Ngoma district in Eastern Rwanda, is known for its green lush, with a large expanse of land, but big part of it is completely abandoned.
Its soils are fertile producing plenty of food.
The beautiful scenery is a complete contrast to what it was more than 20 years.
The region used to be part of former Kibungo prefecture – one of the most successful testing grounds for mass extermination of Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.
From November 1959, the extremist government at the time orchestrated the mass killings of Tutsis in the region.
Within a year, at least 4,500 Tutsi had been murdered, according to UN accounts. Thousands of others were hurled from their land and their houses looted and burned down.
Many sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Burundi, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo).
For those who couldn’t flee, the government had a solution, but settled them in gazetted areas, predominantly infested with Tsetse flies. One of the locations was Rukumberi, far east of Rwanda.
The exercise was conducted across the country. Thadeo Mupenzi was a teenager when he and other family members were escorted at gunpoint to Rukumberi, walking for days from Northern Rwanda. Others would be unconsciously beaten by government soldiers.
With hundreds of others from far regions, they were settled in camps, tens of kilometers away from population centres, considered by the government as ‘real citizens’ –a reference to Hutus.
Theoneste Bagorosa sends militias
Earlier, Gregoire Kayibanda (1962 to 1973) government had intentionally infested the region with Tsetse flies.
Many of those settled there died miserably. Others suffered from diseases from contaminated water, hunger, and attacks from wild animals.
There was no way of escaping, narrates Mupenzi. “We were surrounded by large military barracks, a lake, a large swamp and a camp which housed marauding Burundian Hutu refugees.”
When the full scale genocide against Tutsis began across Rwanda in April 1994, Mupenzi was among those still alive.
Despite there being a government, Col. Theonest Bagosora, a senior official at the ministry of defense, positioned himself as the defacto leader of the country.
With a Tutsi extermination plan already in place, Col Bagosora took over control of the civil defence force.
He established paramilitary “self-defense” units, the Interahamwe, across the country and supplied them with machetes as well as deploying the militias to killings joints.
According to internal secret memos provided to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Col Bagosora “appointed” three men to manage the killing machine in different regions.
They included Col. Aloys Simba in Gikongoro and Butare, Lt. Col. Bonaventure Ntibitura in Ruhengeri and Lt. Col. Pierre – Célestin Rwagafilita in Kibungo.
Rukumberi, was under the control of Lt.Col. Pierre – Célestin Rwagafilita.
Court documents describe the four men as having “made a significant contribution to the success of the genocide”. Over 35,000 Tutsis in the camps perished.
Directly below Lt. Col. Pierre Rwagafilita, were ruthless men who drove around in civilian trucks provided by Rwagafilita.
Col Bagosora personally “thanked” militia leaders Nyabirungu and Mutabaruka with cars because of the good work (killing).
Only 720 survived
By the time Rwanda Patriotic Front rebels arrived, it was too late. Tens of thousands of Tutsis were no more. Inside the Rukumberi genocide memorial site lays remains of more than 35,000 Tutsi victims.
Due to the significance of Rukumberi in the campaign to exterminate all Tutsis from Rwanda, on March 7, genocide orphans under the Genocide Survivors Students Association (AERG in French acronym) launched the 21st commemoration at the site. There were speeches – often punctuated with powerful testimonies.
In remembrance of entire families decimated by the militia, plaques are erected along the banks of the lake and river.
On January 15, 2015, Uganda handed over a genocide suspect Jean Paul Birindabagabo, who was ruling party stalwart for Commune Sake, home of the Rukumberi massacre.
Jean Paul Birindabagabo had been hiding in Mpigi district, central Uganda, operating as Pastor Daniel Bagabo.
“When you speak of genocide in Kibungo, the name Birindabagabo comes in all testimonies,” said Callixste Kabandana, the head of Sake Genocide survivors’ grouping, one of only 720 survivors.
As Col Theoneste Bagosora enjoys the comfort of a UN-standard jail term, until 2031 when he will be 89 years, the survivors of his barbarism are still trying to pick up the pieces.
The once-drought stricken, Tsetse flies infected east-southern Rwanda, is a different place – it is a breadbasket for the country and a beacon of hope.