Rwanda holds Damas Gisimba in high honor for saving over 400 people in the 1994 genocide. The man who displayed such unusual resilience and bravery at a time of the mass slaughter of Tutsis spoke to DW in Kigali.
At the Gisimba Memorial Center in the outskirts of Kigali, a group of boys play a game of basketball. Founded in the early 1980s by Peter and Dancilla Gisimba as a sanctuary for orphaned children, today it functions as an after-school center for disadvantaged children. But it is best known for its legacy as a sanctuary for Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.
When the mass killings began 25 years ago, brothers Elvis, Jean Francois and Damas Gisimba were running the orphanage which was founded by their late parents. Damas, in particular, is today regarded as a hero after he stood in the way of the militias who arrived at the center, intent on killing over 400 children and adults who had taken refuge at the center. He still clearly remembers what life was like during the days of the genocide and the difficulties he faced in keeping the killers out of the orphanage.
"The situation was pretty bad," he told DW. "There were cries everywhere; killings were taking place on a large scale. Every now and then the Interahamwe (a Hutu paramilitary organization) and soldiers would attack us, and I had to take them on."
Damas says the situation was made all the more difficult due to a lack of food, water, and electricity. But he had hope that everyone under his protection would survive and encouraged them to remain positive throughout the ordeal.
"You can imagine what it was like, especially for the toddlers who couldn't understand what was going on. Some children couldn't understand why they weren't with their parents, while others were traumatized after witnessing their parents being killed."
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A humble protector
Damas was later awarded the Presidential Order of Umurinzi — meaning protector — in recognition of his heroic actions. Although many Rwandans consider him a hero, Damas, who himself is from a mixed Hutu-Tutsi ethnicity, simply saw it as his mission to defend the most vulnerable at a time when they needed it most.
"I've heard people call me a hero because I did good things during the genocide," he says. "But personally I thank God for enabling me to do what I did. I didn't expect any rewards from anyone. Not at all. It was just selflessness and I thought that other people were doing the same. Unfortunately, it was just a few of us."
A different take on events
But his brother Jean Francois Gisimba — who was also caught up in the genocide and now lives in the German city of Cologne with his wife and four children — tells a different version of the events which unfolded. He doesn't think his brother's heroic actions alone were responsible for fending off the militias from the orphanage.
"Some three or four days before the start of the genocide the orphanage received a donation of food in a big container from the Red Cross, which helped a lot in bribing the killers," he told DW. "This kept them outside the building so that they didn't enter and see how many people were inside."
The center is no longer an orphanage, but Damas Gisimba still takes care of disadvantaged children as part of an after-school program
Indeed, Gisimba was a household name in Rwanda and a few killers had a change of heart when they discovered they had been drafted to kill the children at the center. Even so, Damas remains a hero in the eyes of his neighbors for protecting the lives of innocents. Could it be that Jean Francois's version of events has something to do with sibling rivalry?
"My brother played his role, as we all did," says Jean Francois. "I mean, you don't become a hero by doing exactly what you're supposed to do."
He believes Rwandans should also spare a thought for others who stayed behind to help during the genocide.
"Instead of talking about ourselves as the heroes, I think that we should think more about people like Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda during those dark times. He risked his life every day to bring food and water to the people."
Survivors never forget
Philbert Gakuba, who was studying in the German city of Kiel when the genocide began, lost members of his family. But he remains full of praise for people like the Gisimbas, who went the extra mile to protect Tutsis during the genocide. They not only took care of the children's basic needs, but also taught them to disregard ethnic labels — a powerful lesson which likely saved more lives.
"There are institutions and individual Hutus who saved the lives of Tutsis until the genocide was over," he told DW. "These people never harbored genocidal ideology. Instead, they chose to shelter Tutsis in their homes. They were ready to face the consequences. These people are heroes. We have to thank them. And we will always remember those who paid the price for this."
Although the orphanage is no more, the Gisimba Memorial Center will have a special place in the hearts of many for years to come.