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Humans of New York

New York City, one story at a time. Currently sharing stories from Rwanda 🇷🇼

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Violet Benson

“My father was a talented engineer. He could fix any type of truck, and he used his income to help the poor. Our neighbors’ school fees and hospital bills were always paid. My mother would bring needy people to our table, and order us to give them the best portions of meat. She’d explain that these people rarely had the chance to eat well. Both my parents were very religious. But they always taught us: ‘Humanity first. Everything else comes after.’ When the genocide began, they invited our Tutsi neighbors to hide in our house. There were seven of them. Some lived under the beds. Others lived in the cupboards. I was a teenager back then and my job was to change the waste buckets. It was a miserable existence, and it went on for months. But we prayed with them. We tried to give them hope. We told them that God was in control. At night we’d give them Muslim dress so they could go in the backyard and get fresh air. Our neighbors suspected us because our curtains were always closed. We never slept because we knew the penalty for hiding Tutsis was death. But all seven people in our house survived. Unfortunately my mother and father died a few years ago, so I must tell their story for them. Their names were Mukamunosi Adha and Gasano Juma. They saved seven lives. And they valued love and humanity more than anything.” (Kigali, Rwanda)

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(4/4) “I managed to escape that day, but things had grown desperate. In the end there were two thousand of us trying to survive. We’d begun to run out of food. The militia was losing on the battlefield and began to grow frustrated. Two days before our rescue, they came to the church for a final big attack. They were going in every room. They were finding everyone. Some of the mothers were lying on mattresses over their sons, trying to hide them. But it was no use. I’d managed to climb into the ceiling. I’d poked holes in the exterior wall so I could breathe. Through those holes I could see everything that was happening outside. They tied every boy up, two-by-two. They brought them to this exact spot and began to beat them. Their mothers were screaming and crying from inside the building. One group of boys was pulled to the center. These were my friends. We played soccer together. We studied together. Sebajura. Galindo. Muyoboke. Jean Bosco—he was a believer. They walked up to Jean Bosco and kicked him in the head. They told him: ‘We know you are a friend of Masengo. Tell us where he is.’ And Jean Bosco knew. He knew where I was. He’d seen me climb into the ceiling. But he didn’t say a word. So they beat him harder. They kept saying: ‘Tell us, tell us, tell us.’ But he kept silent. He kept silent until his last breath. And then they shot him. Jean Bosco died because of me. He died for me. Seventy-two young men died that day. The crowd screamed the entire time. But that night when I finally climbed down from the ceiling, everyone was silent. Nobody was saying a word.” (Kigali, Rwanda)

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(3/4) “One morning the killers brought a list of names, and gathered everyone together. They told us to sit on the floor. They stepped through the crowd and began reading out the names. My name was called out, but it was misspelled by one letter. They kept shouting ‘Marengo’ instead of ‘Masengo.’ But I knew it was me they were looking for. They told the crowd: ‘If you give up these people, we won’t come back to kill your sons and daughters.’ But nobody spoke. The killers were examining one person at a time. I sat with my head between my knees. Back then I had the face of a girl, so I tried to cover myself with fabric. Some of the killers were from my neighborhood. I knew that when they got around to me, I would be recognized. So I slipped out and ran toward a banana plantation. One of them spotted me and alerted the others. I jumped over a brick fence and dove into the tallest grasses I could find. Soon I heard footsteps. They were walking all around me. I remember one of them saying: ‘Cockroaches are so mysterious. How are they able to disappear?’ He got so frustrated that he hacked at a banana tree with his machete. The leaves fell on my legs. I was lying with my cheek on the dirt. I remember the exact time because my watch was next to my face. It was 12:22 PM. I remember thinking: ‘This is the time I’m going to die.” (Kigali, Rwanda)

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(2/4) “The conditions were tolerable at first. We were eating twice a day. We could take showers. But people kept pouring into the church compound. Eventually there were two thousand of us. All the young men began sleeping in the ceiling. Women and children slept on the floor. Beds were given to the elderly. All of the priests abandoned us except for one. His name was Celestin Hakizimana, and he stayed with us until the very end. Every day he’d put on his gown, and stand right here at the gate. When the killers arrived, he would tell them: ‘We only have innocents here. Go find the enemy on the battlefield.’ If they refused to leave, he would take them to the church office and bribe them with money. Once the killers tried to lure him from the compound by saying his father was dead, and that he was needed at the funeral. But he told them: ‘Please send my blessings.’ He wouldn’t abandon us. If any survivors knew the location of their family, Father Celestin would do his best to find them. He would put on his gown and drive out into the world. One night he came back bloodied and beaten. He had been stopped at a roadblock, laid down in the road, and kicked in the street. But the next day he put on his gown once more, and drove out into the world. He couldn’t always keep the killers out. Some days they’d come with lists of people to kill. And there was nothing he could do. He’d do his best to fool them by creating a registry of fake names. But then they would choose people randomly. They’d drag out twenty people at a time and bring them to their death. Nothing could be done.” (Kigali, Rwanda)

