Genocide in Rwanda: Hamilton survivor returns to bury dad

Hamilton's Chantal Mudahogora is returning to Rwanda this week to bury her father, whose body was found in December, a short walk away from the church hall where he was believed to have burned to death during the 1994 genocide.

Chantal Mudahogora learned last year her father wasn't in a mass grave following 1994 killings

Chantal Mudahogora, of Hamilton, speaks regularly about her experiences during the genocide against the Tutsis in her birth country of Rwanda. (Courtesy of Chantal Mudahogora)

Chantal Mudahogora thought she had buried her father 20 years ago.

Mudahogora, who now lives in Hamilton, believed he was among the thousands who died in Rwanda when the mobs came to her village and staged their days-long massacre, burning part of a church where many had taken refuge.

And for almost two decades, most of that time spent in Canada, she lived with a sense of certainty that his bones rested inside the mass grave that she and the other survivors dug when they returned home after months on the run.

But as Mudahogora learned late last year, she was mistaken.

Mudahogora is in Rwanda this week to bury her father, whose body was found in December, a short walk from the church hall where he was believed to have burned to death. She left Sunday, on the eve on the 20th anniversary of the genocide that killed more than 800,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority as well as thousands of Hutus who found themselves in the killers’ path.

Call brings the news

The news that dragged Mudahogora back to the horrors of 1994 arrived in a decidedly 2014 manner. It came in the form of a cryptic text message followed by an intercontinental call from her sister. Now a counsellor with the Alzheimer Society of Hamilton and Halton, Mudahogora was sitting in a car with co-workers at a Tim Hortons drive-thru when her iPhone rang.

Rwandans listen to speakers recount memories of the genocide after the arrival of a small flame of remembrance in Kigali on Saturday. On Monday, the country is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the genocide, when ethnic Hutu extremists killed an estimated 1,000,050 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. (Ben Curtis/AP Photo)

“I wondered, ‘Should take it? Should I take it? Should I take it?’ And I said ‘OK, you have to take it,’  Mudahogora recalls. “So I picked up the phone and she said, ‘Have you received my text?’ I said, ‘I did, but I don’t know what you are talking about.’

“And she goes, ‘Yeah, I was telling you that I just got back from Gahanga. And Dad has been found.’ ”

In a state of confusion and disbelief, she asked for clarification. Her sister said the remains of their father — teacher Raphael Butera, who they thought had burned to death inside a church hall in their home village — were found outdoors during umuganda, the morning of mandatory community service that able-bodied Rwandans countrywide perform on the last weekend of every month. Volunteers found what was left of his frame still sheathed in a shirt and pants, his arms tied back, odds and ends still in his pockets.

Mudahogora wasn’t prepared for the revelation, let alone the flood of emotion that followed.

“My poor colleagues — I was speaking in my mother tongue and they could not understand what I was saying,” she said. “They just see me wet with tears and I’m bawling.”

Origins of the genocide

Chantal Mudahogora and her siblings are survivors. Though they can take some solace in laying their father to rest once and for all, she doesn’t expect her family will ever have closure. Nothing will erase the horror of those 100 days.

At the beginning 1994, Rwanda was a country with 7.3 million inhabitants, 85 per cent of them belonging to the Hutu ethnic group. For years, virulent resentment had been growing among the Hutus against the Tutsis, a group that represented only about 15 per cent of the population but had been given a privileged role in society for the 46 years Rwanda was under Belgian colonial rule. After the central African nation gained its independence in 1962, the Tutsis were scapegoated for many of the economic and social ills that plagued the country.

A Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel walks by the site of the April 6, 1994, plane crash that killed President Juvenal Habyarimana, triggering the genocide. (Jean Marc Boujou/The Associated Press)

Years of inter-ethnic strife followed, including a civil war that started in 1990, when the Rwanda Patriot Front (RPF) rebel group invaded Rwanda, demanding that exiled Tutsis be allowed back into the country and granted political rights. The war came to a halt in August 1993, when the Hutu-led Rwandan government and the RPF signed the Arusha Accords, which included a peace deal and a power-sharing agreement.

