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Africa

Rwandan genocide survivor tells of three months in mortal fear

Rwanda is mourning the 800,000 victims of the genocide 20 years ago. The taxi driver Francois Kabagema recounts how he just barely survived the genocide by hiding in the library of the French embassy for weeks.

Francois Kabagema can hardly recognize his old neighborhood of Gikundo, which is located on one of Kigali's four hills. What was a steep dirt road back in 1994 has become a paved street lined by stately villas. At the top of the hill there are still a few undeveloped plots of land full of weeds as well as a vegetable garden. Kabagema wavers, as he searches his memory for the right way. Suddenly he stops in front of two trees, the tops of which have been sawed off. "This was my home. These are the trees I planted as a young boy. I had a small garden and a little house."

Kabagema's personal story of the horrifying events began on February 22, 1994, six weeks before the organized mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus.

François Kabagema is standing in front of the two trees he planted as a boy. Photo: Copyright: Anne Le Touzé, DW

Kabagema never received any compensation for his house, which was destroyed

For many months, the planners of the genocide had been inciting hostility toward the Tutsis. The notorious Radio des Mille Collines (RTLM) had been railing daily against Tutsis, referring to them as "inyenzi," or "cockroaches," and encouraging the Hutu majority to hunt them down.

After the murder of two high-ranking politicians, members of Hutu militias called Interahamwe roamed Kigali in search of Tutsis. They also came to the house in Gikundo, in which Kabagema lived alone at the time. "They attacked at night, shot up the house and hurled grenades. The house was destroyed, but I was lucky and managed to escape."

On the run

As a longtime employee of the French embassy, Francois Kabagema hoped for protection in the embassy's guest house. But a diplomat, whom he had told about the attack on his house, turned him down. "He said the guest house was for French people not for Tutsis," Kabagema recalls with bitterness in his voice.

A friend of his, an aid worker, took in the frightened refugee. He was still living with his friend when the genocide began on April 7. Day and night Francois Kabagema heard shots and screams. Behind his host's heavy iron gate he felt safe.

But only four days later, all foreigners were being evacuated from Kigali. French soldiers came to pick up his host. Kabagema hoped they would also take him along. But he was wrong again. "A soldier asked, 'What are you, Rwandan or French? Answer me or I'll shoot you!'" After Kabagema told him the truth, he was thrown out of the car. "Then they started the car and drove away," he said.

A sturdy gate protects the entrance to the French embassy. Photo: Anne Le Touzé,

The French embassy was located behind this gate in 1994

Kabagema stayed in the abandoned house for more than a month and lived off canned food. He didn't even dare to go into the garden. Only a hundred meters away was a checkpoint set up by government soldiers. In May, after an Interahamwe leader gave orders to 'cleanse' the neighborhood, Kabagema had to flee again. With the help of the janitor and a soldier, he managed to drive back to the French embassy.

A new start in Karambo

Francois Kabagema hid in the library of the abandoned embassy building. During the day he would stand behind the bookshelves so as not to be discovered. At night the janitor brought him food. On July 4 the rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front took the capital, Kigali. For Kabagema, living in constant fear was finally over. "Every second of every day during those three months I thought I would die," he exclaimed.

Like many Rwandans Francois Kabagema tried to focus on living his life again. "I concentrated on my work and on life with my family," he said. He built a house in the vibrant Karambo neighborhood. Today the father of three earns a living driving a taxi.

Francois Kabagema is talking to a neighbor in Karambo. Photo: Anne Le Touzé

Francois Kabagema and his family live in the Karambo neighborhood

Both Hutu and Tutsi families live in his neighborhood. But no one speaks about it, which is perfectly in line with the government's official reconciliation policy. Despite having tried, Francois Kabagema has not forgiven the people who murdered his relatives. He finds he can't do it. But he is no longer thinking about revenge either. "I realize that revenge will not help," Kabagema says. "When you kill the person who murdered your family, you'll become just like him - there's no difference."

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