‘Without her, I don’t think I would have survived’: a Rwanda genocide survivor’s story
by Kellie BANCALARI
24 January 2023
Imagine in one night your neighbours become killers. They are armed with machetes and a twisted notion that you are a cockroach — you are no longer a human being in their eyes. You must be exterminated, along with your family. There are few places to hide. You’ve watched members of your family be killed in front of your eyes, and by some miracle, you have been allowed to live another day. Where do you go next? How do you survive? Who can you trust?
This is the situation Marie Chantal Uwamahoro found herself in when genocide broke out in Rwanda in April of 1994.
Chantal shared her story over Zoom as a part of a series of genocide commemoration events sponsored by the Ards and North Down Borough Council to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. The event was moderated by Peter Osborne, Chair of the Integrated Education Fund, and included remarks from Deputy Mayor Craig Blaney.
Blaney explained that the theme of this year’s Holocaust Commemoration events was “Ordinary People”. He explained that in genocides, “Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses and ordinary people were victims. In every genocide, those who were targeted faced limited choices, but in every genocide the perpetrators had choices. Ordinary people had choices.”
The 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi claimed an estimated 800,000 lives in just 100 days. The killings were often carried out in a very intimate way by neighbours who often used machetes to end their victims’ lives.
As explained by Chantal, identity cards were introduced in Rwanda by the Belgian government in 1933, which turned malleable class identities into solidified ethnic identities. The majority of the population was classified as Hutu (85%), with Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%) a minority.
Chantal grew up in a small village in Northern Rwanda where she was the only Tutsi in her primary school class. She explained that she was often singled out by the teacher and bullied by her Hutu classmates.
Physical violence against her father and brothers was also a frequent occurrence in her Hutu-majority town. Chantal’s father eventually died from injuries sustained by Hutu authorities. Before he died, Chantal’s father sent her to live in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, where her brothers lived among a larger population of Tutsi.
On 6 April 1994, the Hutu President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, was assassinated. This assassination ignited the 100 days of bloody killing against the Tutsi.
Chantal described the events saying, “I watched the neighbours who were living next to our home taking machetes and killing others. I was taken to the slaughtering place which they were using for the killing. I watched my own siblings, family, friends, and the people who I grew up with being killed. I waited for my turn.”
She went on to explain that on this day, the killers allowed her and other women to leave as they wanted to finish killing the men by 4.00pm. The militia told Chantal and the other women that they knew where they lived and that since there was nowhere to hide, they would come back the following day.
After knocking on doors to try and seek refuge in Hutu households, Chantal was turned away and threatened. She instead hid in the bushes, often sleeping among dead bodies without food or water to escape the Hutu militia groups.
On one occasion, a Hutu woman, who Chantal referred to as an “ordinary woman” hid her in her home providing her with food and water. This woman hid Chantal at great risk to her and her family’s own safety as “rescuers” were often targeted and killed for helping Tutsi escape executions.
“Without her, I don’t think I would have survived,” Chantal remarked.
After losing everything in the genocide, including four brothers and a sister, Chantal found out her mother was still alive, along with some of her nieces and nephews. In 1995, she emigrated to the United Kingdom where she now lives helping to raise awareness about the Rwanda genocide.