The fragile détente didn’t last. On the night of April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Hours later, military officials and Hutu militias launched their campaign of terror against the Tutsis of Rwanda.

“People who were still outside — maybe they were late to come home from their offices, people who went to visit friends, people who were at the bar — by the time they came home, people started dying,” said Mudahogora, who lived in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, when the genocide began. 

“It was very well-planned. It happened so quickly.”

Narrow escape

In her late-20s at the time, Mudahogora worked for the Red Cross and had a two-year-old son. As a Tutsi, she knew her family wasn’t safe from the violence. For four days, they barricaded themselves inside their home. Mudahogora asked a Hutu neighbour, an old friend from high school, for a place to hide.

“She refused us. She said, ‘You go back in your house and just wait.’”

We were crawling down, we were hiding under bodies.—Chantal Mudahogora

So they did, until grenades crashed into their complex, forcing the family to flee. 

“We were crawling down, we were hiding under bodies,” said Mudahogora.

At one point, they faced what she felt was certain death at the hands of a machete-wielding mob. Suddenly, around a half-dozen RPF soldiers who had been stationed nearby charged to their location and “did what they could to save all who they could save.

“They started shooting in all directions. People were being killed and falling on us. And then the militia people ran away.”

For Mudahogora, the narrow escape ushered in three more months of running and hiding, a toddler in tow, living with the crippling fear that each passing hour could be her last.

“At some point, when we wandering and roaming, trying to find a place to hide, I saw these bodies lying down — and some were people I know, my neighbours, people I know — but the only feeling I had at the time was jealousy,” she said. “I felt jealous for them because I was thinking, ‘At least they’re not suffering, at least they’re done.’ Because I did not know what was waiting for me in the next minute.”

Emotional toll of burials 

In a sense, Mudahogora will be burying her father for a fourth time. 

The first came after the RPF declared victory over the old regime in July 1994. Mudahogora and other survivors returned to her hometown, located about 15 kilometres south of the capital. They embarked on the grim task of interring the roughly 5,000 Tutsis who died in Gahanga that April. 

Mike Nkuzumuwami stands by rows of human skulls and bones that form a memorial to those who died in the red brick church that is the scene of a massacre during the 1994 genocide, and which he helps to look after, in Nyarubuye, eastern Rwanda. (Ben Curtis/The Associated Press)

“When we came back from refugee camps, the bodies were all over the place,” Mudahogora said. “Vultures, crows and dogs, they had been digging bones away and limbs away. It was just a scene that is really difficult to describe even though it never goes away from my mind.”

She and her siblings found the body of their mother, Christine. Her skull bore bullet wounds, but she was still recognizable because of the clothes she had been wearing.

Their father’s bones, they reasoned, must have been scattered among those of the men and women who died in a church hall, after the mobs threw burning tires into the room to kill everyone inside. Mudahogora assumed his remains were among the ones the survivors had laid inside the mass grave.

In the coming months, the townspeople, she said, were forced to exhume and rebury their loved ones twice: once because of the original placement had been poor, they were told; and the second time, to line the new grave with a layer of concrete.

“We had thought we had done everything we could to pay respects.”

‘It doesn’t really go away’

Mudahogora, who regularly speaks at events about the genocide against the Tutsis, has visited Rwanda on several occasions since she moved to Canada in 1998.

That day I learned about my dad, everything that I had suppressed just to be able to function came back.—Chantal Mudahogora

Understandably, she expects her latest trip will be a “roller-coaster.” However, she said it’s a “privilege” to know her father’s final resting place and to have the opportunity to mourn in the company of friends and family.

But for anyone who went through the genocide, Mudahogora said, the work of healing is never over. Suppressing the trauma becomes a ritual act. Like the job of laying her father’s body to rest, the grief re-emerges periodically, often entirely out of the blue. 

“That day I learned about my dad, everything that I had suppressed just to be able to function came back. Vivid. In life. All the emotions. All of these sad emotions — anger, anything I felt in 1994 — came back alive.

“And I had thought I was OK. But it really doesn’t go away. It just sits there waiting for any trigger to come back and haunt you again.”


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