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(1/4) “When we heard the president had been killed, I ran into the street with my friends. We wanted to see what was happening. Immediately two men came running after us with guns. They were pointing at us and screaming: ‘You killed the president!’ All of us ran in different directions. I ducked into a neighbor’s house and climbed into the ceiling, but my shoes fell off and landed on the bed. The men discovered my shoes and they climbed into the ceiling after me. Luckily I squeezed into a place they could not fit. But when they finally left, the owner of the house told me I had to find another place. He told me that people were hiding at the church of St. Paul, and that I should go there. I left at 3 AM. I walked through the forest. I could hear gunfire and screaming in the dark. The church was less than a kilometer away but the journey took me two hours. When I finally arrived, I discovered hundreds of other survivors. We were housed in the building behind me. Every hour more people would arrive. Each time a newcomer came through the front door, we would rush to them for news. I learned that my brothers had been killed. They had run to a nearby church, but the pastor opened its doors to the killers. Another person told me that my mother had been killed. She’d taken refuge in a nuns’ compound. She was randomly chosen for death and shot in the head at 10 AM. She lived until 5 pm. But by the time I heard this, I couldn’t even cry. I was completely numb. I was just waiting to die myself.” (Kigali, Rwanda)

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(3/3) “The killers formed a search party the next morning. They gathered at the top of the hill. We could see them coming toward us, searching every house along the way, and pulling out more people to join the hunt. The mob was growing very big. I knew that the end was upon us. But the fighting was very intense that day. Rockets were flying over our head, and some of them began landing on the hill. One landed so close to the search party that they scattered in different directions. I pulled everyone out of the hiding place and moved them to the forest behind our house. Every night I’d wait until the streets were empty, and I’d bring them food. For two weeks it went on like this. I rationed what little we had. I lost all my weight because I was too scared to eat. My breasts completely disappeared. I didn’t even feel like a woman anymore. I’d nearly given up on life. Every morning I’d pray for the day to finish. And every night I’d pray for the morning to come. My husband wanted us to escape. The only reason we remained in Kigali was to feed those people. And after three weeks the capital finally fell. The Rwandan Patriotic Front was advancing, and the Hutu boarded busses to flee the city. Even the people who were hiding told me to abandon them. So I gave them each a final ration of food and escaped. But all of the people hiding on this property were rescued. And every single one of them is alive today.” (Kigali, Rwanda)

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(2/3) “It was too dangerous to hide the man in the house. So I brought him to this small room in the back, which we sometimes rented to tenants. I pushed him inside and locked the door. When I was opening our shop the next morning, another man came running to me for help. He was limping badly. He was out of breath and drenched in sweat. I recognized him as a prominent Tutsi businessman. ‘Save my life!’ he screamed. ‘They are chasing me!’ So I quickly pulled him to the back of the house and locked him in this same room. A few minutes later the killers arrived. They searched all over the main house, but never checked the back room. Over the next few days, six more people came looking for help. We hid them all. But my neighbors had been spying on us. They reported everything. And one night the killers showed up with guns. When they knocked on the door, my husband started shivering and couldn’t stand up. I told him: ‘You’re the man of the house. You must stand firm and face them.’ But he couldn’t move. So I went to the door myself. The killers were standing there with a list of the people hiding in our house. ‘Where are these cockroaches?’ they said. I tried to tell them that we had no cockroaches, but they pushed past me and started searching. They beat my husband until he was unable to speak. I offered them all the money we had, and only then did they stop. But they told us that they’d be coming back during the daylight for a house-to-house search.” (Kigali, Rwanda) at Kigali, Rwanda

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(1/3) “My husband and I were shopkeepers at the time of the genocide. We sold groceries on one side of the shop, and on the other side we had a bar. On the night the president’s plane was shot down, the place was full. Everyone was dancing and listening to music. We heard a large explosion but didn’t think anything of it. Everyone just went back to dancing. But the next morning people began shopping frantically. We were selling food in large quantities. When we were down to the last 100 kilograms of potatoes, I decided not to sell anymore. I could tell that danger was coming. Nobody came to the bar that night. The streets were empty and quiet. People were either planning violence, or they were hiding. Kigali was one of the first cities to be liberated during the genocide. So almost immediately there was fierce fighting throughout the city. The killers knew they had to murder as quickly as possible. They were herding groups of Tutsis onto bridges and shooting them all. My husband and I had a reputation for being friendly with Tutsis, so we were suspected of being traitors. Our neighbors began watching us closely. We feared for our lives. We had a lot of property, so we knew there was a big incentive to murder us. When the first Tutsis came to us looking for shelter, we turned them away. But one night I was walking near the house, and I heard a close friend calling to me from a tree. He was dying of hunger. It had been raining all day. I said to myself: ‘The property isn’t worth it,’ and I invited him inside. I didn’t even inform my husband.” (Kigali, Rwanda) at Kigali, Rwanda

