As the terror trial of Paul Rusesabagina, Callixte Nsabimana, Herman Nsengimana and 18 others, all members of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD and its armed wing National Liberation Front (FLN), resumes on Wednesday, victims of the attacks continue to share harrowing tales.
The FLN attacks which took place between June 2018 and April 2019 claimed at least 9 lives and left many injured and dozens of families which were ransacked, counting losses. Survivors of the attacks were left with lifelong injuries and trauma they are yet to overcome.
Alice Kayitesi, a young woman in her mid-20’s, is one of the victims of the attacks masterminded by Rusesabagina’s militia. Her dreams were cut short by the injuries she sustained during the attacks and continues to live with constant haunting memories of the life-threatening incursion.
Kayitesi was aboard a bus from Rusizi district, which was ambushed by FLN militias inside Nyungwe Forest, before its occupants were shot at and robbed on a Saturday night she says always replays in her mind, depriving her of sleep for more than two years.
“On that fateful Saturday, I got my 4pm ticket from Rusizi to Kigali. One hour and a half into the journey, at 5:40pm, inside Nyungwe, we found a log blocking the road. It was my first time going through Nyungwe,”
“We saw some men, wearing clothes mixed up with army fatigues. It was bizarre for me. They started hurling obscenities at us and insults which I can’t repeat, asking us to disembark the vehicle. They shot twice in the air as they asked the driver to stop,” Kayitesi recalls.
Kayitesi says she saw two or three other vehicles, a minibus and a Toyota Carina were among them, and then realised that people who occupied them were lying on the ground, with their faces down. In her mind, she thought they were dead or had been shot.
When the driver was hesitant to stop, the FLN fighters surrounded the coaster and started shooting randomly from the front and the sides of the bus.
“We had nowhere to run. My friend Ivan (real names Vianney Bwimba) and I were seated right behind the driver. On the other side there was a girl who was like 12 or 13 years old and at the entrance of the bus there was a dark-skinned man who was standing out because of his look,”
“Right there, they shot the young girl and that is when we knew we were in danger. My friend and workmate said we should duck under the seats for safety but at that moment, he realised he had been shot. I also told him that I thought I had been shot too,” says Kayitesi.
With time not on their side and gripped with fear and panic, Ivan was keen on ensuring Kayitesi’s safety, pushing her under the seat using his leg, which she later realised had been shredded by a bullet.
“I saw blood and human flesh and I thought I had been shot. I realised later that it was from Ivan’s leg. We were no longer looking at the surroundings. Eventually I felt the bus go off the road, as though it was going down a cliff,”
“As it faced downhill, one part still on the road, we crawled out through the window. We went down a very steep and dangerous place. I realised Ivan’s leg was badly injured. In the process, I was also pierced by a sharp stick on the back and the leg,” narrates Kayitesi.
Uphill, the militias were still engulfing the bus and its occupants as they pursued those who were trying to flee for their lives. With Ivan not able to walk and bleeding profusely, another fleeing passenger advised Kayitesi to remove her sweater and tie it around Ivan’s leg to stop the bleeding.
As they tried to tie Ivan’s leg, some other fleeing passengers got where they were and the rebels shot again, killing one of the people who was standing right above them. They dragged the injured young man and continued to run.
Kayitesi got her phone and tried to call for help but there was no network in Nyungwe. She typed a message saying ‘they are going to kill us’ and sent it to a friend as they continued to run. When she looked back again, she saw smoke billowing out of the coaster they were traveling in. It had been torched.
“We were running randomly. None of us knew where we were. I advised the group that we continue running but we should not go far from the road. After moving for more than an hour, I advised the group I was with that we stay in that location, since it was already dark,”
“I told them that if we must die, let them kill us or be eaten by wild animals here. We agreed to stay in that location. At around 11pm in the night, we heard sounds of vehicles with strong engines,” Kayitesi says.
They suspected that those were Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) trucks but a man who was with the group told them that it could be a trap by attackers to lure them out of hiding. The attack happened in the middle of Nyungwe with nowhere to run to, except hiding in the forest.
In the morning at around 5am, the group decided to move out of the forest and go by the road, with the hope of being rescued.
“When we got to the main road, we saw soldiers. These were RDF soldiers but to be honest I could not believe it. I turned back and tried to run. Though I was weak, I don’t know where I got the energy. I had a wound on my leg and another on my back,”
“I had never known anything about bullets or fragments but I had a wound on my leg and I was convinced it was a sharp tree that pierced me. I was numb from the coldness and rain in Nyungwe. It had rained heavily twice through the night. I was white and pale,” she recalls.
Luckily, the RDF soldiers put their guns down as a sign of assurance that they will not shoot them and told them “We are your soldiers, we are ‘Inkotanyi’, we are here to rescue you”.
They were put in a vehicle and transported to Kigeme Hospital in Nyamagabe district. At this point, she didn’t know she had been shot but one RDF officer looked at her and said she had been shot in the thigh.
“I told them I hadn’t been shot but I had been struck by a sharp stick and that I still had one stuck in my back. They said a scan had to be done and I was transferred to CHUB in Huye. Indeed, it was found that I had been shot and I also had a fragment,” says Kayitesi, who would be operated on later.
Life however has never been the same. To date she still lives with the injuries and memories. She still wonders why innocent people had to be killed or injured and their lives affected for good, for no good reason.
“Someone like Callixte Sankara [Nsabimana] boasted about the attacks but for me that is not something to feel heroic about. Killing young people or injuring them for reasons they don’t even know about or issues they are not involved in still baffles me,”
“I lost my business and I am disabled right now. I really don’t understand why. I was also wondering how they could lead young people into such actions because we were shot by young people in their 20’s,” says Kayitesi as she is overcome by emotions.
Kayitesi says that they could have been robbed or whatever if the rebels wanted to show their might to the Government but shooting and killing innocent people was not necessary.
“For more than two years, I can’t sleep properly. My mind wanders into Nyungwe every evening from 5pm. I have to take sleeping pills for me to sleep. Their actions had a serious impact on our lives and affected many families,”
“I lost my business which was my livelihood. I can’t wear high heels like other girls due to my leg which is yet to heal,” says Kayitesi, failing to hold back tears at this point.
Kayitesi says there is no way anybody can deny what happened, showing her photos at the time and medical documents and scans of her injuries.
“My wish is that we get justice. I pray that we get justice so that tomorrow nobody tries to play with people’s lives,” says Kayitesi, who is among the civil parties that filed cases in the FLN trial, seeking compensation.
The FLN trial will resume on Wednesday, June 16, in the High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes.