Saidi Yahaya 31, is a Rwandan of Arab descent whose parents intermarried with Rwandans and Belgians on both sides of his family tree.
At the start of genocide against the Tutsi in April 1994, he was only eight years old studying at Groupe Scolaire Kibungo in the former Kibungo province, Eastern Rwanda.
In April, 1994 he went to spend holidays with his grandmother in Rwamagana district who lived near a mosque in Rwamagana town.
The morning of April 7, 1994 was a normal day for Yahaya who had planned to go for prayers when an army helicopter landed adjacent to the mosque near his grannies’ house.
Armed men in military uniform walked out with a megaphone asking all residents to vacate the area after the shooting of President Habyarimana’s plane the previous night.
In the announcement, soldiers asked all residents to hide and run away from then Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) rebels- who were referred to as ‘Inyenzi’.
“When grandmother heard the announcement she pulled me immediately and said, “we are packing and leaving. She never told me where were going. I remember that she stashed some of the vital house items in a ditch behind the house,” Yahaya told KTPress.
For Yahaya, it was a matter of life and death. His grandmother made a life turning choice leaving behind all her wealth and running away for life.
From here the duo walked for several days and reached Kibungo where they joined other Rwandan-Arab families at Kabarondo heading towards the Tanzania where they sought refuge.
“We slept under trees and at night my granny tied me to her waist with a cloth so that I would not get lost at night. This was a way of keeping all families close to one another. I only remember adults going to look for food- which we shared in hiding,” Yahaya said.
Yahaya stayed with other Rwandans at Spic School in Kibungo for one day and was noticed by some people that later informed his family at Kabarondo that they had seen him among escapees.
He was picked up by his relative and taken to Kabarondo where they stayed for two months before trekking to Tanzania abandoning everything they owned.
Though Yahaya cannot remember how many days he spent under harsh conditions to save his life but will never forget two things.
“I can never forget the dead body of a10-year old child who was killed by spear and lay alongside his mother’s dead body. There were many bodies we saw along the way but this one haunts me till today- I ask myself why this happened?” Yahaya narrates taking a deep breath for a minute.
Yahaya’s Arab looks were enough to let him through roadblocks along the roads – he and relatives were seen as foreigners. Even though Yahaya felt a Rwandan, the Hutu militias looked at him as different.
This is the second thing Yahaya cannot forget. The day he stood at a noisy roadblock watching other Rwandans being asked to identify themselves, others being separated from the crowds and whisked away in thin air.
While standing there, none of the militias touched him but instead they asked why he was scared of death and not crossing over to proceed.
“I knew am a Rwandan because my mom and dad are Rwandans but if I didn’t have these Arab-like features from my ancestors I wouldn’t pass the barricade. They even asked me why I didn’t cross, and I said “I am waiting for my granny,” Yahaya remembers the militia assisted him to rejoin his grandma.
Parting with wealth for life
Abdullah Sultan 72, was a businessman in Kigali at the famous Cartier commercial (in Kigali business zone). He owned three textile and fabric shops.
Sultan lived in the heart of Kigali city in a house he bought from Fidel Gakwaya – a three storage building opposite the former Trafipro house in the city center.
For four decades business was doing well and sales were growing until April 7th, 1994 when the Hutu Militias attacked their residence in the city.
All roads were closed within hours, silence filled the central business district and nobody was moving, except the militias who had access to every door and every house.
As an influential businessman Sultan and his family was alerted by the militias to seek hiding not to be caught up in the bloodshed which was about to happen.
“We lived on floors above our shop in city center. So I moved up to the top floor and watched through a window from above as militias killed people, going door to door targeting Rwandans only,” Sultan narrates.
Sultan was not among the hunted persons but says that separate groups of militias patrolled the city centre picking up persons of interest from their homes, and each day a different group came along setting up a roadblock while others looted shops.
Being an Arab, he was partially spared the wrath of militias, some of his property looted by militias to partly finance their operations and amass wealth in the process.
On April 7, a group came with a white truck broke into his shops and swept the whole business worth millions – he just looked on helplessly.
“Our garments were on high demand in the region. So they looted our shops and transported the goods to Congo border for sale. All we did was to watch them as they took everything,” Sultan remembers.
Having had origins with Arabs in Tanzania, Sultan and his family were picked up by a Tanzanian embassy pick-up truck to escape through the Butare route in order to join with other Arab families in Burundi.
Crossing Nyabarongo River was not easy as the Sultan’s had to stop over at three roadblocks that were between the city center- Nyabugogo and Nyabarongo.
“Coming in contact with the militias was like meeting death at each point. All they did was to shooting dead anyone in a car if you attempted to pass without being checked,” He told KTPress.
Sultan remembers while at the roadblocks, the militias never demanded for money; “but with fierce faces they peeped inside our truck and at this moment I prayed my last …it was only death that one could see in the eyes of militias” Sultan narrates.
By luck of his Arabic origins, Sultan managed to cross to Burundi and only returned back to Rwanda two months after the genocide. On his return he found some of the looted garments had been confiscated by the RPA liberation forces during the battle with the militias.
Twenty three years on, Sultan and with his wife Mama Fatuma have managed to rebuild his business empire in Kigali and both are fluent in Kinyarwanda and feel safe to be Rwandans.
Meanwhile, Yaseri Khalim and Salim Mohsin are Rwandan-Arabs , at the time of genocide against Tutsi, they were living in Rwamagana district . The Hutu militias looted their shops leaving them completely empty.
After killing Claver Kabera and his family of three among the first residents in Rwamagana to be brutally massacred in public, Hutu Interahamwe, joined by Twa accomplices; started looting all shops across in Rwamagana town.
