Nearly 30 years after Genocide against Tutsi, the National Heroes Mausoleum located in the City of Kigali remains symbolic attachment to men and women who stood against a Genocidal government and turned to saving lives.
Today, there is sufficient evidence that if some political actors continue looking the other way and don’t protect their people, their countries risk being unstable and ruined by conflict.+
Félicité Niyitegeka, a catholic church nun is among those who decided to use their self-conviction during the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi to save her neighbours’ lives. She helped them to flee to former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Her name is inscribed on the hero’s mausoleum in Rubavu district, at Saint Pierre centre where she served for several years as a trainer of Sisters in Nyundo Diocese in Gisenyi sector, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This place with a symbolic name ‘Ubumuntu’, promotes humanity.
The home of the heroine who left a legacy as a selfless martyr, by choosing to die with the people she was determined to save, still stands. In the compound, followers are a blinding beauty and this is where Félicité Niyitegeka sheltered the Tutsi.
Remembered as animator towards social cohesion
In an interview with Kigali Today, Claire Mukarugira who lived with Niyitegeka until her last hours, remembers her as someone who liked consoling the broken-hearted.
“She was engaged in different activities, giving her life to developing effective liaison with the local community than herself. I also remember her as a person who assisted the underprivileged, listened to their concerns and then found solutions,” said Mukarugira.
Others who remember Niyitegeka during the threatening days of April 1994 also say she lived a sacrificial life, to merit the confidence, those in time of agony had in her, as their rescuer.
Monique Kankera, a resident of Rusizi district happened to know Niyitegeka since 1980, during their engagement in community-based activities. She always finds time to visit the mausoleum in Rubavu district to honour the heroine’s lived life of standing up for others.
“I knew Niyitegeka as a dignified church member, with a parental character, an educator and a friend to all. We used to Visit her in Gisenyi and she would offer great hospitality to every one she received,” she said.
Losing life through saving lives
Niyitegeka is remembered for having helped the Tutsi she had sheltered at Saint-Pierre to flee to the DRC through Goma border.
According to one witness Claire Mukarugira, their survival was due to effort by a few Gendarmeries who used night hours to enable them sneak out of a chapel, in the absence of the Interahamwe.
Niyitegeka would connect them with people she had in place to help them cross the border.
However, this information was leaked to the killers, interahamwe militia.
On April 20, 1994 Niyitegeka was planning to help another batch of 43 escape their killers. However, the plan did not materialise as the Interahamwe had surrounded the centre.
According to Mukarugira, this was the worst date in life to whoever was at the centre. She recalls the Interahamwe bringing an old Tutsi lady woman, claiming they were helping her to escape the killings, but instead, they had come to spy if there were Tutsi hiding at the centre and whether they were guarded.
Niyitegeka was killed the following day 21, 1994, together with the people she had hidden.
Prior to her death, she had rejected an offer from a relative, one Colonel Alphonse Nzungize who wanted to take her alone, leaving behind the people she was protecting.
She however took courage to blame the Colonel for having failed his duty to protect civilians but decided to leave them at the mercy of their killers.
In a short letter, the last Niyitegeka wrote before her death, she told the Colonel ‘My dear brother, thank you for your wish to save me. However, I have decided to die with my 43 people instead of abandoning them. Pray that we meet the heavenly Father, and convey my regards to mother. I shall, as well pray for you before God. Behave well! I appreciate your concern about me. If God keeps us alive as we all wish, we meet again.”
On that fateful date, Interahamwe put them on a track and drove them to a place where they wanted to exterminate so that no survival would be there to tell the story.
On their way, Niyitegeka was singing hymn of her church with belief that she would go straight to heaven with all those innocent civilians. Interahamwe ordered her to keep quiet but she told them ‘We are praying for you before God so that you stop what you are doing to your compatriots.”
One Interahamwe responded sarcastically: “We are not related to the Tutsi at all, because their God is different from that of the Hutus.”
According to Mukarugira, when they reached the killing zone, well known as ‘Komini Rouge’ they were received by other groups of killers, including those who first robbed them of whatever item they possessed. From the cars, the Tutsi were gathered in one place but Niyitegeka insisted on not being separated from them, as she continued reciting prayers.
All of a sudden, the Interahamwe started splashing bullets to their innocent and un armed victims.
Mukarugira said she fell facing down and escaped being shoot. When the shooting ceased, she raised her head to see if there was any other survivor as some of the Interahamwe were retreating to their vehicles.
Laying down, face-up, Niyitegeka had been shot dead, and the remaining group of Interahamwe was piling dead bodies. Mukarugira who saw no any meaning of surviving in such a society of merciless people, begged the Interahamwe to shoot her but they instead called upon those with machetes, who also refused, saying they would rather bury her alive.
Mukarugira added that Col Nzungize, arrived in the evening at this scene that had witnessed horrible murders, showing a sign of grief due to Niyitegeka’s death (his relative). The following day he brought a coffin and sheets, buried her along with other two victims well known to him.
Those who survived the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi due to the heroic acts exhibited by Niyitegeka urge youth to borrow- a leaf, staying focused and sacrificing their time to defend the vulnerable, putting forward both cultural and Godly values.