[Extract] Witnessing: From the Rwandan tragedy to healing in South Africa

As a fourteen-year-old boy in Rwanda, Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase survived war atrocities, but he had to leave home if he wanted to stay safe. In Witnessing, Pie-Pacifique recounts his colourful childhood in Kigali and his harrowing experiences of the genocide. For his safety and future, he prepares to flee to Canada, but ends up in South Africa after being scammed and losing all his money. In this emotional but rewarding journey of self-discovery, readers witness Pie-Pacifique confront the depth of his traumatic past and reach for his dreams.

An extract from the book has been republished below with permission from the publishers.

CHAPTER 2: Rumblings of war

While I had my head in my books, everything in the country changed. We heard on the news that Inyenzi had invaded Rwanda. Inyenzi means cockroaches – that’s what the government called the rebels that attacked the country on October 1, 1990. 

Word was that the invasion had occurred through Kagitumba, the border post between Rwanda and Uganda, where the Rwandan Patriotic Front, known as RPF-Inkotanyi or just Inkotanyi rebels were said to be based. Adults were agitated. Giraneza had his FM receiver on all the time. He read newspapers, and instructed me to read them too. Radio Rwanda reported that the president had cut short an official visit to the US, returning to command the national defence against the rebels. Then, adults spoke of hearing gunshots at night around the mosque in Nyamirambo, a suburb near the centre of Kigali. 


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While everything was still so chaotic, news filtered through that the leader of the Inyenzi, Fred Rwigema, had been killed. That night, the city of Kigali was jubilant. My mother, who had been fearful since the news of the invasion had surfaced, instructed all of us to stay home. But that evening, I managed to sneak out and followed the sound of singing. There were shirtless men, sweaty from dancing, some men carrying coffins to ‘bury’ Rwigema, women crying with joy; the massive crowd filled the breadth of the tarred main road joining the neighbourhood of Nyabugogo to the city centre. I returned home late, knowing that my disobedience would have angered my mother. When I arrived, she was ready for me with a dry stick, and she let me have it! 

‘How many times do I have to explain to you that going out now is dangerous?’ she hissed, emphasising certain words with an accompanying lash. 

The following few days were terrifying: it was rumoured that the Inyenzi had infiltrated Kigali. First, gunshots in the city and near the main mosque in Nyamirambo, then Deogracias and Ruben, who lived in our backyard annexe, went missing. Deogracias had been our umuboyi, and my father had met Ruben in prison in the mid-eighties. After my father’s release, he followed up Ruben’s case, as he had promised him when they were inmates. Ruben was eventually released. Shortly before my father died, he had helped both young men to get jobs at his employers’ textile factory. My mother frantically paced up and down, and made calls from our fixed line, trying to locate them. She was afraid that they were among the many people being held in the stadium at Nyamirambo, on suspicion of being accomplices of the Inyenzi

A few days later, Deogracias and Ruben returned home. With hundreds of others, they had indeed been held on the stadium football pitch, closely watched by army officers. They told horror stories of people being beaten. They were scared, hungry and dirty. Both had no shoes. At the chaotic feeding station, they had used them to collect porridge or water – the only things provided to sustain them. 

They told us they had been stopped by the Rwandan security forces and told to produce their identity cards, which showed that they were Tutsi – reason enough for them to be detained at the stadium. It was the first time I heard that Deogracias and Ruben were Tutsis, not Hutus. Soon after that, these words were hard to escape. 

I knew they represented two of the three tribes of Rwanda, the other, a minority, being the indigenous Twa – often called pygmies. We would later learn in history at school that Hutus comprised more than 80 per cent of the population, and Tutsis 15 to 20 per cent, and that both groups had their origins outside Rwanda. Hutus, who traditionally worked the land, had come from the region of the current Chad in search of fertile land, while Tutsis, who were cattle owners, originated from the regions along the Nile, most likely Ethiopia. Over hundreds of years, the three ethnic groups had cohabitated, evolved a complex spoken language, and shared cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. 

We also learnt about how Rwanda’s territory expanded under a leader named Gihanga. Since, successive Rwandan monarchs conquered neighbouring communities, it reached into the south of what is now Uganda, and into the eastern part of the current Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was enthralled by the story of the thriving, well-organised kingdom with leaders ruling different territories on behalf of the monarch. But after the Inkotanyi invasion, as the war spread and political tensions increased, the narrative changed; I was too young to understand the tragic consequences. Now it was no longer about the kingdom’s efficiency, instead, the focus was on its oppressive practices. We were told that the monarch had to be from pure Tutsi lineage and that the Tutsis had made Hutus their slaves. 

