For hiding 104 Tutsi in his home while Interahamwe militia were combing villages looking for Tutsi to kill, Sosthene Niyitegeka didn’t know his selfless act would earn him a national medal of honour 13 years later in 2007.
Niyitegeka 65, a father of nine hails from Bweramana sector in Ruhango district. In his community, he is considered religious and a dignified person of high integrity. He was a farmer and preacher at the Adventist church.
During the 1994 genocide which claimed over million lives 23years ago, Niyitegeka mysteriously saved 104 Tutsi by hiding them in his house at Ntosho village, Rubona cell. He also distributed some Tutsi refugees to fellow Christians.
When plans for the Genocide against Tutsi became public early in April 1994, a trader in Ruhango delivered a message to Amon Rugerinyange – then church legal representative.
“He asked me to hurry up at his Gitwe home. I walked 20km to see him and his message was only shocking; Please provide me hideouts,” remembers Niyitegeka.
“I got confused and when I asked him to clarify, he showed me a copy of a list including hundred Tutsi to be killed that was made and he was number one.”
There was no more time to waste. They invented a tactic to get him ferried by a moto taxi operator to Niyitegeka’s home. On their way, they reached a roadblock where Interahamwe knew about the passenger only after he had crossed.
Within three days, Interahamwe had known Rugerinyange’s hideouts and came to kill him but the family sent him to a neighbour to an opposite hill. Worse still on his way, a woman recognized him and alerted Interahamwe.
They suddenly surrounded the compound but he was helped to escape from the back door. None knew him because he had disguised in old clothes.
“The woman was up to something; local leaders had promised to reward anyone with the pastor’s brand new car if they captured and killed him,” said Niyitegeka.
By April 22, 1994, Tutsi started flocking to Niyitegeka’s home with hope for protection while believing, “even interahamwe will respect him and won’t dare kill someone he has given shelter.”
This hope was motivated by Niyitegeka’s kindness. He testifies about himself, “I was in good books with everyone; when I had a truck, I used to carry expectant mothers to hospital. My family gave food to every needy person regardless of their ethnic background.”
Spying on Interahamwe to Keep Tutsi Safe
Niyitegeka had employed seven spies to update him on any plans by Interahamwe to come and kill Tutsi hiding at his home.
Whenever the killers had a plan to search for Tutsi in any home where they were dispatched, they could know minutes earlier and discretely relocate them.
“They used to tell me; we know that you are hiding many Tutsi, but we don’t know the exact number nor where they are hidden exactly but the day we will just arrest them, we will kill you on the spot,” he remembers.
However, Niyitegeka always bribed them. “I knew how they were after money; I had told them not to kill anyone that came to my home but rather allow me to feed them and let them go. After all you will kill them any time,” he said.
However, one day local leaders had vowed to search for the Tutsi door to door and to blame their life on Niyitegeka.
They gathered the whole village at the sector office and the sector Councilor, one Gakeli took to the floor and announced;
“We want all young men to go in every house, search everywhere until they find Tutsi hiding but mind you if we find one in your house.”
Niyitegeka raised his hand and said, “We like the idea but, mind you if you send all these bandits instead of searching for the Tutsi, may steal from us.”
All senior citizens in the meeting clapped for him while saying “you have a point.”
It was decided that the assembly vote for ‘trustworthy youth’ to carryout house to house search for Tutsi.
“We voted, and the honest youth were at the same time the people I had entrusted the victims,” said Niyitegeka.
“Interahamwe shouted it couldn’t work that way and the councilor got angry until he postponed the hunt for Tutsi saying he would carry out the search by himself.”
RPF Rebels Rescue Tutsi from Hiding
Luck would have it. On June 1, 1994, Niyitegeka heard that rebels – the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) Inkotanyi had reached Ruhango town and one of the Tutsi ladies at home pretended to be a Hutu refugee heading to DRC.
Angelique Mukamana, now a trader in Kigali told KT Press, “I put on dirty clothes and pretended to be a poor refugee fleeing from RPF Inkotanyi and Interahamwe and believed I wasn’t Tutsi.”
RPF rebels escorted Mukamana and reached Niyitegeka’s home, he made a clear announcement telling all the Tutsi to come out of their hideout. After gathering them to one location, Inkotanyi asked him, “What could we do for you?”
The only wish of this man was, “kindly give me a safe haven, I cannot stay here.”
From that very day, Niyitegeka left his 8 Frisian cows, his banana plantation and fled to Bugesera, then Kigali ngali.
Today, the people he rescued cut across all ages and classes; there are pastors, laymen, important personalities in his church and beyond, women and men and children.
Unfortunately, Rugerinyange has since died of cancer two years ago but we kept exceptional friendship with his family, says Niyitegeka.
Rugerinyange connected Niyitegeka to sponsors who funded his project – the foundation of APERUDE, an Adventist secondary school in Ruhango.
Niyitegeka remembers that before allowing any Tutsi to hide in his home, “I used to carry out a meeting to ask my family to support me, otherwise you could hide someone and your wife betrays them.”
His wife always prepared doughnuts and fed them with ripe banana from their plantation and also gave them milk. The family’s three cows produced 30 liters every day.
Currently, Niyitegeka lives in Kigali with his family and believes, “there is no more reward than having achieved what many failed; saving lives in a hostile area.”