“None ever sent believers to kill the Tutsi during the Genocide in the name of the church. Churches preached tolerance and love of the neighbor, not hatred,” is always an answer a church leader will give when it is said that church A or B participated in the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda where 1 million Tutsi were wiped out between April and early July.
No such campaigns could have been recorded straight from the pulpit, but history can tell a better story.
In 1968, Athanase Nsengumuremyi was born in a big family from Bunyambiriri, current Nyamagabe district, then the family relocated to Bufundu, another place also adjacent to Bunyambiriri region.
They later on relocated to Bugesera in Eastern Province where they established their permanent home against their will. History has it that Tutsi were placed in Bugesera in the 1960s to be victims of a dangerous fly called Tsé Tsé just “because they were Tutsi.”
In Bugesera, Nsengumuremyi started school in 1975 in Nyarugenge sector – then Ngenda commune and knew too early that he was Tutsi and the cost related to that. In class, a course of ‘Etude du Milieu’ was always preceded by counting of students on ethnic basis.
The teacher would tell the Hutus to stand, and then the Tutsi and Twa respectively. The course would proceed with stories of Tutsi who, allegedly were hostile to Hutu.
“They would tell us stories of a one queen Kanjogera who allegedly used to pierce a Hutu servant with a sword while standing up. This created hostility between us the Tutsi and our Hutu classmates. The later would see us as evil people.”
Since it was common, this was no big deal to Nsengumuremyi until 1983 when he was targeted individually after writing Minor Seminary Exam which he passed.
“The priest who knew how bright I was, when he learned that I was Tutsi nodded in disbelief. He regrettably told me that I could not afford the school because I was Tutsi,” he said.
“When he saw how much I was shocked, he offered to give me the exam the following year. When the time came, I returned to write the exam but the priest released his dog against me. God knows the grief I felt that particular day.”
Ever since, Nsengumuremyi left the catholic church.
In 1987 he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour after a couple of visit to the Pentecostal church. He became a good man, got baptised, started preaching the Gospel of Christ.
The man became popular in his Rango Pentecostal parish and he, later on, became a deacon and a preacher.
The senior pastor in his parish increasingly showed hate to Nsengumuremyi and fabricated all allegations to bring him down.
He first accused him of importing firearms from neighboring Burundi on the account of Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) – Inkotanyi as early as 1990.
They also accused him of recommending some young Rwandans to RPA in Burundi. With this, the Pastor prevented Nsengumuremyi to pursue his education dream.
“I was selected to study the bible college, but my pastor removed my name simply because I denounced his hatred against my colleagues on ethnic basis,” Nsengumuremyi said.
He was dismissed from the church, and his pastor continued to send police officers to arrest him in 1992 when the Genocide was tried in Bugesera.
In this same year, Nsengumuremyi was serving a construction company as a mason aid, but in April 1994 he had already got strong construction skills that he had started managing construction projects.
On the eve of the Genocide against Tutsi, Nsengumuremyi had finished plan to start the construction of Gikondo Pentecostal parish, but the evil was knocking on the door.
Good Bye! I am Going to Die – Nsengumuremyi to the ‘Friend indeed’’
After learning about the crash of the president’s plane that had happened the previous night, Nsengumuremyi understood that, from past experience, he was not going to escape.
“I told my housemate; goodbye I am going to die,” recalls Nsengumuremyi .
He was talking to his workmate Pierre Hakizimana after hearing some gunshots while at home.
However, Hakizimana did not allow his colleague to give up; he rather did something that touched Nsengumuremyi ’s heart up to date.
“He took his clothes, placed them in a basin so that I can ease myself on them without attracting the attention of anyone. In the morning, he would go, wash the clothes and bring them back for the same service. He did that for some three days as interahamwe were going mad,” Nsengumuremyi recalls the scene as if it happened yesterday.
“My wife, my children, everyone knows that Pierre is more than a friend, but a brother. I love him so much; I even gave him a cow, a symbol of love in our culture but I cannot thank him enough.”
Helped by his kind landlady (RIP), after three days Nsengumuremyi managed to sneak into the adjacent Gikondo mosque to try and save his life.
In this mosque, he hid for a couple of days until he felt hungry and knocked on the door to attract the attention of an unknown passerby.
The latter was kind enough to help Nsengumuremyi reconnect with his friend Hakizimana who started bringing him some porridge in top secret.
However, news that Nsengumuremyi was around reached a one “Gikota” who was in search of the former to kill him.
“I don’t know why that man was hunting me, but I learned that he continued to ask for my head,” Nsengumuremyi evoked.