When we covered the colonial period in history, we learnt that Rwanda had been reduced to its current size and become a German territory when, in 1895, fourteen European nations divided up resources in colonial Africa. With the demarcation of its boundaries, many Kinyarwanda speakers found themselves no longer in Rwanda but in Uganda and the Congo. Nearly three decades later, after Germany’s defeat in World War I, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo became Belgian colonies, and in 1922, Rwanda and Burundi were combined to form an administrative territory named Ruanda-Urundi. 

As the war escalated, the slant was that when Ruanda-Urundi was governed by the Belgians, they had favoured Tutsi children and educated them to be future leaders, that the colonial powers had insisted an individual’s ethnic group should appear on his or her identity documents, and that some Belgian scholars had even asserted that Tutsis had a natural superiority to Hutus. 

The rise of the Hutus was, to some extent, enabled by the missionaries, who established their own schools where there was no discrimination, and the schools produced the first generation of seminarians that became the new Hutu elite. They claimed that the natural superiority of Tutsis was a fallacy, and that since Hutus were the majority, they ought to be given control in a democratic system. This movement culminated in the 1959 Hutu Revolution: the monarch fled the country and violence against the ruling Tutsis began, driving many into exile in neighbouring countries. 

After gaining independence in 1962, a Hutu leader, Grégoire Kayibanda, was elected but a north-south conflict developed between Hutus, with those in the north accusing the southerners of concentrating power. A coup d’état in 1973, led by Major General Juvénal Habyarimana, assisted by, among others, Col. Alexis Kanyarengwe, saw Kayibanda imprisoned. He died in detention in 1976. 

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Uganda, many (mostly Tutsi) Rwandan refugees being subjected to increasingly oppressive treatment joined Yoweri Museveni’s resistance army and acquired significant military power when they helped him take over the country in the mid-eighties. In 1987, these soldiers formed the RPF and tried to negotiate a return to Rwanda, but Habyarimana claimed the country was overpopulated and refused them entry. Rwigema, who had become the deputy minister of defence in the government established by Museveni, led the first RPF-Inkotanyi rebel invasion of Rwanda and was apparently killed by the government’s army – resulting in those celebrations in Kigali. 

Now, while Habyarimana’s army was fighting an invasion, his one-party state was also being challenged with the formation of new political parties. Before, every Rwandan citizen was automatically a member of the sole political party, the Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement (MRND). Habyarimana’s regime was said to be Hutu, and my parents’ identity documents said they were Hutus . . . So why was my mother terrified? Why did our family need to be afraid? And what did all this have to do with my father? 

My mother’s answer was as complicated as was the world of conflict I was growing up in. Following the 1973 coup, Col. Kanyarengwe became minister of the interior in Habyarimana’s newly formed government and he was the cabinet minister to whom all 145 bourgmestres were accountable. Even though they were all presidential appointees, Kanyarengwe, a native of the Commune of Gatonde, was apparently behind my father’s appointment to lead the commune in 1976, and they became friends. 

It was this political connection that placed my father at odds with the Hutu government when Col. Kanyarengwe was suspected of plotting a coup. In his absence, the government swooped on some of his friends and collaborators. They were indiscriminately arrested, some were tortured, and they were tried by the National Security Court in Ruhengeri. Even though my father was eventually acquitted, after his final release in 1986, he never got another government job, despite many applications. 

Although the RPF-Inkotanyi was said to be a Tutsi group, their political head was Col. Kanyarengwe, apparently a Hutu. Inside Rwanda, anyone known to be associated with him, whether Hutu or Tutsi, was automatically considered an Inkotanyi member, supporter or sympathiser. And so, in the context of the October 1990 invasion, our family found itself involuntarily, by association, on the Inkotanyi side of the fence. At just ten years old, I found this complexity too overwhelming to grasp, especially alongside the Hutu vs Tutsi rhetoric we were exposed to. The media, sometimes through cartoon-like illustrations, portrayed the RFP-Inkotanyi in various demeaning ways: as cockroaches, or thin, dark-faced creatures with tails and large ears. How could these funny, helpless creatures have any chance of success against the mighty Rwandan Army, with its elite fighters known as commandos and Garde Présidentielle?