As It Happens

Rwandan survivor in 'total shock' after arrest of alleged genocide bankroller

The arrest of the man accused of bankrolling Rwandan genocide was a long time coming, says survivor Theodora Umurorwa.

‘When I see him in court, I feel like something will change in me,’ Theodora Umurorwa says

The date of arrest and a red X are seen written on the face of Felicien Kabuga, one of the last key suspects in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, on a wanted poster at the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit office in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 19. (Simon Wolfhart/AFP/Getty Images)

Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.


The arrest of the man accused of bankrolling the Rwandan genocide was a long time coming, says survivor Theodora Umurorwa.

Félicien Kabuga, a Rwandan businessman, is accused of funding the weapons, militias and radio broadcasts that abetted the killing of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

After the genocide, Kabuga disappeared. Last week, French police arrested the 84-year-old in Paris, where he had been living under a false name in an apartment on the outskirts of the city. 

Umurorwa lost her husband and two young children in the genocide — one she says would not have been possible without Kabuga's money.

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What were your thoughts and your feelings when you learned that Felicien Kabuga had been arrested?

I couldn't believe it. So I had to double check. I went to the social media, I went to the news channels to confirm whether this was true.

When I realized that it was true, then I went through a period of shock.

It was total shock because after 26 years, we had actually given up the fact that this man will ever be caught.

And then slowly, I started speaking to my fellow Rwandan survivors. And we have a lot of mixed emotions. You know, some of it's just angry, really, [that] it's taken a long time for him to be arrested, and we don't understand why.

Can you give people an understanding of how important his role, how significant his role is said to have been in the genocide?

His role was very instrumental. This man was one of the top richest people in Rwanda, and he owned a lot of businesses. Some of it was import and exports of goods. And some of the goods he imported were machetes. And those machetes ... were kept in his depots and apparently those things are the ones they used to kill us.

They used … other weapons. They had everything you can think of, even guns, grenades. They used all those things on us. But the machetes were ... plentiful and it all was coming from his depots.

Theodora Umurorwa, front, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, is pictured here with her son Claude, left, and daughter Rachel. (Submitted by Theodora Umurorwa)

The other key role ... [is that] he was financing Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which was well established by the criminal tribunal as to have been key in motivating people through its propaganda to commit genocide. And so what role do you think he played in that? In getting that genocidal propaganda out?

We know that he was one of the biggest shareholders in that radio station.

It was broadcasting openly all day long, all night long, inciting the Hutus to kill Tutsis.

There were actually broadcasts to go and to kill Tutsis and even telling people that, "He's going down the street. Go and get him now." It was that specific, wasn't it?

Yes, exactly that. That's what was happening. And the name calling, [saying] the Tutsis are not human beings. "They're … snakes. They're cockroaches. Go kill the cockroaches. They shouldn't be living on the same streets as you."

And it didn't broadcast just for one day or two. It was just every day, seven days a week and all night long. And it wasn't for one year. It was more than two years broadcasting, just, you know, preparing for the killings.

We're talking about possibly as many as a million people killed in a period of about 100 days. The key militia was called the Interahamwe. And was it possible that without money, without financial backing, that it would be possible to have a massacre on that scale?

No, it would not have been.

There would have been killings, because killings didn't happen only in April 1994. 

[For] about two years there were silent killings occurring on the street. My street where I lived in 1993, they killed a single mother who was a Tutsi, and they killed her with machetes.

And then in 1993, one day my husband was coming from work and they just shot him.

They said, "So what? He's a Tutsi."

And we just took him to the hospital and he got operated on. They took out the bullets and that's it. No consequences.

All we ever wanted is justice.- Theodora Umurorwa, Rwandan genocide survivor 

Your own experience, and I'm loath to ask you about this, Theodora, but I know you ended up in a place called Nyanza, a place people went for refuge. And the story is well-documented about how people were killed there. How were you able to escape that massacre?

I didn't escape. I was left to death.

I had three young children, two of whom were under four years old, and then when we were taken to that place, they just threw grenades and machetes, bullets. They did everything they could to kill 4,000 Tutsis.

We were with the Belgian troops and then we were left by them to fend for ourselves.

So the army, the soldiers, the Interahamwe and other killing squads, they just led us to that mountain, Nyanza, and that's where they killed us. Of 4,000 people, not more than 250 people survived that.

When they left me to death, I lost consciousness. And the following day, when I gained consciousness, you know, I found myself surrounded by dead bodies. I couldn't walk. I couldn't stand.

I was just crawling and trying to call names of my family to see if anyone who survived … would respond to my calling.

And then suddenly I saw my son, my firstborn, who was 3 ½ at the time, and he came running to me.

And he said, "My dad is dead" and he fell on top of me. My daughter, so his young sister, [died as well]. 

We had the girl, the nanny, who was looking after them. She was with us as well. And she was Hutu, but she couldn't leave us. So she stayed in there and she sustained a lot of injuries, but she didn't die.

And so my youngest, my baby, who was under a year old, I was breastfeeding him and he died of dehydration.

Theodora Umurorwa's son Claude shortly after the Rwandan genocide. (Submitted by Theodora Umurorwa)

Theodora, I'm sorry. And you had your one child, though, who did survive, who's now 30 years old.

He survived, yes, my son. Yes. He is here with me in London.

He was just a baby when all this was happening. A young kid. What does it mean for him all these years later to know that somebody who financed what happened, the killing of the rest of his family, is now going to stand trial?

Justice that is delayed, is justice denied. That's what he said. For me, I think better late than never. So we don't agree on that. But, you know, he has his own feelings.

Over the years, he just learned to … move on with life, which I don't blame him. You know, he's a young man. And I can't hold him to this prison of emotion. So I go through all that. I let him live his life freely. That's how I raised him.

What will it mean for you when you see Mr. Kabuga, 84 years old, who's managed to evade the police for all these years, and he's now going to face justice?

For us, all we ever wanted is justice. 

When I see him in court, I feel like something will change in me. Because, at last. At last, you know?

It brings out a lot of anger, sadness that I feel like we've been neglected, survivors. We were neglected, you know, during the genocide. We are still neglected for 26 years.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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