Nsengumuremyi was thus relocated to a nearby garage
If He Dies I Wipe Out Your Family-Interahamwe ‘Commander’ to Gikota
Upon relocating to the garage, Nsengumuremyi hid in a boot of a car that was waiting for a service and two mechanics came to work. One of them told his colleague to collect an overall in the boot of the same car.
“I heard steps of a man who was in hurry and prepared myself to die, But, when he was about to open the boot, his colleague changed his mind and said: you know why? Leave that overall. We shall take the one in Kigarama. The guy obeyed and this was another miracle,” Nsengumuremyi testifies.
After narrowly surviving this, Nsengumuremyi was relocated to another place where he joined his former workmates-from another construction site They were divided; some said it was better to kill him, others defended him and it was a whole night of controversy.
One of them just played his colleagues in the morning and took Nsengumuremyi back to the mosque and unfortunately Gikota noticed him.
“You thought you have escaped. Worry not! No Tutsi will survive,” Nsengumuremyi quotes Gikota as saying.
Gikota whose one real name would be Janvier, quickly returned, probably to bring his weapons and probably and invite his gang mates to help torture his victim.
“Gikota had a very long sword. He was a delinquent guy from the neighborhood. I used to rebuke him,” recalls Hakizimana.
Before he returned, Hakizimana, the friend to Nsengumuremyi was there. He took a quick decision to return him to the landlady’s hideout.
But when he returned, the whole neighborhood stood up to prevent him from entering while saying they did not want the blood to be shed in the area.
An abrupt heavy rain dismissed them and this gave Nsengumuremyi an opportunity to jump into the same home he was renting with Hakizimana.
Before it stopped raining, God brought a strange person who would change the narrative for a couple of days.
“He was a man covered with grenades all over and when I saw him I thought he would kill me ‘kindly’, way better than Gikota.”
The following scenario was unbelievable be it to Nsengumuremyi, the armed man who would later be identified as Aminadabu, and the eyewitnesses who were expecting nothing less than a fatality.
“I came out expecting him to kill me. To my surprise he hug me affectionately,” Nsengumuremyi recalls.
“He said: Murokore Uraho! Uracyariho! Abantu beza ntibapfa koko! Are you still alive Christian(born again), indeed kind people never die,” Nsengumuremyi quotes.
“Then I answered: I am still breathing but Gikota wants to kill me.”
Upon hearing that, the militiaman sent his ‘escorts’ to find Gikota and when he came, the man warned:
“Listen Gikota! Mind your life! Everyone else can die, not this man of God! Do you know the delicious tea, doughnuts he bought me back in the days? If he dies, I kill you and wipe out your entire family.”
A Rwandan say goes like “gira neza wigendere, ineza uyisanga imbere’ loosely translated as “do good, be kind to people, the reward will wait for you.”
In fact since relocating to Kigali, Nsengumuremyi was a neighbor to a young boy who was doing casual work. The boy used to ask Nsengumuremyi to buy him tea and he would say “please have it, with doughnut.”
“He did it quite several days. Morning, lunchtime and evening. I would always consider buying him tea with doughnuts whenever he asked. I did it willingly, yet I did not know him,” Nsengumuremyi recalls adding that he had never looked him in the face to know who he was, how he looked like.
Meanwhile, with the gesture of Aminadabu, Nsengumuremyi ’s life was guaranteed for another two days, after which he, unfortunately, learned that the man who saved him disappeared.
The area was becoming a war zone following the pressure of RPA Inkotanyi on Rebero hill to ex-FAR and Interahamwe.
Nsengumuremyi had no option but to leave.
Kindly Kill Me! I am Tutsi
While leaving his Gikondo hideout, Nsengumuremyi was not looking for anything else, he rather, “wanted to die before he goes too hungry to die a sinner.”
So, for every roadblock he could come across, his request was “kindly kill me! I am Tutsi.”
This was the case for example when he reached Kiruhura Pentecostal parish. He was beaten severely until the Interahamwe leader made an effort to let him go.
“He told me; stupid, take your stuff and go and please avoid that stupidity of telling people: eeh! Kill me!” he said.
“When you reach the roadblock, pretend to be showing the ID card to the guys on your left and then, move to the guys on your right while returning the ID in your pocket confidently. They will think you showed the ID as you cross the roadblock.”
When Nsengumuremyi reached the next roadblock at Ruriba – Nyarugenge district before crossing to the current Kamonyi district, he did as they told him, and it worked.
On May 12, They Killed Us
Upon crossing to the current Kamonyi district in the then Gitarama, Nsengumuremyi thought that it was job all done because the region was still relatively safe.
He went all the way to Muhanga district and settled at Nyabisindu Pentecostal church.