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(4/4) “The journey to the border took nearly four hours. Our pace was very slow because there were so many kids in the group, and everyone was weak from hunger. We had to avoid the main roads. Thankfully I’d mapped out the route so I could find our path in the dark. All of us were frightened. Even if we heard an animal, everyone would jump. When we arrived at the border, I pointed the group toward Burundi and headed back to camp. I was confident that I’d avoided detection. Several days passed without incident. I even managed to run one more mission with a mother and child. But somehow news leaked out. And one night when I was returning from patrol, a Tutsi solider met me at the door of the barracks. He was out of breath. ‘You are already dead,’ he said. ‘They will torture you.’ I thought he was just being paranoid, but then I heard my name being called out on the radio. Orders were given to shoot me on sight. I left everything behind and began to run. I hopped over the fence. I didn’t stop running until I arrived at the border. The next time anyone saw me, I was on television bearing witness to the crimes I had seen.” (Kigali, Rwanda) at Kigali, Rwanda

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(3/4) “Our base was only twenty kilometers from the border with Burundi. After the first day of killings, I rode to the border on a bicycle-- just to study the route. I knew that I was taking a giant risk. But I was a religious person. I was a Christian before I was a soldier. So for me, killing innocent people was more of a risk than trying to help them escape. Many Tutsi families were part of my church community. I had prayed with them many times. So when one of them reached out for help, I could not refuse. They told me their neighbors had just been murdered. They feared they were next. So I told them to gather in one place and meet me at midnight. I snuck out of the camp. I told my roommate to tell everyone I was sick on the toilet. When I got to the meeting place, I was expecting to find one family, but there were twenty-three people waiting. Many of them were too scared to come out of the bush. They saw my uniform and thought I was leading them to their death. But the mother of the family gathered everyone together for prayer. She said: ‘Lord, we are frightened. But we are going to trust our brother in Christ to take us to safety.’” (Kigali, Rwanda) at Kigali, Rwanda

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(2/4) “There had always been permission to kill any Tutsis we discovered while on patrol. But on April 6th our instructions became very clear: every Tutsi was to be found and killed. It was even said over the radio. Our first official order was to drive to a nearby city and open fire on unarmed civilians. Most soldiers carried out the orders with glee. The hatred had sunk into their core. Let it be remembered that the killings were pursued with pride, passion, and determination. Soldiers fired indiscriminately at people walking down the road. I pretended to participate, but I didn’t pull the trigger. That night we returned to the camp and everyone swapped stories. They bragged about how many people they’d killed. It became a competition. Soldiers would radio from other bases, and say: ‘We’ve killed so many already. Why can’t you keep up?’ All of it was sickening. I couldn’t eat for weeks. But it was most traumatizing for the Tutsi soldiers in our army. My roommate was a Tutsi. He had to pretend like he was enjoying the murder of his friends and family. He had to laugh along with the others to save his own life. He could only remove his mask with me. And he was the only one that I trusted with my plan.” (Kigali, Rwanda) at Kigali, Rwanda

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(1/4) “When I was twelve years old, they undressed a Tutsi girl in front of my entire school. They wanted to see if her private parts were the same as other people. She kept trying to cover herself with her hands while they pulled out her hairs one by one. I can still hear the laughter. Even with all the violence that came later, that was the most traumatic moment of my life. It’s still the image I see when I’m trying to fall asleep. The genocide didn’t begin until many years later, when I was twenty-five years old. I was a soldier in the army. I could tell the atmosphere was growing more and more tense. Our commanders were openly using ethnic slurs. There was talk of ‘wiping our enemies from this country.’ One night I was assigned to guard four Tutsi prisoners. They’d been accused of making explosives but were clearly innocent civilians. They’d been tortured. Their wounds were rotten and stinking. A major came to the cell at 1AM and ordered me to step aside. ‘These people need to be killed immediately,’ he said. But I refused. I told him those were not my instructions. He pushed and screamed, but eventually he stormed off. The prisoners were released a few days later, but someone followed them out and killed them. It was a sign of things to come.” (Kigali, Rwanda) at Kigali, Rwanda

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