Rwandan Visitors Tell A Sobering Story

Jana Brown
Gakuba, Mukunde provide firsthand accounts of Rwandan genocide

As Carine Gakuba speaks of the unspeakable weeks she spent hiding in a swamp, waiting for death to take her, praying for a miracle to save her - all the while fearing for the lives of her brother and sister, who huddled in fetal positions nearby - it almost sounds like she's relaying the experience of another human being. With a steady calm to her voice showing almost no emotion, she shares the most violent details of her family's extermination at the hands of the Hutu militia in Rwanda.

"Sometimes it feels like a dream, but further away," explains Gakuba, 22. "If I got taken away right after everything happened and had no interaction with other survivors, it may have seemed that I made it up in my mind. But sometimes I have a dream and it's so clear. After a while, I had no emotion when I started talking about it."

Gakuba was eight when she lost most of her family, including her parents and six of her seven siblings, in the Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of at least a million people in a three-month span in 1994. On April 8, 2008, two days after the 14th anniversary of the start of the genocide, Gakuba shared the story of her harrowing escape from Hutu militia trained to kill ethnic rival Tutsis such as Gakuba on sight.

"A friend of mine recently did a paper for a class," says Gakuba, now a junior majoring in political science and international relations at the University of New Hampshire. "When I read it, I had more emotion that I ever do when I tell the story. I realized it was a sad story."

Also at St. Paul's on April 8 was Gakuba's countryman, Gustave Mukunde, who was 11 when militia forces went on a killing spree that claimed the lives of his parents and two of his four siblings. In Mark Bell's Humanities III class, Mukunde relayed the story - in compellingly minute detail that read like a task list - of his survival in the same matter-of-fact tone as Gakuba.

"I couldn't believe it," says Mukunde, 25, noting that there has never been much of an opportunity to process the horror of 1994. "It took a long time to believe it. Survivors have the problem of not finding the bodies of their family members. It was 10 years before we found the body of my father and, until then, I always expected him to come walking down the road."

Both visitors spoke of their initial awareness as youngsters that they were considered different from their peers. In grade school, each said, their teachers conducted head counts of Hutu and Tutsi children, separating them by ethnic group and signaling to kindergartners that there was reason to be wary of those in the other camp. As a blissfully unaware five-year-old, Mukunde didn't know to which group he belonged so his teacher asked him to go speak with his mother, another instructor at the school.

"My mother wrote something on a piece of paper and told me to hand it to my teacher," he recalls in clear English, sharply accented by his African heritage. "There was a group of kids who played soccer together and, after they found out I was one of four Tutsi boys in the class, they said, 'We're not playing with you.'"

Adds Gakuba, "In first grade, I remember kids telling me, 'We're going to kill you one day.' Ever since I could remember, I knew I was a Tutsi, but even though I knew that, it did not really affect me until I learned about the fear that went along with that."

Difference is something Gakuba and Mukunde have grown up with - their lives clearly divided into two parts - a Before and an After. During the genocide, Gakuba was initially sent to hide with her 12-year-old brother and 15-year-old sister at the home of their grandmother, without belongings and unaccompanied by the other seven members of her immediate family.

"That was the last time I ever saw my entire family," she says, swiftly moving on to the next detail of her journey.

After spending several days with their grandmother, watching smoke from the attacking militia rise above the hills of the once peaceful countryside, Gakuba and her two siblings were swept up in a mass movement toward the city of Nyamata. Speaking at St. Paul's, she describes her own involvement in a Tutsi rebellion as she and other able-bodied children and women shuttled rocks from a nearby construction site to a group of men waiting to fight back against the heavily armed Hutu militia. From there, she and her siblings, and many others, sought refuge in the mosquito-laden swamps that coated the land, coming out at night to eat raw potatoes and other vegetables from the abandoned farmlands surrounding their daytime fortress.

"They started coming in teams with dogs and they killed whoever they found," she says. "We went past bodies every day and tried to find the least muddy water to drink. One day, they found my brother. He was bent over with his head down and I hoped they would shoot him instead of killing him with machetes. I heard four shots. We waited until they were gone and went to him. Half of his head was blown off…We took his jacket because we knew we might need it."

"At the time you don't process it," she adds later, trying to explain the methodical nature of her story. There is no time to react when it's happening. You just have to go on."

During her time in hiding, Gakuba's eighth birthday passed without recognition. She was ultimately saved when members of the RPF, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, called those in hiding out of the swamps. She had spent weeks under their damp shroud, waiting for the scales of her life to tip - would she die a child or grow into adulthood?

"We wondered if it was a trick, but we were tired and thought if we were going to die, it might as well be now," she says. "We walked for hours to Nyamata. The RPF army was there. We slept on a dirt soccer field. It was one of the best nights ever. We knew, 'It's done. It's over. We're not going to die.'"

Mukunde, meanwhile, spent those same months on the run, hiding in attics, his life dependent on the kindness of strangers - some of them Hutus - not knowing the fate of his family as he eventually took to the woods in the hope that he'd remain undiscovered by a militia which took no mercy on children. He would later learn that his parents were dead, his mother shot in front of the family's home, his father turned over to the militia by a Hutu friend and missing for 10 years before surviving family members finally laid him to rest in 2004.

Gakuba was taken in - and eventually adopted - by family friends, and returned to school within months of the genocide's conclusion. Her new family, including three younger sisters, moved to Nashua, N.H., in 2001. She joined them in 2004, attending public school in Nashua before moving on to UNH. She plans to pursue a master's in conflict resolution or peace studies.

Carine Gakuba shares her story for a few reasons: It's part of the healing process, it ensures that her family's history is recorded, and it lets people know that atrocities like Rwanda are real. She's active in making people aware of the current situation in Darfur, which holds eerie similarities to what happened in Rwanda. Surviving the genocide, she says, has changed the way she views everything in life.

"It's easy to see what's important and what's not," she explains. "You fear less and have optimism. I know my life can only get better from here. The last 14 years have been better than I could have imagined. It's the perfect tool for dealing with stress."

Mukunde went to college in Rwanda and is now a researcher for a group called African Rights, whose mission is to document the stories of genocide survivors. It was the 25-year-old Rwandan who guided SPS teacher Mark Bell around Rwanda last summer to help him document survivor stories to provide firsthand accounts of the genocide to his students at St. Paul's. Mukunde lives in Rwanda with his two surviving siblings in a non-traditional home - a living situation not uncommon to the broken families of Rwanda.

Both Gakuba and Mukunde speak eloquently of the struggle to move forward after the genocide, with no counseling in place. In Rwanda, they say, the playing field is a level one. Everyone lost their family. Nobody is special in that regard. Moving on is an expectation. It's only since coming to America that Gakuba has come to see herself as different, that genocide is not the norm - that for most people, losing a family pet to old age or a relative to illness is their closest connection with death.

"Here people talk about their families a lot," says Gakuba. "For us, it's not normal to have parents. Some things here make you face it. From the time I was three years old, it was normal - expected - to live in fear. You somehow felt that was what was supposed to happen. Now you have to reconsider your thinking. Sometimes it gets hard to talk about what happened. But when it serves a larger purpose, when it's a step toward action - inspiring someone else's life, it helps in so many ways."