Saturday, 25 June 2011

Rwanda – Strengthening Society Through Genocide Education

On Thursday 16 June, the Aegis Trust hosted an event in London entitled “Rwanda – Strengthening Society Through Genocide Education”.  The purpose of the event was to celebrate 25 years of the Gisimba Memorial Centre Kigali, Rwanda and to share the incredible story of what happened at the orphanage during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  

Aegis Trust founder James Smith facilitated the proceedings and was joined by Freddy Mutanguha (Director, Kigali Memorial Centre), Jean-Francois Gisimba (former Rwandan journalist and family member, Gisimba Memorial Association), and Carl Wilkens (American aid worker and witness to the genocide).

Carl Wilkens, Jean-Francois Gisimba, Freddy Mutanguha and James Smith

The evening began with Freddy Mutanguha sharing his story about the history of Rwanda and how the labels of Tutsi, Hutu and Twa were formalised and enforced by the Belgian colonialists.  He explained how the Tutsi were elevated by the colonialists above the Hutu and that the Tutsi monarchy was allowed to continue.  The king died in 1959 and the Hutus rose up against against the Tutsi monarchy.  Massacres of Tutsis began around that time and a Hutu government took over from the Belgian colonialists with independence in 1962.  In what was an incredibly powerful statement, Freddy Mutanguha stated simply that genocide was a failure of humanity.

Jean-Francois Gisimba and Carl Wilkens then told us about the incredible story of the Gisimba Orphanage and how they hid between 600 and 1,000 people during the Rwandan genocide.  The people at the orphanage were in clear and immediate danger of being murdered by Interahamwe militia when Carl used his influence and status as a foreign national to get the prime minister to save their lives.  The staff, children and hidden adults were escorted to San Michele church on 2 July 1994 by government forces and their lives were spared.

This was an incredibly emotional and touching talk and you can learn more about this incredible story at Defying Genocide.  Carl and Jean-Francois had not seen each other in the 17 years since the genocide and only met up in London recently.  What struck me the most is that Carl Wilkens still struggles today with the decision he made to leave the orphanage to try and get them help.  He stills struggles with the fact that he promised them he would return, knowing that they could well have all perished.

What I really wanted to capture from the evening was what the three guests had to share about the future and the topic for the evening, Strengthening Society Through Genocide Prevention.  I made the decision to transcribe what was said because I found each of the men to be really inspirational and wanted to try and capture that.

Carl Wilkens, Jean-Francois Gisimba, Freddy Mutanguha and James Smith

Freddy Mutanguha (Director, Kigali Memorial Centre)

On the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

We have 250,000 victims of genocide lying in mass graves.  It’s our place, it’s a home for many people; provided by Aegis Trust who contributed to run Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre helping the government and survivors to have a place of memory.  But there is more than memory of genocide, there is more than to talk about the past.  What about the future? The future of our country, the future of our children, the future of my two daughters (Now, I hope I will get one today).  What about the future? 

As I said, the genocide happened but many people, normal population, have been involved.  Neighbours / neighbours, people against their children, people who were against their family.  You cannot imagine how someone can kill his children because he think that the mother of his children is a Tutsi, or the mother can take decision to kill her children because her husband is a Tutsi. 

You cannot imagine this, there is a problem of trust between the children of perpetrators and the children of the survivors.  What we do as Aegis: we feel that we cannot stop by talking about the past.  We need to unite these children, they have to look forwards, to be the hope of the country.  They need to be responsible for the future and social cohesion is very, very important. 

That is how we thought about having an education programme.  How can we build from our past to build our future?  We started two years ago an educational programme at the centre.  First of all we had six students, three times a week coming to the centre.  It is a small number of children but they are very innocent, children.  The want to learn, they want  to listen to the stories but what they get from home is a disaster.  First of all we had the problem with what kind of message we can give to children, the same message which can be appreciated by children of the perpetrators and children of the survivors.  It is very difficult and very challenging to have these children, this message but we managed it. 

We feel that during genocide, people didn't think critically of what they are doing.  The mayor says you have to kill your neighbour and your neighbour’s a snake, is a cockroach and you believe him.  We, as humankind, we have a problem of not thinking critically.  Two months ago we were talking about the education programme at the centre, and I asked my wife, “Why do you like to use Omo [washing powder]", why do you like it?”  She didn’t know, she says, “nice soap”.  We use it but we don’t think about it.  We don’t think critically about why we like Omo and everybody likes it. 

So, why someone come to me and say I have to kill this one.  The children need to be taught to think critically.  This is part of our lesson we give to children.  They need to learn to be responsible, they need to think exactly what they are going to do but they need to make the right choice.  That is the future we’d like at this time.

Carl Wilkins (American aid worker and witness to the genocide)

In answer to the question: “What are we to learn from all of this if we are to prevent these sorts of atrocities from happening"?”

Any kind of crisis or things like this, it challenges us to re-evaluate who we are, what we’re about, what drives us, why are we even here? And I think that with the genocide that for us, Teresa and I, very much it has challenged us and it has changed our lives.  I travel now, speaking at schools and the two things I’m passionate about if you talk about education and you talk about re-examining our values and why we’re even on this planet, two tools that I hope to share with you tonight is the power of stories and the power of service. 