For 100 days Khalim and his wife didn’t sell any food or make money again. They stayed indoors and survived on their savings until they were rescued by RPA soldiers.
“We only moved out of hiding when we heard news that RPA rebels had captured Kayonza town. It was a sigh of relief,” Khalim says.
Neither Tutsi nor Hutu in Class
Hussein Hitimana alias ‘Med’ was born in 1965, raised and educated in former Butare town. His mother was Rwandan and father was Arab but he doesn’t look like an Arab and speaks just perfect Kinyarwanda and has a Rwandan name.
While in school, he was always the best student from primary one- to six at Groupe Scolaire Officielle de Butare Catholique. But being a Muslim and Arab was double jeopardy for him as a Rwandan at a time when the country was divided along ethnic lines in schools and religious settings.
“For me it was not normal to be discriminated ethnically and religiously. Whenever they called the Hutu and Tutsi to stand separately I stayed seated because I couldn’t find my place. Nobody bothered about us and even class register had no ethnicity yet others did,” Hitimana narrates.
For Hitimana, it was even worse as a Muslim besides not being seen as Rwandan.
At the primary school leaving exams his results were the most shocking when he was not selected among the best yet he had a track record of good performance.
“I didn’t appear on any list among the best and I was shocked. This is when I realised I was not the only one – but all Muslims in the school didn’t pass,” Hitimana says.
Being an Arab he got a job at Medicine San Frontier (MSF) Belgium and had a wife and a one month old child by 1994.
On the morning of April 7th 1994 he walked to his work station like any other day only to be stopped by guards at Hotel Falcon and asked why he was moving around amidst dangerous moments after the crush of Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane.
Though he was segregated as a non Rwandan; his faith didn’t allow him to seek revenge on Rwandans during the genocide and he did his part to save some, though not all.
The evening of April 7, he returned home immediately but it was the darkest night for him as ‘foreigner’ realising that some of his classmates were slaughtered to death in the chaotic killings across the country.
His friend Bosco- a moto taxi operator by then didn’t survive the night. He was speared in the throat to death and burnt on the tummy and later dumped in the forest.
“We looked around and found Bosco’s body in the pine forest at ‘Kwi Taba’. It was a messy scene and I carried his body, cleaned it up and asked for help to bury him- which we did in a hurry and from this moment I took a decision to escape to Burundi,” Hitimana narrated to KTPress.
On April 8th in the morning, he and his young brother grabbed their uncle’s pick-up truck to take with him his family and some Rwandans who were escaping heading towards Burundi.
Escaping Rwanda was only temporary relief as they were aided by Rwandan RPA rebels on the Akanyaru border.
Hitimana and group found a similar situation in Kayanza zone in Burundi- where all Rwandans who escaped to Burundi were hunted to be killed but with a different purpose.
“While in Burundi killing a Rwandan was considered a hotcake and Burundians called Rwandan escapees a nickname – ‘Ibolo’- meaning somebody of value to kill,” he said adding “But we had been warned by commune police about this aspect and asked to be on alert.”
After the genocide, Hitimana returned to Rwanda in Ky’Arabu zone in Huye district where he has been living with a family of five children, operating a small restaurant business. However, the area has demolished paving way for construction of a modern Muslim-Arab community settlement. He doesn’t regret being a Rwandan.
Arab-Tutsi accomplice Hunted
Abdallah Uwimana, 63, an Arab- Rwandan lived in former Butare town (now Huye district) in 1999 and was considered among local citizen collaborators with the RPA rebel forces- ‘ibyitso’ during the liberation struggle.
This was his direct passport to death, since anyone who worked with RPA rebels was seen as an enemy of the state and put on the death list no matter if they were Hutu, Arab, White or Asian.
Besides being a wealthy trader in the area- which picked interests of militia looters, Uwimana had married a Tutsi woman- adding on more reason for him to be a listed target during the genocide.
Weighing all these clues that ditched him into the hands of the enemy, he took a life changing decision which defined his life till today.
“Interahamwe militias didn’t give us breathing space and being an Arab was not an excuse. They attempted several attacks on my life and said that they want me dead because I have a Tutsi wife and they have information that I collaborated with rebels,” Uwimana says.
At the peak of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Uwimana says he remembered signs of events seen in 1963 during Dominique Mbonyumutwa’s presidency where Tutsi had been killed.
He says that Habyarimana’s soldiers came with helicopters dropping matchsticks mid-air in Butare. These were used to burn houses of Tutsi’s in areas of Impare, Tumba and Rango.
With this evident danger Uwimana escaped to Rwamagana with the help of some relatives and paying bribes along the way.
But for Bayisenge Mariamu 60, a Tutsi woman married to a handicapped Selemani Ngabonziza (a Rwandan-Arab) in the same area, there was no way out but to depend on her Hutu neighbours to escape death.
“I gave the militia all the money I had so as to leave my wife alone, but they kept coming spontaneously. They reaped me of all my savings and I went broke,” Ngabonziza says.
For Ngabonziza, he couldn’t give up on his wife and his own life after witnessing what happened in 1963 (a genocide pre-trial year)- where two of Rwandan-Arab relatives (Hamadi Ngabonziza and Daidi Amed) were killed for trying to protect their wealth and for working with RUNAR party- a Tutsi party which was believed to be working with RPA rebels.
Today this couple is living a simple life, no more business but surviving on handouts from government and their extended families in and outside Rwanda.
All the Rwandan-Arabs interviewed in this story say that the presence of the RPA forces in some of these areas gave them a chance to escape death.
The militia mostly targeted Rwandan-Arabs because of their wealth, marital status, and collaborating with RPA rebels.
Additional reporting by Joyeuse Marie Claire (Huye District), Ernestine Musanabera (Rwamagana District)