Apparently, he thought that life was going to be good, since he found there a community of senior leaders in his church, including Joseph Nsanzurwimo the then legal representative, and the regional leader of the church – one Enock Nyandwi.
However, this place left him the worst memories during the Genocide.
“Upon arrival at the church, the regional representative asked me: why are you here Athanase, what happened in Bugesera?” he recalls.
“Let me hope you are not seeking refuge here. We have no place for displaced people,” he quotes the legal representative.
Nsengumuremyi answered that he was just on transit to his Bugesera home and then the pastor showed him a place to stay, for just one night.
Nsengumuremyi found several fellow Christians who had escaped from Kigali and he settled with them. Other people in the area included Hutu who had fled Kigali and Kivuye and Nyacyonga other war zones.
He settled with them and they advised him to keep a low profile so that the pastor does not know he was still around.
As a person of integrity, who also used to preach them a comforting Words, Nsengumuremyi became a friend to everyone.
But after a few days, the church made an announcement and said “to everyone! You are advised to leave this place right now because this is not a camp. You are supposed to settle at Kabgayi. So, please vacate this place.”
The crowd headed to Kabgayi on daylight where they suffered heavy rain and hunger, to mention the least.
After one night, a Christian from Pentecostal church decided “why die here when Nyabisindu church is my home. I have to return there.”
The same crowd that had come with him followed him back to Nyabisindu and the pastor found nothing to do.
After they resettled in the church premises, a screening was organized and anyone with an ID with “Tutsi” mention was thrown out.
They paraded them along the way, but an ex-FAR officer aboard a military Jeep advised: “You cannot do that because satellites have started watching us. Make an arrangement to kill them slowly, quietly.”
They returned them to the church and waited until May 12, 1994 the fateful day.
“May 12 was a very bad day! They killed us! A group of interahamwe came, grabbed us one after another and hit us with clubs and machetes without saying a word. It was a really bad day,” Nsengumuremyi recalls.
“The regional representative of the church was there – one Enock Nyandwi, the Pentecostal church legal representative Joseph Nsanzurwimo was there, and so was the senior pastor. That day, they killed us!”
#Kwibuka26 12 May 1994: massacre of Tutsi at ADEPR Nyabisindu -in @Muhangadis Muhanga. Around 121 ADEPR victims are buried at Nyabisindu Genocide Memorial?https://t.co/cj4ElvYpio pic.twitter.com/ALdgsGGtJm
— National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (@RwandaRemembers) May 12, 2020
They brought prisoners to bury the Tutsi in mass graves that were dug all around and some were buried alive.
That day, Nsengumuremyi escaped after presenting a residential permit which did not have ethnic mentions. They argued about it but left him for that day.
On May 13 however, two young men came around 2PM, grabbed him and without asking took him behind the church premises where they found two others.
“One of them hit me with a club and I lost four teeth right way,” he said.
The man failed his target when he raised the hand to hit for the second time, and as he wanted to resume angrily, a voice of someone anxious was heard uphill.
“Please wait! Don’t kill him!”
The man, his name Olivier Bapfakurera was an influential person who was entrusted with that camp’s leadership. He told them “please do not kill him, he is not Tutsi.”
They left him for another day.
No More Deaths Please – Pentecostal Church Leaders
After getting the cover of the new friend(Olivier), Nsengumuremyi got some medical attention, just tablets as burying the massacred Tutsi was going on in Nyabisindu.
On May 14, the church leaders left for Cyangugu towards Bukavu in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but they left some instructions.
“As I learnt from Olivier, they recommended one Interahamwe called Jean Paul: dismiss all the Tutsi and where they will go is none of our business, provided that they do not stay at the parish,” Nsengumuremyi learnt from Olivier.
After this exercise, Jean-Paul was supposed to mount a roadblock to avoid anyone from entering the church premises.
As promised, in the morning they dismissed everyone with Tutsi ID, but Nsengumuremyi was shielded.
After dismissing the Tutsi, he said, everyone who managed to stay was safe until the time when RPA liberated Kabgayi and Gitarama at large early June 1994.
Jean-Paul, the Interahamwe who was chief of the Nyabisindu camp run away and RPA took control, saved everyone who was desperate.
After the Genocide, Nsengumuremyi got an opportunity to study up to University and he became a successful person who served in local government.
“I was wondering how I would really serve a Hutu with all that they did to me, but God healed me, I am strong, I am fine both spiritually and mentally,” he said.
Nsengumuremyi got married and was ordained Pastor in 1996. He is now Senior Pastor of Shyorongi Pentecostal church in Kigali and God has restored him.