The day that they were moved [to San Michele church], they didn’t let them to bring anything with them.  I got to the church and they didn’t have blankets, they didn’t have cooking pots, anything.  And it was cold at night, we didn’t know how long the genocide was going to go on, we would have to feed the kids.  I asked the colonel for permission (thanked him profusely for moving the kids), “can I go collect the kids stuff, will you write me a letter authorising it?”  He did, I went back, it was empty, a lot of gunfire on the left.  I went around to the right, as I came round behind the orphanage: face to face with the militia leader and about twelve of his guys.  The same guys that were there to murder everybody a couple of days earlier. 

They were surprised to see me, I was terrified to see them. 

And then I remembered that letter.  I pulled the letter out of my pocket and I handed it to him, he read it and he said, “of course!  Your orphans need their things” and that was a shock.  And he turns around and he says to his guys (who actually, they’re looting the orphanage, they had the orphans’ stuff in their hands already), he says to them, “help the guy load his truck”. 

I go walking in the first dormitory with this new volunteer crew behind of me, “guys, would you put blankets on the floor, put stuff in the blankets, tie the corners”.  They help me, my truck is way too small, they help me find a bigger truck, the big truck has low sides.  I said, “listen”, to one of them, “would you take this table with me, we’ll stand the tables on end on each side, build the sides of the truck high so we can put stuff in”.  And as they’re lifting the table (they’re on one end, I’m on another end) they start to give their own ideas of how we could get more on the truck. 

They start showing initiative and it was finally when I was writing down these stories (that you can see on the table behind you there*) that it came to me: when we engage our mind and our muscles in acts of service, it changes the way we think.  It changes the way we think about ourselves, it changes the way we think about others.  This shift in our thinking from me-thinking to we-thinking, I think is hugely impacted by stories and service. 

Stories stick with us.  Stories connect us, stories are bridge builders.  And stories change the way we think, potentially and that changes the way we feel and that changes the way we act, which is where the service comes in.  So as you take off this evening, there is very many concrete things with Aegis and the work that they’re doing that you can partner with them but even more than Aegis is just our way of thinking, our way of living – are we into a me-focused living or a we-focused living. 

Everybody wants to be a we-person but don’t know how.  But it’s not complicated.  It is about learning the stories of the people who are different to us and after we learn the stories, we’re getting involved in acts of service.  And so for me, that’s education, it is stories and service.

* Carl Wilkens has written the book I’m Not Leaving and runs the organisation World Outside My Shoes.

Jean-Francois Gisimba (Gisimba Memorial Association)

On how they got from the orphanage to San Michele Church

That day, before Carl Wilkens left the orphanage, a group of seven or eight soldiers, gendarmerie, were sent to the orphanage and some of them spent the night there at the orphanage. Then, the following morning, they left.  What I saw is that, because I want to go into details but we don’t have much time, but what happened is that there was a first attempt to evacuate us from the orphanage - the United Nations soldiers came to the orphanage two or three times. 

But there is a soldier who came to the orphanage (I’m sorry to say that the person asked me not to mention his name; he is living in Europe and I went to thank him for what he did).  He came to the orphanage, he was a high ranked officer in the army.  He came to the orphanage with his three bodyguards and many militia in the army followed him.  Among them, one of the big killers in Nyamirambo and Kigali, Kiginye, I think you’ve heard about his name, he killed thousands of people and he killed also many people at the orphanage.

When he [the unnamed hero] came to the orphanage, he found me there and I just told him, “please, please don’t go inside the orphanage”, because then they will follow him inside the orphanage and know who is exactly inside.  And I was surprised to see that he just stopped.  And then these militia took a piece of map, I don’t know where they found it, and started telling him “this is the map we found with the cockroach, we found here at the orphanage, and this is the map of where the Hutu lives”.  Many lies.

With my 24 years, I could not see this was just… I said that we are willing to die but not in this way.  There is nothing like that.  Then the guy just [makes gesture of stamping on his toes, to give him a signal], he looked me in my eyes and he kicked me on my feet and I could see that this guy is not a killer.  I got the message and he told me “shut up!”.  I understood that he just wanted to show them that he is hard with me but at the same time I had got the message that this is not a killer. 

Then, he told them, “I did not ask you anything, I am asking this guy, you just get out”.  So they took some five steps and then he asks me, “young man, I’m with you.  Just be quiet, tell me exactly, but not loud.  Tell me exactly is happening here”.  I said, “we have hundreds of people here.  They’re in the roof, in the toilets, under the beds of kids but we are dying here.  This is what is happening”.  He said “okay” and then he started saying, “You! Cockroach!”, just like he is telling them  he is going to kill us.

The he told them, “you just leave these people under me.  We’ll find a solution for them.  But don’t come here and he who comes here before me, because I’m responsible now, he’ll have problems with me”.  So he was giving different messages and then he left.

So he tried another day and he did not succeed but then the day he took us, we just saw him coming at the orphanage with his twelve bodyguards.  Everyone with two or three guns.  Himself, he was having two guns, a Kalashnikov and one pistol.  He was no longer the soldier I saw coming, he was looking like a lion.  He was another person that day.

