In 1959 when the so called Hutu revolution war erupted and the hunt for Tutsi across Rwanda was heightened, a young man was given a big role; to head a Parmehutu youth league.
Parmehutu or the “Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation Hutu” was a Hutu uprising resulting in the death of many Tutsis and forcing the then King Kigeli V and tens of thousands of Tutsis to flee into exile in the neghbouring countries.
This young man’s assignment was to mobilise all Hutu youth to turn against Tutsi and exterminate them.
Despite being given such a heinous role at just 19 years, he never heeded to their call. Instead, he used the same chance and power to unify Rwandans.
Welcome to the story of Damien Gatoyire – a heroic 78-year-old resident of Gasange sector in Gatsibo district, Eastern Rwanda.
He looks frail due to his advanced age, but when you speak to Gatoyire vis – a – vis or on phone, he vividly rembers every stage of his life – right from 1959 when he actively joined politics.
“It was a tough period,” he told KT Press from his home in Gasange. But how did Gatoyire become a hero?
When former President Gregoire Kayibanda’s government overthrew Rwanda’s mornachy, it was Gatoyire’s turn to lead thousands of youth in his Giti Commune – currently in Gicumbi district in Northern Rwanda.
At the time, Gatoyire had been given the task to lead an anti-Tutsi campaign, and probably spread it through all youths in the former Kigabiro sector.
“This was a bad mission. But I took a responsbility to do the opposite. I started mobilising youths against government plans,” Gatoyire told KT Press.
Living in a state of fear
What Gatoyire did was noble – but could at the same time cost his life any day. However, he says, “Taking a heroic decision doesn’t just come out of the ordinary. You just feel the call inside you,” says a father of nine.
When the hunt for Tutsi escalated, Gatoyire would go on mobilising the youth to turn down government propaganda that targeted innocent people.
“For example, I could always remind young Hutu men and women whose parents had been given cows by Tutsi to always treat them like their parents. This instilled some sense of togetherness in them,” Gatoyire told KT Press.
By reasoning with them, Gatoyire convinced his constituency to live in peace with each other and whenever his superiors visited his sector, he had a good score because they would show that he was a man of the people.
His campaign yielded results – that no Tutsi was hurt during the 1959 Parmehutu revolution in Kigarama sector, in 1973 and in 1994.
When former President Gregoire Kayibanda was overthrown by Juvenal Habyarimana in 1973, Gatoyire’s leadership appointment also grew.
Despite having no education background, Gatoyire would always out compete others due to his popularity and trust among people in Kigabiro sector.
He was appointed a Sector Executive Secretary – a post he held until 2006 when the current government made reforms in local government.
Back in 1994 when the Genocide against Tutsi erupted in Rwanda, Gatoyire had fully unified his entire sector and Giti commune.
Saving countless Tutsi with an AK47
As Genocide raged on, Gatoyire who had been given an AK47 gun for self protection, started helping Tutsi to flee their homes for safety.
“Giti Commune neighbors Murambi Commune which was famous for killing so many Tutsi under the notorious Jean Baptiste Gatete. At the time, I had been known to be shielding fleeing Tutsi. This made me a target,” Gatoyire told KT Press.
Gatoyire had also kept a boat inside his home – which he used to ferry Tutsi through Lake Muhazi.
“I always did this at night,” he says.
The former Murambi commune burgomastre (mayor), was Jean Baptiste Gatete popularly known as the ‘Butcher of Murambi’, due to his active role in the killing of thousands of Tutsi during the Genocide.
Gatete is now in prison serving a 40-year sentence for Genocide crimes.
Gatoyire cannot recall the number of Tutsis he saved.
“They were so many. Some of them had sought shelter in my home, while I helped others to cross the Commune and flee to neighbouring countries,” Gatoyire who now lives in his native Gasange sector told KT Press.
Receiving ‘Friendship pact’
In 2015, about 6000 people were screened while17 of them were nationally recognized as ‘protectors of friendship pact’.
Gatoyire was part of the 17. Speaking at the ‘Unity Award 2015’ gala organized by Unity Club, President Paul Kagame said, “When you see these Rwandans we recognize here, I personally feel I couldn’t have done what they did…especially doing it after they had faced the worst.”
In his home village in Gasange sector, Gatoyire is still a respected elder.
“His legacy still lives on. He is well known as an exemplary hero in the whole district,” Jean Claude Ndayisenga, Gasange sector Executive Secretary told KT Press.
Meanwhile, for Gatoyire, “The recognition from government was enough for me. Heroism does not require to be awarded financially. You only serve people and get recognised just for your work,” he said.