Scroll to Explore
Attachment A line styled icon from Orion Icon Library. Close A line styled icon from Orion Icon Library.

Pearls Beyond Perils: Surviving the Rwandan Genocide.

Claire Gasamagera

Creative Nonfiction

The Aftermath

On a bright and steamy Summer day, my Dad and stepmother took me to Nyanza hill searching for survivors. On top of Nyanza hill, the sun looked down on thousands of bodies remains of victims scattered on the top of Nyanza hill. Then it was July, the bodies remains had been on the ground since April and the rainy season aided in the decomposition. Thus, we were welcomed by a powerful bad smell.

That time, the decomposing bodies still had clothes, hats, and shoes. We could tell which bodies were women by the Kitenge fabric wrapping their remains and which bodies were children as some children remains still had their school uniforms. As we were moving around the site, birds and flies were moving around the bodies, feeding on the remains.

“Even animals cannot do this!” Dad said. My Dad was the Mayor of our city. He was a plumb 6’4 tall broad-shouldered man with a big chest whose deep voice conveyed a great command of authority. However, since the assassination of the President of Rwanda in April and the killing of innocent people, my Dad had shrunk and his voice lacked the assurance and the usual command of authority.

“Take my head wrap to cover your nose. My remains could be laying here too.” My stepmother told me sobbing while handing me the kitenge that wrapped her hair.

My stepmother was a 6’1 tall woman with a light skin and beaming smile. She was so beautiful that the women in my city used to rate their beauty comparing themselves to the “young and beautiful Mayor wife.” In fact, my Dad was 18 years older than my stepmother. She was the only woman I knew as my Mom.

“Our families, neighbors and friends lives were reduced to garbage.” My stepmother continued as we were touring the site. Desperate and inconsolable, my stepmother held her arms over her head and started running around the site. Her cries echoed on the top of the hill.

“The last time Theo run away from the refugees crowd we were sitting right here.” My stepmother said.

Theo is my middle sister, I am 2 years older than her. When my Mom passed away she was only 3 and I was 5.

My Dad remarried when I was 7. So, when my stepmother came in our house my young sister became attached to her.

By the time we fled the United Nations camp, my sister was clinging on my stepmother skirts as usual. Then Interahamwe and the Hutu militia walked us to Nyanza hill the city largest garbage collection center. When we got to Nyanza hill, my young sister was still clinging on my stepmother. She run away from the crowd as the militia started shooting and throwing grenades. Up to that moment we didn’t have her whereabouts and the high probabilities were that she might be one of the bodies remains scattered on the ground.

As an 11 year old girl, I was stunned by the silence at Nyanza Hill. There was no media. No news reporters. No family and friends to mourn my people. They were just left to rot on the ground. Normally my father would have spared me from seeing such horror, but at that point I had seen way worse. “Just in case you don’t see your sister again, remember that she is here among the dead.” He said. After those words we all broke into tears.

As a millennial kid, I grew up with a big screen in my house. We often watched movies in the 90’s and at every crime scene, there would be journalists and photographers with big cameras to cover the story. But for our people at Nyanza Hill, there was nothing. The crime scene seemed insignificant compared to the ones you see in the movies. During that time, the Soccer World Cup was happening. I couldn’t understand how the World kept spinning. How could people around the world sit in front of their televisions and watch soccer World Cup games? The World carried on as if nothing else was happening in my motherland.

The Rwandan Genocide.

I grew up playing with multinational neighbors kids without speaking the same language. For me, as an 11 years old child, I was enjoying the 1994 Spring break with my family in a protected, diverse and high class neighborhood. Majority of our neighbors were expatriates of different nationalities.

Even though I was a feeble and sickly child born with HIV I had a great childhood.

For instance, I had several aunts, uncles and cousins who all showered me with love and gave me special treatments even though I was the oldest child. Theodosia, one of my aunt had five children aged 10 to 2. Every Summer vacation we spent a week at their house and in Easter vacation my cousins spent a week in my house. I used to overhear aunt Theodosia telling my cousins: “Be gentle and kind with Claire. She is sick and weak.”

Thus, most of my cousins treated me like an egg except my cousin Meddy as she always tested boundaries. I did not know that I was getting all these special treatments because I was a child dying of AIDS.

April 4, 1994

As we were accustomed to, during the Easter vacation in April 1994 my cousins were spending a week at my house. On their third day, I had a fight with my cousin Meddy and I claimed that she had beaten me up and I lost a tooth. When my uncle Vincent learned that we were fighting he decided to pick up my cousins on April 4, 1994.

“I warned you Meddy! You should be gentle with Claire. She is sick and weak.” My uncle Vincent said.

My other cousins and my young sister teamed up and started crying: “We don’t want to go home. Punish Meddy and Claire and let us keep playing.”

“Tonton [uncle] I don’t want my cousins to go please, my tooth is just bleeding…I fell that’s why…it was not Meddy’s fault.” I pleaded with my uncle Vincent. However, my uncle had already made a decision to take my cousins back to their home.

He ordered my cousins to hop in his pick up truck and took them home crying. I hoped we would meet soon and reconcile. I always wonder if at least one of my cousins could have survived have they stayed at my house for the whole week. However, it’s hard to tell as one of the most politicized Genocide of the 20th Century followed by decades long wars in the Central East Africa region and all kind of human atrocities were about to unfold.

April 6, 1994

April 6, 1994 was a sunny normal promising day. In fact, the national TV had been broadcasting all day about the Arusha Peace agreement. Finally, President Habyarimana had signed a peace agreement with the Tutsi rebels [Rwandan Patriotic Front] in Arusha Tanzania. Per Arusha agreement the Tutsi rebels and other political parties in opposition were to cease fighting and share power with the extremist Hutu led government.

By the time we were getting ready to go to bed, we were in anticipation of a more stable country. My father as a Mayor of a district where the airport is situated, was one of the first people to receive a phone call: “President Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Ntaryamira of Burundi have been assassinated. On their way back from Arusha, unknown people shot their plane.” There was a big silence as we didn’t know what was going to happen. In the middle of the night, we began hearing guns shots. Our house was located in a valley between Rebero Hill where Tutsi rebels were stationed and Kanombe hill where the airport guarded by the extremist Hutu led government was situated. All nights they were shooting at each other. A heavy rain of gunshots was passing over my house. Through the window the dark night sky looked like there were fireworks. The national radio started broadcasting about the assassination of the Presidents. We were asked to stay home until further notice. The war had started as we slept in my father’s bedroom. Dad put mattresses on the windows to protect us from bullets and bombs. Dad didn’t sleep. How could he sleep? He listened to the radio all night long.

Thank you
for viewing!

Next artist up...

Rita Dickerson Our Children