Irene Mbabazi’s story of survival during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is extraordinary: She was protected by the daughter of a man considered a top leader of the Interahamwe militia who executed the killings.
The man was also a prominent businessman with close ties to the genocidal government.
Ms Mbabazi, then 24, was nursing her firstborn, a nine-month old baby named Gabriel Ntukanyagwe, and was pregnant with her second — a girl who would be christened Gabriella Mugwaneza.
She was at home in Cyahafi, now Nyarugenge Sector in Nyarugenge district, having dinner with her husband Emile Zikuliza when the news broke out that then president Juvenal Habyarimana had been killed in a plane crash.
Immediately, word went around that Tutsis were going to be killed. The next day, April 7, the killings began.
Zikuliza was an active youth in the opposition party Liberal Party, whose members were targeted by the militias.
“When the killings started, I went into hiding with the baby at a neighbour’s house — a family friend named Christine Mutijima; but since my husband was a wanted man, he fled to the bushes otherwise he would have endangered us all,” recalls Ms Mbabazi.
“The Interahamwe militia combed the area, looking for him and other Tutsis. I could see them from where I was hiding. At one point, presidential guards shot a man at point blank range. I learnt that he had tipped them off about my husband’s whereabouts but they had failed to find him.”
A number of days later, a hungry and thirsty Zikuliza emerged from his hideout and returned home. He demanded to see his wife and baby, who were still in hiding.
Ms Mbabazi would eventually leave for her home with her baby, where she found her husband pale, emaciated. He was spitting blood.
“There were a few people with him. He asked for drinking water. I lay the baby down by his side and went out to the home of a neighbour — Mark Bitiriki — to look for water. I would later learn that one of the men I left in the house had told the militia of Zikuliza’s return,” recalls Ms Mbabazi.
From the accounts Mbabazi heard, the killers arrived at the house and asked for money. Her husband’s friend Vianney Twagirayezu gave them Rwf40,000 ($47 under current exchange rates) — a tidy sum at the time — but still they did not free Zikuliza, instead leading him away to his death.
Zikuliza and other Tutsis were taken to a mass grave a distance away, where the militias were killing and dumping people. Meanwhile, word of the Interahamwe’s presence at her home reached Ms Mbabazi.
“Having left my baby, I really wanted to go back because at this point I felt we should all die. I didn’t care at all. But my hosts held me back.
Instead they said Bitiriki’s daughter would try and pick the baby and bring him to me, if he was still alive,” said Ms Mbabazi.
Ms Mbabazi would learn that among the casualties were her father-in-law and some of Zikuliza’s siblings who lived in Gitarama, now Muhanga district in the Southern Province. Her family who were in Uganda at the time, escaped death. The baby too was spared.
By the end of April, the world had started to take note of the killings, raising concerns of a possible genocide taking place in Rwanda. The killers changed tack and became systematic. The hunt for Tutsis intensified. They were being killed in their thousands.
Ms Mbabazi was still in hiding at Mutijima’s home and had been reunited with her son. But as the killings intensified, Mutijima suggested that they relocate to her father’s house in Gakinjiro, in the central business district.
Mutijima’s father Augustin Bugilimfura was a close ally of President Habyarimana’s government. Many people sought refuge at his house.
The Tutsis were interrogated on whether they had any contact with “Inyenzi’,” a derogatory reference to Rwanda Patriotic Front Inkotanyi — that would eventually end the killings. Those found guilty of conspiring with RPF suffered the consequences.
“I went in the hind quarters and hid behind a wardrobe. Before I knew it, they had rounded up everyone who was seeking refuge there, including some who were hiding under the bed in the room I was in. They shot them right behind the house,” recounts Ms Mbabazi.
In the next few days, Mbabazi and her son hid in the dungeon of Mutijima’s father’s building, under bales of clothes.
When the RPF fighters advanced towards Kigali in July 1994, Mr Bugilimfura mobilised his household and other Hutus to flee towards DR Congo, carrying along surviving Tutsis as “human shields.” A large number of them were killed.
But somewhere in Gitarama, more than 50km from Kigali, the heavily pregnant Mbabazi, and her son, plus another Tutsi girl she identified as Chantal managed to break away from the Hutu captors, and traced their steps to areas under the control of RPF.
“RPF received us, gave us food and water plus a place to sleep while others continued to engage the last standing Interahamwe militia retreating towards south western Rwanda and later to the DRC,” she recalls.
Days later in early July 1994, after the killings had died down, the RPF forces transported Ms Mbabazi and others back to Kigali.
She would later secure a job with the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR). Weeks later, her daughter Gabriella was born.
Twenty four years later, Ms Mbabazi says the memories remain vivid. The last sight of her husband has never left her.
Zikuliza’s remains were later identified and given a decent burial at Cyahafi Genocide Memorial Site. Every year, Mbabazi, her children and Zikuliza’s surviving sisters join the rest of the country to commemorate their own killed in the genocide.
For millions of Rwandans, memories of the genocide remain etched on their minds more than two decades later, as seen during the night to remember held on April 7, at the Amahoro National Stadium.
Wails could be heard from the fully packed stadium honouring the over a million people killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Names of survivors were read out by young people, narrating the manner in which they were killed. 24 messages of hope, symbolic with the 24 years, were read out.
Assoumpta Numukobwa, one of the genocide survivors recalled how the killings unfolded in Butare Prefecture, now Huye district Southern Province, where she was a student at the National University of Rwanda.
Dodging death on many occasions, Numukobwa whose family was in Kigali, lost a brother but her parents who were in Kigali were rescued by RPF.
As Mbabazi and Numukobwa continue to deal with pain and trauma many years on, their biggest concern is people who attempt to discredit their stories of survival by rewriting, denying or trivialising the genocide.
This, according to Dr Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, the president of Ibuka, the umbrella association of genocide survivors, is something the government and the international community must deal with.
“The impact of the genocide has far reaching consequences and can affect many generations. Every time we see people rewriting, revising or trivialising what happened in Rwanda reminds us that such people would not mind seeing history repeat itself,” said the academician.