The Current

After escaping Rwanda's genocide, this woman confronted the neighbour who handed her over to would-be killers

Twenty-five years ago in Rwanda, close to a million Tutsi Rwandans were massacred in 100 days. We speak to a woman who survived that genocide and has settled in Canada.

Odile Sanabaso was 9 years old when the killing started

Odile Sanabaso survived the Rwandan genocide and now lives in Montreal. (Submitted by Odile Sanabaso)
Listen27:07

Warning: This story contains descriptions and images of extreme violence.

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When Odile Sanabaso's mother and siblings left their Rwandan home to escape the impending violence in 1994, she insisted on staying with her father.

But despite seeing their fear, she recalled that when her mother left for the countryside, "I was … that little girl who's very close to Daddy, so I refused to go with them."

Sanabaso was nine years old at the time, living in the town of Nyanza. In the weeks that followed, the violence that became known as the Rwandan genocide erupted, when extremists within the majority Hutu ethnic group attacked the Tutsi minority.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people, mostly Tutsi Rwandans, were massacred over 100 days.

When the killings started, Sanabaso was away from her father, running an errand. Unable to get back to him, she spent days hiding in the bushes, close enough to hear people being shot and hacked to death.

Sanabaso survived the genocide, and now lives in Montreal. She spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about how she escaped. Here is part of their conversation.

Pictures of Sanabaso as a child, when she was aged four (left), and aged eight (right). (Courtesy of Odile Sanabaso )

I can't imagine what you would have been thinking. You're nine years old, you don't know where your dad is, you're with people you don't know well and you're hiding, like you're literally moving around hiding?

Literally, yeah, in the bushes. Even though I was very young, I knew I was different and I knew I was not safe.

Where'd you end up?

I went to visit this neighbour lady that had been very friendly with us, and tried to have her keep me safe — which didn't happen — because she decided to call the guys ... to come and pick me up at her house.

She called who?

The killers. She got me in the house and then she gave me food, so that I kept calm. And then she went outside, she called three or four guys, and then she called me outside. She was like: 'Here.'

At that time I knew it was over, because what do you expect, right? The guys were there with their machetes, they're gonna bring you to the killing area.

Photographs of people who were killed during the 1994 genocide are seen inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

But one of the guys knew... probably knew my brothers. So as we were walking towards the final destination ... he walked slowly with me behind, and he tells me we're almost there, and when you get there, you're going to die.

And he tells me in a very low voice: I'm giving you two choices, either you run away in the bushes right there, or that's it.

I don't even think he ended his sentence, I just ran away.

Rwandan refugees in Zaire in 1996. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Where do you go?

Honestly, there's nowhere. It's in the bushes.

The last person I saw before — let's say before the end — was another neighbour.

He told me about the orphanage ... that would accept young kids. So my mission was to cross the whole city and get to that orphanage.

So I managed to get to the orphanage ... it may have taken me one or two days.

How did you do that? Tell me a little bit more about what that nine-year-old girl was thinking.

At that point it was just a matter of, 'I just need to find somewhere safe.' So if I have to cross the whole city and risk it, then I'll do it. And I did it.

A Rwandan soldier looks at hundreds of skulls displayed at the Bisesero memorial in western Rwanda in 1999. (Jean-Marc Bouju/Associated Press)

Who in your family was killed?

Both my parents, and my siblings.

Did you go back to Rwanda?

Oh, many times.

When's the first time you went back?

I went back in 2000. I went back to the area I was [in] during the genocide. There are some people who would recognize me and be like, 'Oh my God, this is you,' but I wouldn't remember them. Except one lady that remembered me — the lady I told you about earlier.

The one who turned you in? You went back to see her?

I was told that she was still alive, and she was still living in the same house, same place, so I went for a visit.

Did she recognize you?

Not only did she recognize me, she even remembered my name. She was in shock when she saw me, because obviously she wouldn't think I was alive.

A documentary look into how early warnings of violence in Rwanda were ignored by the world. 8:44

No, she sent you to your death.

I left Rwanda right after the genocide. So when she saw me six years after, I asked her 'Do you remember me?'

She was like, 'Yeah, I think I do.' And then she said my name: 'Are you Odile?'

I was really surprised, and then she started to act as if she was happy to see me.

Did you confront her or what did you say to her?

I was just so much in shock that she is pretending to be happy to see me. And I just told her stay away from me, don't play games, don't do anything. I just left — it was just too much for me.

She never apologized?

I didn't give her a chance.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin

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