So he just came, he ordered another person, “we are taking everyone from here”.  So I thought, the guys going to kill us.  So he said, “I’m taking everyone, out!”.  So he gave me the guy who was the big killer to take him to the wards where the women were, hundreds of them, like 300 or 400, to tell him to take them out.  So what I did, I told that guy, “look, you’ve been given a chance to show that you are not bad, you are not going to kill people.  Just take them out and don’t touch anyone, then you’ll be making your name”. 

Then I came out to the soldiers, to the high ranked officer, I took him by the hand.  We went to the other side of the orphanage where there was a room that was before used as a dispensary.  There was five persons there who were somehow in danger more than others.  We were all in danger but these were more in danger.  One of them is a judge in the high court in Rwanda, Pio and his family.  He had been, in fact even before the genocide even started, he was in danger. 

At that time, many people were coming from the roof, it was chaos at the orphanage, from everyone running.  In fact, they had left buses 200 – 300 metres from the orphanage because bombs were landing just in front of the orphanage and the frontline was just in 300 metres.  Bombs, bullets were just like….

So I took the hand of the solider and we made the walk of about 100 metres to the room where these people were, six or seven of them.  And I told him “man, we are going maybe to die but these people are in your hands.  It will be a case between you and you God”.  Because we were two of us.  At the door, to give myself a kind of strength, I shouted “you open, you stupid!”  They opened the door and the person who opened the door fell down immediately.  That was the person who became a judge.  And this soldier said, “hey, Pio, you are still alive”, and he took him and he said, “man, you are not going to die, I am here today”. 

And so, when the militia saw this man, his wife, his sister-in-law, the wife of another high ranked person of the RPF, they just put their guns down and said “it is not possible, we did not do anything! How come these people are alive!”  So, the soldier told his bodyguards, “you just arm your guns.  He who tries to block us, you just shoot”.   He just give the order. 

And that’s why I always say, if all the soldiers could act like him, the genocide could not have happened. 

So, we were surrounded by his bodyguards, he took us.  No bomb came in those ten minutes.  He packed all of us, more than 600, in five buses and he took two soldiers for every bus and he went in his car with two or three body guards.  So we went in front, finding the roadblocks, when the militia started saying, “eh!”, it was very strange to see hundreds of Tutsis, in June! Anyway, even the Hutus we were all looking like Tutsi because of three months without eating.

Whenever we arrived at a roadblock he would just tell them, “you open, or we fire!” so they would just open and that’s how we went up to the San Michele and then they told us to go underground and sleep there.  And he came to me because my brother was not there during that week, he never came back.  I don’t know how what happened between but him and Carl Wilkens came to the San Michele and we found him there.  So the soldier came to me to tell me, “now I have done what I could.  I have also to save my life” and he disappeared.

I went to thank him in Europe in 2005.

It was an incredible evening and I could have easily sat listening to them speak for several more hours.  Freddy Mutanguha spoke about the need for critical thinking and responsibility, Carl Wilkens relayed his beliefs about stories and service, and Jean-Francois Gisimba’s told us about the difference one person can make and how if more people had acted like him, that could have prevented a genocide.

Despite everything that they went through in setting up the orphanage and in surviving the genocide, the Gisimba Memorial Centre Kigali, Rwanda is still struggling to put food on children’s plates. 

Please consider supporting the orphanage:



  1. Extraordinary testimony. I'm very disappointed I wasn't able to attend.

    Tomorrow the Dutch Appeal Court announces its decision on the appeal by Hasan Nuhanovic and the Mustafic family against The Hague District Court decision that the Netherlands wasn’t responsible for failing to protect their relatives when Dutchbat ordered them to leave the base at Potocari and handed them over to Mladic for execution. The District Court decided that effective command and control of Dutchbat had passed from the Dutch to the UN. Hasan Nuhanovic and the Mustafics maintain that the Dutch were sidestepping the UN chain of command.

  2. Hi Owen. Is that the type of event you would attend? Perhaps we could meet up one day at one. The next event I was thinking of attending was the trafficking film at the Frontline Club on Monday.

    I've seen that news on the Dutchbats. I am a bit confused as I thought this ruling would have come a lot earlier but it is so important. Unfortunately, I have little time at the moment to update - perhaps on Saturday.

  3. bravo jean François, que Dieu garde vous protège,je suis trop touché par ton témoignage inédite, y'a pas besoin d'assister cette scène atroce que vous avez traversez, je salut également le courage et le sans froid de cet officier qui n’hésite pas vous vous soutenir malgré les moments difficiles qu'on traversaient pendant cette période etc..... est ce que est il possible de rencontrer les jeunes et les faire partager de votre expérience ?

  4. Thank you for your comment, Anonymous.

    This is it translated, very roughly:

    Bravo Jean Francois, whom God preserve protects you, I too am touched by your testimony novel, there's no need to attend this atrocious scene you go through, I also salvation without the courage and the cold of this officer that n 'not hesitate to support you in spite of the difficult times we passed through during that time ..... etc. is that is it possible to meet young people and share your experience?


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