realized that that was the same thing. They will promise them to go to this place and protect them, but then that was their way of making sure that they have everyone so that they can kill them.

(We) had to wait for our destiny, which was death.

And they divided us. They started measuring faces of Tutsi, and they start saying: “You know, Tutsi are tall, they have long nose, and Hutu are this.”

So they started classification. They started classifying us.

And so they gave us identity card; we have an identity, Tutsi, and Hutus had an identity, Hutu.

When those militia came to the house, they started asking for identity. We were all Tutsi in the house.

So they say: OK, now let’s go. We went out of the house, and they took us to the forest that was close to the house, and when we got in the forest, they started killing one by one.

When they got to me, it was like militia will come, and there was a military beside him, and he started approaching me and pushing me. And I told him, “Please don’t kill me. If you don’t kill me, I give you money.”

And I have money in my dress, in our traditional dress, you can put money inside. So I pull out the money, and I gave to him. And I said, “If you don’t kill me, there is more money inside the house.”

So he pushed me like far from the line. And he continued his killing. But when he pushed me, for some reason, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing, really, I was just saying: If you don’t kill me, and I was just waiting for my death. But for some reason I moved backward in the forest.

And I kept moving backward. They continued with the killing, and when I got farther from where they were, I sat under a tree. My son was on my back.

We were rescued. But everything I did during that time, I didn’t know my two girls had died. I didn’t know my husband was killed. Because I didn’t see them killing him.

I was hoping to see my two daughters, but they were gone. And I started telling myself, so now why, why did I survive? Everything I did, everything I tried, I was hoping if my husband died, at least my children will have a mother.

If my husband survived, I will see him. But they were gone.

That was the worst of my life. Surviving and not seeing them.

So now I know it has been 24 years after we lost them.

For so many years I didn’t — I kind of like postponed finding the bodies of my girls. It was just so hard for me. And last year I decided to go and do it.

I wanted to find a skeleton, at least. But what I found was just unbelievable.

Clothing of sisters Clarisse and Raissa recovered from a grave in Rwanda and donated by their mother Immaculee Mukantaganira

Clothing of sisters Clarisse and Raissa recovered from a grave in Rwanda and donated by their mother Immaculee Mukantaganira to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie (Zbigniew Bzdak)

So I found the two girls, they were 5 and 3 when the genocide took them. So I was about to find their bodies, because I don’t want to say I only found bones. It’s their body; they were together. So I call them “body,” just to restore their dignity.

Why did you save these objects?

When I went to find the bodies of my girls, when they found them, that was the only thing that can tell me that was them. That’s why I’m sticking to them. So I recognized those, it’s just unbelievable. Everything is gone but their clothes.

So I took them, and I decided to keep them. Because that’s the only thing from (them) that I have. Today they (would) have grown to conquer the world and they would be married, and they would be surrounding me. They were just bright kids. Very bright. But God only knows.

Why is there genocide?

I always ask myself that question. Why? Why? Why was it a genocide in Rwanda? Why was it the Holocaust? What makes people so evil? You know, to kill their neighbor. Because in Rwanda, when husband kill the wives if they were Tutsi. What makes people so evil to do that?

I don’t have an answer for that, because I don’t know what was in people’s mind. But what I noticed myself is that when I was hiding, I heard someone saying: I am on my 943rd kill. And that sentence keeps, stays in my mind. And I’m thinking: What? I mean, how can someone say that so proudly?

And I realize, you know, genocide is planned. People don’t decide to do genocide overnight. And those (who) planned the genocide prepared to kill us. And they taught them to kill the enemies. And they tell: These are your enemies; you have a common enemy. And they would tell: Tutsi are your enemy. But we were not. We were neighbors. We are good neighbors. We are all friends.

But they prepared them. They mentally brainwashed them. I felt like in 1994, the majority of the Rwandan population was illiterate. They didn’t go to school. Some did not even do primary school, others did not do secondary school.

When you don’t have education, you don’t have the critical thinking to decide for yourself. And you just follow blindly. So the elite who has his personal interest is using all his power and doing all he can to brainwash people. So my thinking is that education is critical to the well-being of a nation, of the society, and it’s critical for peace.

How has this experience changed you?

The experience of the genocide has changed my life forever.

First of all, you don’t have your surrounding. So the loneliness and the care that you don’t have from those people — I had a family, very strong and very caring family. And we’re Christian people, and we had so many friends, and all of that was taken away in 100 days.

And so you find yourself in this world, and you’re trying to survive, but you don’t have the family that surrounded you — what is happening?

The women who were raped, I mean, it’s difficult. But it makes you more compassionate. I’ve become more compassionate.

If I see someone falling on the street, I don’t care if they say: Be careful, because you don’t know. I will jump and grab him.

That’s how I have become.

Written by Howard Reich/ Chicago Tribune.

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